Voting rights advocates sound alarm over election police

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After passing a series of restrictive election laws over the past year, Republican state lawmakers have a new item on their agenda: election police.

On March 9, the Florida legislature approved the creation of such a unit, which would include an office of 25 employees and cost approximately $2.5 million. Just a week later, on March 15, Georgia’s Republican-dominated House approved a similar but vaguer measure that would allow the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI), which has no expertise in voting or elections, to prosecute electoral crimes; that measure now heads to the State Senate. These units would be among the first of their kind in the country.

Republicans, citing false allegations of widespread voter fraud, say the proposals are necessary to secure the election by preventing voter fraud. But suffrage advocates say it’s dishonest. Numerous studies, including one commissioned by the Trump administration, have revealed an infinitesimal number of cases of true voter fraud nationwide; an AP investigation found fewer than 475 potential cases of fraud in 25.5 million ballots cast in six states where Trump and his allies contested the results.

Instead, suffrage advocates say these laws are designed to reduce voter turnout, especially among racial and ethnic minorities, who tend to vote Democratic.

When Georgia voters learn that the police will investigate election matters, it will have a chilling effect, said Aklima Khondoker, legal director of the New Georgia Project, which opposes Georgia’s measure. “If you think you made a mistake, and now you’re going to be investigated by the GBI, that’s big and scary,” Khondoker says, adding that the GBI generally doesn’t investigate the law. electoral. “They look at criminal cases almost exclusively,” she says.

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In Florida, Brad Ashwell, state director of All Voting is Local Florida, says the laws are likely to disproportionately deter minority voters. “It creates a climate of fear that if they take a wrong step, the election police will come after them,” he said. “And that feeds into nearly a century of history of law enforcement being used for voter intimidation purposes, which historically has primarily affected black and Hispanic voters and other marginalized voters.”

Florida’s measure looks likely to become law. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis had originally called for a much more ambitious Election Police force that would have included more than 50 full-time staff and cost nearly $6 million; the current proposal, although weaker, is consistent with its broader purpose. Mark Early, election supervisor for Leon County, which includes Tallahassee, said the original proposal was “much, much worse” because it was more costly and required more resources to be devoted to prosecuting election crimes. The current measure, he says, is “mostly unnecessary”.

“Will the tiny number of legitimate complaints that are going to be investigated really justify this?” said Abdelilah Skhir, voting rights policy strategist for the ACLU of Florida. “It’s a solution looking for a problem.”

Georgia’s measure faces more headwinds. While Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has backed the Republican “election integrity” platform, he said in January he would not sign any further changes to the state’s election law. But political pressures are looming. Kemp takes on Trump-backed David Perdue in the May 24 Republican primary. Perdue explicitly embraced the measure, calling for an “election law enforcement division” in the state.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who rose to national prominence in the months following the 2020 presidential election afterr President Trump asked him in a recorded phone call in January 2021 to “find” 11,780 more Republican votes, also called for increased security at polling places. “This year we are going to have hard-fought campaigns that will be watched across the country, and everything indicates that we are going to have close races,” Raffensperger said at a press conference in February. “With this environment, it makes sense to provide additional resources for election security, so that everyone can have confidence in the results.”

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Georgia’s proposal takes power away from the state’s Elections Commission and the office of the secretary of state, which are currently the primary entities charged with investigating allegations of election crimes, and gives it to the GBI. . Suffrage advocates say the current system allows more discretion and gives people the opportunity to report on the problem. The GBI, they say, is perhaps more likely to rush to prosecution because it specializes in criminal investigations.

“Our fear now is that if you take this to the GBI, they will start issuing subpoenas to people. They’re going to make these big demands of people who don’t understand the election infrastructure that Georgia has right now,” Khondoker said. She adds that the proposal lacks clarity on what role the state election commission or the secretary of state’s office would play, in addition to having no cost estimate or proposed racial impact analysis. possible from the measurement.

Florida’s proposal does not define what “election irregularities” could trigger an investigation. Ashwell suggests that Republican lawmakers “intentionally” left the language vague, so investigators could look for anything they perceive to be a problem.”

“It lacks safeguards,” warns Ashwell, “that could prevent it from being politically armed.”

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com.

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