By Fredreka Schouten, CNN
Legislation recently approved in Florida would cut off free legal assistance to election officials — alarming legal advocates who have worked to defend election workers from a barrage of threats, harassment and punishing new laws.
The bill, which Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed this month and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign, would extend an existing ban on private donations to help run elections to include “the cost of any litigation related to election administration.” Critics say that provision amounts to a ban on pro-bono legal help for election officials.
The legislation would also create a new elections police force with broad powers to investigate potential wrongdoing in the state, including the conduct of election officials.
The Florida move to prevent election officials from getting free legal assistance appears to be the first of its kind. Opponents of the proposal worry the idea will spread to other states at a time when Republican-led states have taken aim at private funding of election functions.
“Due process is a cornerstone of our democracy,” said David Becker, a former Justice Department official who helps oversee the Election Official Legal Defense Network. The network, launched last September, connects election officials with free legal assistance.
“The idea that you could be criminally targeted for prosecution but not represented by a lawyer who you chose, that you like, that is willing to represent you, pro bono — that’s blatantly un-American by any measure,” Becker told CNN.
Becker would not say how many election officials have sought free legal help since the network launched last fall, citing privacy concerns.
But he said the requests are “ongoing” and have come in from “all over the country.”
Last year, DeSantis signed a sweeping elections bill that included a ban on private money funding election administration. This year’s bill would extend that ban to include litigation costs. This bill passed both chambers of the Florida Legislature largely along partisan lines, with one Republican, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, voting against it. He cited concerns about establishing a large force dedicated to pursuing election fraud.
In an email to CNN, DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said the goal of limiting private funds is to “ensure the total impartiality of those who administer elections in Florida, including supervisors of elections.”
“This will include preventing funding or favors from outside entities which could affect their impartiality,” he said.
Scrutiny of private grants
Election administrators have faced threats — along with intense scrutiny from some politicians — since the 2020 election, as former President Donald Trump and his allies advance the falsehood that widespread election fraud contributed to his loss.
In Georgia, a state President Joe Biden won by roughly 12,000 votes out of nearly 5 million cast, a law passed last year by the GOP-controlled legislature allows for state takeovers of local election operations. In Texas, election officials now face potential criminal charges under a new law for sending an absentee ballot application to a voter who didn’t request one.
And around the country, Republican legislators have criticized private funding after the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life distributed grants to roughly 2,500 election offices in 49 states to help them operate elections in the middle of the pandemic.
GOP critics say the grants — funded by more than $340 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan — improperly skewed 2020 turnout to benefit Democrats.
Grant administrators have denied any political bias and say every election office that applied for a grant received one.
Last year, 11 states enacted laws prohibiting private funding of elections, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Other states are weighing bans. On April 5, a committee of the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania state Senate will take up a bill targeting private funding.
And in Wisconsin, another battleground state, Michael Gableman — a conservative former justice of the state Supreme Court hired by state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to investigate the 2020 election — has slammed free legal help offered to officials he’s targeted in his probe.
“The legal defense funds and strategies facilitated obstruction and may very well violate Wisconsin law,” Gableman said during a recent state Assembly committee hearing.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ veto pen has stopped voting bills passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in Wisconsin. But some lawmakers have proposed bypassing Evers by amending the state’s Constitution to bar private funding of election activities. The Legislature has adjourned for the year but has the option to call itself back into session.
Sweeping Florida bill
The bill in Florida would make several changes to state elections laws.
Most notably, it would establish an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State with a staff of 15 to conduct preliminary investigations of election fraud. In addition, the measure calls for DeSantis to appoint up to 10 law enforcement officers to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate election crimes.
The measure represents a scaled-back version of an elections police force DeSantis first proposed last year. The legislation would also ramp up penalties for violating the state’s laws on voter registration and ballot collection.
The main sponsors of the Florida bill — state Rep. Daniel Perez and state Sen. Travis Hutson, both Republicans — did not respond to CNN inquiries about the provision that targets the free legal assistance.
Whether the Florida provision violates the Constitution’s due process protections depends on the specific circumstances, said Edward Foley, an expert on constitutional and election law at Ohio State University. If an election official, for instance, was party to a lawsuit in an official capacity, the government could limit “itself to public funds for its own official litigation,” Foley said in an email.
But the state, he added, can’t stop election officials from using private funds when they face litigation expenses as private citizens.
Existing Florida law already takes aim at the conduct of election officials. The election overhaul passed last year, for instance, imposes a fine of up to $25,000 on any supervisor who leaves a ballot drop box unattended.
Marion County elections supervisor Wesley Wilcox, who serves as president of the 67-member Florida Supervisors of Elections, said the statewide group has not yet taken an official position on any part of the Florida bill.
But Wilcox, a Republican, who sits on the advisory board of the Election Official Legal Defense Network, said he personally views the ban on free legal help as unnecessary.
“There is a feeling that the supervisors are doing something nefarious — which is so far from the truth,” he said.
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