Ron DeSantis (the Republican governor of Florida) recently appointed one of his Florida House allies to be the new secretary-general.
Cord Byrd is the new elections chief. He has a history with sparring with Democrats. When asked, he refused to answer that Joe Biden won 2020's presidential election.
Some Democrats in the state and voting rights advocates worry that Byrd's nomination could reduce the office's independence.
Before he was selected for the new position, Byrd was one the more right-leaning members of the Florida House. Abdelilah Skhir of the ACLU of Florida says Byrd sponsored some of most divisive legislation over the last few years.
He says, "This is someone who sponsored in the past anti-protest bill, HB 1, in 2021. He also sponsored the anti voter bills that passed 2021 and 2022. aEUR” he sponsored the House versions. aEUR” the trans-athlete ban, anti-immigrant legislation."
Skhir claims Byrd was also a sponsor of Florida's controversial Parental Rights in Education legislation. This bill has been mocked by its opponents and dubbed "Don't Say Gay". He sponsored a ban on abortion for 15 weeks and legislation that prohibits schools from discussing race.
Angie Nixon, a former colleague of Byrd, said that it wasn't just his policies which caused divisions. She claims Byrd struggled to maintain his composure during debates "aEUR", especially when they were being held from the opposite side of the aisle. Nixon claims that Byrd "cussed", at least once, at Black members while on the Florida House Floor.
She says, "The way he made arguments on the floor, it really made many Black colleagues and me uncomfortable with some of his statements," According to Byrd's office, the claims that he cursed are false.
Allies of Byrd say that concerns about his appointment are exaggerated. Brevard County Republican state Rep. Randy Fine says Byrd and he were among few Florida lawmakers who were open to challenging views or comments they believed were incorrect.
Fine states, "Unfortunately, the left defines any conservative who fights like a bully because that's what it uses to silence the right." It doesn't work for someone like Secretary Byrd or me.
However, Byrd's critics claim that Byrd is not the ideal temperament to be a mediator in a state with close elections.
Nixon states, "It appears as though the governor selected someone he knew would do his bidding." "I believe someone who might have been a judge aEUR or someone who was previously a supervisor for elections aEUR would have been great for the job, but not someone as extreme-partisan as Cord Byrd."
The Florida secretary of State's office stated that allegations that Byrd would act as a political partisan are "not true" and had been addressed repeatedly.
The office stated that "This false narrative appears to have been perpetuated by inaccurate news stories or incomplete news reports and by partisan politics." "The office of the Secretary of State is impartial and will not respond"
NPR's Byrd stated in a statement that he had "always advocated the rule of law" and that he will continue to do so in his new role as Florida's Secretary-of-State.
Fine said that Byrd shares many of his views with him. But I don't believe it's because he's being told what to do. It's because he believes it. Look, if Democrats want a Democrat secretary of state, they must win some elections."
Florida is one of the few states that voters are not able to elect their election chief. In Florida, as in other states like Texas and Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the election chief.
Floridians used vote for a secretary until the terrible 2000 presidential election. Katherine Harris, then-Secretary to State, was one of those who received the most heat in that election. State lawmakers responded by deciding that the decision to choose the position should rest with governors.
Daniel Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida says this means that all secretaries of states since then have been appointed and connected to Republicans.
He says that there has been a mixed record in Florida with secretary of states trying to be independent and others who have become pawns of the governor.
At a time when Republicans are at odds with Democrats about how to run elections, Byrd has taken over this role.
Florida legislators have passed new voting laws, which Democrats claim will make it more difficult for voters to vote. Florida is one of many GOP-led states that has done so in the last two years. The 2021 law imposed new restrictions on mail-in and drop-box voting as well as third-party voter registration. Skhir of the ACLU of Florida says that there is concern among voting groups about a law passed this year, which creates an election crime unit.
He says, "And that will being overseen by secretary of state who isn't an elected position." "And we are most concerned about this office because there is no safeguard to prevent it from becoming a political tool under any administration."
There aren't many details yet about the unit for election crimes and its operation. Byrd stated that he will hire data analysts, investigators, and law enforcement officers once a director has been appointed.
However, high-profile Democrats from the state have asked the federal government for an investigation into Florida officials following Byrd's appointment.
Nikki Fried (the state's agriculture commissioner and consumer services commissioner) recently wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice requesting that officials "closely monitor election-related actions of Florida officials, and take appropriate federal action, if necessary."
Fried is currently running as a Democratic candidate to be governor. She wrote that Byrd's appointment and the new restrictive voting laws are "startling" because they combine.
She wrote that "He believes in 'nationwide irregularities in the 2020 presidential elections and still refuses acknowledgement whether President Biden actually won." These qualities are matched by the new voter suppression powers granted to Secretary of State by S.B. 90 create an environment that is conducive to voting abuse."
Similar to this, Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist aEUR", a former Florida Governor who is running again for office this year, aEUR", also requested DOJ officials "consider using all possible authorities and resources to protect Florida's rights."
Crist stated that the new unit for election crimes is "purposefully vague and undefined" and gives those in the Governor's purview unilateral authority with virtually no safeguards.
Smith from the University of Florida says that he is concerned by the lack of guardrails. Smith claims that the courts have been sided with state officials in curtailing voting rights throughout the state in recent years. Even if Democrats or voting groups wanted to sue for alleged violations of voting rights, it is unlikely that the courts will intervene.
He says, "It sends out a very frightening signal that these elections as well as those who ultimately will be deciding the rules/umpiring are ultimately one in the same."