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DeSantis signs bill creating new Florida election police force

(CNN) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a sweeping voting overhaul bill that establishes a new election police force -- giving his administration a new way to probe election crimes.

With the GOP governor's signature, Florida has become one of the first states in the country with a unit focused on election fraud, an exceedingly rare problem that has become an animating issue for some Republican voters following former President Donald Trump's 2020 loss.

"I don't think there is any other place in the country where you should have more confidence that your vote counts than in the state of Florida," DeSantis said at a news conference before signing the law.

DeSantis, who is up for reelection this year and is weighing a 2024 presidential bid, signed the bill as he works to burnish his credentials with the ultra-conservative wing of his party. The bill-signing comes on the heels of DeSantis signing a series of other controversial measures last week, including two bills that target Disney and legislation that imposes restrictions on how schools and businesses can talk about race and gender.

The new law marks the second major overhaul of Florida's election laws since the 2020 election -- as supporters of Trump clamor for more voting restrictions and changes to election administration ahead of midterm elections. Trump and his allies falsely maintain that widespread election fraud led to his 2020 defeat.

Trump won the Sunshine State by a comfortable margin that year, and Florida officials, including DeSantis, previously have said the 2020 election went smoothly.

Election fraud is exceedingly rare. The Florida Secretary of State's office says it received 262 election fraud complaints about the 2020 election and referred 75 to law enforcement or prosecutors. Nearly 11 million Floridians cast ballots in the presidential contest that year.

The new law creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Florida Department of State -- an agency under DeSantis' jurisdiction -- 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.

During Monday's news conference, DeSantis said local election supervisors and prosecutors don't necessarily have the expertise and tools to investigate voting-related complaints. The new officers would specialize in election-related crimes, he said.

"We just want to make sure whatever laws are on the books that those laws are enforced," the governor added.

The combined program will cost $3.7 million, state Rep. Daniel Perez, a top sponsor, said during legislative debate. DeSantis initially sought nearly $6 million for a 52-member force.

Two states -- Florida and neighboring Georgia -- have moved in recent weeks to beef up policing of election crimes.

The new Florida law also increases penalties for violating Florida election laws. It makes it a felony to collect and submit more than two vote-by-mail ballots on behalf of other voters. It previously was a misdemeanor to do so. It also increases the fine from $1,000 to $50,000 on organizations that violate voter registration laws.

Cecile Scoon, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, called the new $50,000 fine a "direct threat" to her organization.

"When you couple the increased fines with the new election investigators, it doesn't give you a warm or cozy feeling," she told CNN in March as state lawmakers debated the measure.

The new law also extends an existing ban on private donations to include "the cost of any litigation related to election administration." Critics say that will cut off free legal assistance to election officials, who could face additional scrutiny under the new law.

Additionally, it also requires election supervisors to clean voter rolls annually rather than every two years and imposes a $1,000 fine for switching voters' party registration without their consent. That provision responds to recent reports in South Florida that some older voters had their party affiliation changed from Democrat to Republican without their knowledge.

DeSantis' action follows a March 31 court ruling that found several aspects of an earlier Florida election law passed in 2021 were unconstitutional and improperly targeted Black voters. In that ruling, federal Judge Mark Walker also barred the state from making any future election rule changes that are similar to the provisions he struck down, unless the changes are first submitted to the US Department of Justice or the courts for approval or "pre-clearance."

In a filing this week with the court, Florida officials said they disagreed with Walker's pre-clearance requirement but would forgo enforcing several sections of the law DeSantis signed Monday until they receive further guidance. Those provisions include changes that affect third-party voter registration groups and the use of ballot drop boxes.

Florida officials already have filed notice that they intend to appeal Walker's decision to the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. And election law experts say Walker's ruling is likely to be overturned by either the conservative-leaning 11th Circuit or the US Supreme Court.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

CNN's Steve Contorno contributed to this report.