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Critics worry Florida's new elections chief will make the office more partisan

Former state Rep. Cord Byrd, seen here in March 2020, was tapped by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to be Florida's new secretary of state, an appointment that has drawn criticism.
Steve Cannon
Former state Rep. Cord Byrd, seen here in March 2020, was tapped by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to be Florida's new secretary of state, an appointment that has drawn criticism.

Updated July 18, 2022 at 10:35 AM ET

Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, recently tapped one of his allies in the Florida House to become the new secretary of state.

The new elections chief, Cord Byrd, has a history of sparring with Democrats and, when asked, hehas refused to say Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.

Voting rights advocates and some Democrats in the state say they are worried that Byrd's appointment could make the office less independent.

Before his selection for the new role, Byrd was one of the more right-wing members of the Florida House. And Abdelilah Skhir, with the ACLU of Florida, says Byrd sponsored some of the most divisive legislation in the past few years.

"This is someone who has sponsored in the past the anti-protest bill HB 1 in 2021, sponsored the anti-voter bills that passed in 2021 and 2022 — he sponsored the House versions of those bills — the trans athlete ban, anti-immigrant legislation," he says.

Skhir says Byrd also sponsored Florida's controversial Parental Rights in Education legislation, which has been derisively dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by opponents. He also sponsored a 15-week abortion ban, as well as legislation prohibiting schools and employers from discussing race.

One of Byrd's former colleagues, Democratic state Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville, says it wasn't just his policies that were divisive, either. She says Byrd had a hard time keeping his composure and collegiality during debates — especially when those debates were coming from the other side of the aisle. In at least one instance, Nixon says, Byrd "cussed" at members of the Black caucus while on the Florida House floor.

"The way he made arguments and debates on the floor, it really made many of my Black colleagues and myself uncomfortable with some of the things that he said," she says. Byrd's office says the allegations that he cursed aren't true.

Democratic Florida state Rep. Angie Nixon is one of the lawmakers speaking out against Byrd's appointment.
Phil Sears / AP
Democratic Florida state Rep. Angie Nixon is one of the lawmakers speaking out against Byrd's appointment.

Byrd's allies say concerns over his appointment are overblown. Republican state Rep. Randy Fine of Brevard County says he and Byrd were among the few lawmakers in Florida who weren't afraid to challenge views or comments they thought were wrong.

"Unfortunately, the woke left defines any conservative who fights as a bully, because that's what they use as a weapon to try to silence the right," Fine says. "It doesn't work with someone like me or Secretary Byrd."

But critics of Byrd say his is not an ideal temperament for someone whose job it is to possibly settle disputes in a state that often has very close elections.

"It seems as though the governor chose someone who he knew was going to do his bidding," Nixon says. "I think someone who may have already been a judge — or someone who had previously been a supervisor of elections — would have been great for this job, but not someone who is as uber-partisan as Cord Byrd is."

In a statement, the Florida secretary of state's office said allegations that Byrd will act as a partisan "are simply not true and have been repeatedly addressed."

"This is a false narrative that appears to be perpetuated by inaccurate or incomplete news stories and by partisan political attacks," the office said. "The Secretary of State's office is nonpartisan and will not respond to those allegations."

Byrd said in a statement to NPR that he has "always advocated for the rule of law, and now serving as Florida's Secretary of State, that will not change" in his new position.

"I think he shares a lot of the same views as the governor," Fine says of Byrd. "But I don't think it's because he is being told what to do. I think it's because it's what he believes. And look, if Democrats want a Democrat to be secretary of state, they need to win some elections."

Florida's elections chief is appointed by the governor

Florida is among the minority of states where voters don't get to choose who runs their elections. Instead, in Florida and some other states, like Pennsylvania and Texas, the elections chief is appointed by the governor.

Floridians used to vote for a secretary of state until about two decades ago, when a ballot measure switched the position to one appointed by the governor.

Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, says that has meant all secretaries of state since then have been appointed by Republicans and have ties to the party in some way.

"We have had a mixed history here in Florida of secretary of states who have tried to toe a little independence and those that have veered over into becoming effectively a pawn of the governor," he says.

Byrd will lead a new election crimes unit

Byrd has stepped into this position at a time when Republicans and Democrats are at serious odds about how elections should be run.

Like many other GOP-led states over the past two years, Florida lawmakers have passed new voting laws that Democrats say will make it harder for people to vote. A 2021 law created new restrictions on mail-in voting, drop boxes and third-party voter registration efforts. And Skhir, of the ACLU of Florida, says there's concern among voting groups over a law enacted this year that creates a new election crimes unit.

"And that will be overseen by the secretary of state, who is not an elected position," he says. "And our main concern around this office is that there is no guardrail to ensure that under any administration it couldn't become a political tool."

So far, there are not a lot of details about the election crimes unit and how it will be run. Byrd says he plans to hire data analysts, investigators and law enforcement once a director is in place.

High-profile Democrats in the state have already asked the federal government to look into Florida officials in light of Byrd's appointment, though.

Nikki Fried, the state's agriculture and consumer services commissioner, recently sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking officials to "closely monitor the election-related actions of Florida officials and take appropriate federal action if necessary."

Fried, who is currently a Democratic candidate for governor, wrote that the combination of restrictive new voting laws, new political maps that she says disenfranchise Black Floridians and Byrd's appointment is "startling."

"He believes in 'nationwide irregularities' in the 2020 presidential election and still refuses to acknowledge whether President Biden officially won," she wrote. "These qualities matched with the newfound voter suppression powers granted to the Secretary of State by S.B. 90 create an environment rife for voting abuse."

Similarly, Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist — a former Florida governor who is running again for the office this year — also asked DOJ officialsto "consider using all available authorities and resources to protect the rights of Florida voters."

Crist said the scope of the new election crimes unit "is purposefully vague and undefined, and provides those under the purview of the Governor's office with unilateral authority and virtually no guardrails."

A lack of guardrails in general is something that Smith, with the University of Florida, says worries him. He says in the last few years the courts have sided with state officials curtailing voting rights in the state. So, even if Democrats and voting groups were to sue to stop alleged voting rights violations, it is unlikely the courts will step in.

"I think it sends a very scary signal that these elections and those who are ultimately going to be deciding the rules and umpiring are ultimately one and the same," he says.

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Corrected: July 17, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story misstated how the Florida secretary of state became a governor-appointed position. It was switched via a ballot measure, not a step done by state lawmakers after the contested 2000 presidential election.
Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.