Wilcox answers questions on new election legislation aimed at maintaining voting integrity
File photo: Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox on June 29, 2020. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.
The Ocala “Gazette” sat down with Marion County’s Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox to discuss how SB 524 recently signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis impacts local voters.
Wilcox, a Republican now in his third term, is also president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, an organization consisting of all the state’s election supervisors. In that role, he gained insights into the concerns of the Legislature and the state’s elections supervisors as this bill and other election-related measures evolved during this past legislative session.
Parts of the bill that have received considerable national attention are the creation of a new office purportedly to ensure ballot integrity and enhanced penalties associated with election law violations.
The new Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Florida Department of State will aid the Secretary of State with investigating election law violations or irregularities. The office is also tasked with annually reporting allegations of reported “election law violations or election irregularities.”
The Florida Department of State has historically overseen enforcing matters related to election activity. The department’s website called Florida the “model for successful election administration in the 2020 election cycle” and reported receiving 262 Elections Fraud Complaint forms, referring 75 of them to law enforcement or prosecuting authorities.
In addition to the Florida Department of State, the bill also expands the governor’s current authority to “appoint special officers by requiring the governor to, in consultation with the executive director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, appoint special officers to investigate alleged violations of election laws.”
The measure also increases penalties for certain election law violations. The annual cap on fines assessed against a third-party voter registration effort that does not timely deliver completed voter registration applications goes from $1,000 to $50,000.
The severity of criminal penalties for ballot harvesting and crimes related to ballot petition signatures was upped and criminal penalties for early disclosure of election results were expanded. It also requires authorized observers of vote-by-mail ballot duplication to sign an affidavit acknowledging they are subject to the penalty.
A new penalty was created for people collecting applications on behalf of an organization if they are found guilty of altering an application without consent. In that case, the organization would be subject to a fine of $1,000 per altered application.
The measures come amid continuing, and widely debunked, complaints by supporters of President Trump that the 2020 election was somehow fraudulent. DeSantis himself praised Florida’s performance in tallying the vote. “The way Florida did it inspires confidence,’’ he said in November 2020. “We’re now being looked at as the state that did it right.’’
So what problems, Wilcox was asked, are these new laws in response to?
“First, there are persistent myths around elections and no matter how untrue and how long we fought against said myth, it persists,” he said.
He offered two common myths about the integrity of voting-by-mail or what some call absentee voting.
“There’s a myth that we don’t check any of the signatures on the vote-by-mail ballots. And then there’s a myth that we throw out a whole lot of these ballots. Both of those myths are counter to each other, but they get repeated often and both of them are absolutely false. Some of this [legislation] is in response to myths that continue to perpetuate,” he said. “That being said, I do also see some necessity out of this.
“You ask if there is an uptick in election violations or election law violations? Well, I do think there is. More are being discovered in today’s world, but the reason they are is because of the advocacy of the supervisors of elections. We are catching more.”
One example Wilcox points to is Florida joining the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a 2017 decision he said was supported by both parties and unanimously by all 67 supervisors of elections.
“(ERIC) consists of over 30 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia. What it allows us to do is to check our voter records to see if there’s also a voter in Michigan or Texas or someplace else (with the same information). This allows us to remove duplicates across state lines.”
“There was no national voter registration database,’’ he continued, “nor would I ever advocate for such. But the ERIC consortium allows us to come together and check across state lines and remove those duplicates. It allows us to find those people who may have voted by mail or absentee in Michigan and then went to an early voting site here in the state of Florida.
“I think there have been four people who are being prosecuted out of Sumter County because we were able to isolate these. It’s going to enhance our position of if you attempt to cheat in the state of Florida, we’re going to prosecute you.”
While Wilcox is quick to point out that four ballots in a pool of 100,000 ballots cast is a minuscule number, he does believe people knowing there are mechanisms for prosecuting election crimes could be a deterrent.
“I want this institution to be as secure as possible. It’s very important to me that everybody who is eligible to vote has an opportunity, but nobody has an opportunity to cheat the system,” Wilcox said.
“Challenges that we as supervisors have faced in the past because of the legal system is that there has been no all-inclusive entity to where if I find something of concern, I can go say, OK, here’s where I take it to. So, if this new office allows us as supervisors to have a unified reporting agent.”
When asked about the concerns of some about this new office, Wilcox agrees that if this office was ever used as a political tool, it would be detrimental to the system and something he would not be in favor of.
Wilcox hopes that the measure gives Secretary of State Laurel Lee, someone he esteems, more personnel to do prosecutions and investigations.
“So, if this agency just becomes a catch-all for these issues, that’s good.”
Wilcox also feels the other possible positive coming from this agency is that it could help election supervisors across the state who are being inundated with unfounded allegations of election fraud.
“We check that, we check this, and they’ve all been unfounded, and I can document that their allegation or their premise is false,” Wilcox said. But the unfounded allegations just keep coming.
“With this new office, I’m going to say: Here you go. Let them come in and say there’s nothing there.”
Wilcox hopes having one entity compiling the complaints, which he speculates will be numerous, will provide a clear picture of how many are frivolous or unfounded.
Asked about concerns voiced by critics that the special elections units could be used to intimidate voters and elections supervisors, Wilcox said, “I understand the concern. But I operate in the sunshine, and I have no concerns whatsoever with any of my operations. If at any point in time there’s anything in here you want to come see, I’m confident enough in what we do – you can come look.”
Maintenance of voter lists
The bill increases the frequency with which voter list maintenance must be conducted, revises options supervisors of elections may use for identifying change-of-address information, and specifies voter addresses those supervisors of elections must use in conducting list maintenance activities.
Wilcox said much of this is already in place.
“I don’t see anything in this process that is going to require me to do any massive changes of what I do, because my goal as supervisor is to have the most accurate voter rolls at any point in time.
“About 10% of our population moves every three months, and that’s just reality. And so it’s a constant process all the time,’’ he said.
Because look- I’m about to mail a new voter card to 275,000 voters. It is in my best interest to have an accurate address for you, because if I don’t, it costs me money and time,’’ he said. “If I’ve got your accurate address, it goes to you one time and it’s done. When you move, it’s going to come back to me as undeliverable. Somebody here now has to process that and then update your address and mail you a new one.’’
One potential problem he hopes will be fixed before being implemented in 2023 is the requirements to mail address confirmation requests and final notices customarily tied to voter list maintenance to a physical residential address. The voter notices are required pursuant to Fla. Statutes 98.065 and 98.075 to maintain the “active” and “inactive” voter rolls.”
But the small town of McIntosh is exhibit A in how this process can be derailed: McIntosh does not have postal service to voters’ legal residences.
“If you live in McIntosh and don’t vote in two consecutive federal elections, I have to mail a notice to your house on 412 Avenue H. There is no postal delivery whatsoever to that address, so it’s coming back to me as undeliverable. Now I’m going to have to come back and mail something to every address I have on file- which once again comes back to me as undeliverable. I’m going to have to mail you something again to Avenue H and now to your P.O. box. Now the one I send to your P.O. box is going to get to you, but the other one is going to again be undeliverable.
“Our goal as we move into the next legislative session is to be able to come in and isolate that particular section of it, and, you know, make necessary changes to it.”
When asked if this “inactive” status could deter disenfranchised voters, from returning to vote, Wilcox replied, “There’s got to be some voter ownership here, OK? If I’ve done my diligence attempting to contact you, mailed everything I have and I don’t know where you are, then this gives you four years to do something, anything.”
“Anything” according to Wilcox includes things such as signing a candidate petition, an voter initiative petition, or voting in any election whether it be local or federal brings a voter “back to active.”
The law also authorizes that amendment review processes will be halted if the validity of signatures for an initiative petition have expired. It revises retention, maintenance, and website-posting requirements for petition signature forms.
“We do most of the processing of a citizen initiative on an odd-numbered year because they have a deadline to be turned by Feb. 1 in an even-numbered years, if they want it to make the ballot in November. In 2021, we processed and verified or looked at 130,000 to 140,000 signatures in Marion County alone.”
According to Wilcox, the petition signatures are turned in to his office in batches of thousands at a time. Since they have a certain percentage of voters across the entire state or in certain congressional districts, some petitions could have more signatures.
“And every one of those signatures is checked by someone in my office,” he said.
Last year, Wilcox estimates that almost 1,000 signatures were identified as questionable and turned over to authorities for investigation. Those signatures were related to five or six petition signature “gatherers” who may have exchanged their lists back and forth.
According to Wilcox, these gatherers were flagged because the voter information they were turning in was not matching Wilcox’s office’s records.
“They made a real wonderful mistake and turned in an initiative petition signed by Wesley Wilcox. And then I think it was the next day one came in for my wife.”
“This is why I don’t call it purported fraud because I know for a fact at least two records and I’ve got documentation on a couple hundred more that I know they’re fraudulent also. But I can personally say I know two of them are now. We found this and we started turning it over to the Secretary of State’s office.”
That was mid-November. By mid-December, Wilcox said it was turned over to the attorney general’s office. When Wilcox didn’t hear anything, he reached out to State Attorney William Gladson, who had already interviewed the person who said they witnessed Wilcox’s signature. The state attorney’s office could only confirm that it was investigating Wilcox’s report, but could not discuss details of the pending investigation.
Exploring new systems for verifying identities
The bill tasks the Florida Department of State with submitting a plan to use identifying numbers to confirm the identity of each voter returning a vote-by-mail ballot.
Wilcox says the original legislation proposed the voter not only sign their mail-in ballot but also include either a driver’s license number or last four digits of a Social Security number, and the need for another envelope.
When supervisors expressed concerns about this requirement and the potential for identity fraud, another idea surfaced that would include coming up with a number for each voter that could not be used for the same purpose but wouldn’t pose a risk.
In some cases, depending on when a person applied to vote and the requirements that were in place at that time, Wilcox may not have their driver’s license number or Social Security to verify identity against.
When asked during the interview how many people are we talking in Marion County fit these circumstances, Wilcox quickly answered, but with a chuckle, “17 people.”