Democrats and election experts have sounded the alarm for months about the growing risk of election subversion as conspiracy theorists backed by former President Donald Trump run for secretary of state in key swing states. But with little fanfare or media attention, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year hand-picked a right-wing ally who refuses to acknowledge President Joe Biden's 2020 victory to oversee his re-election race.
Around the country, Republicans pushing Trump's "Big Lie" about the 2020 election are running to win jobs overseeing the next election. Trump loyalist Jim Marchant, who baselessly claims that elections have been illegitimate for more than a decade, recently won the Republican nomination for secretary of state in Nevada. The Michigan Republican Party is backing Kristina Karamo, who has pushed ludicrous conspiracy theories about the 2020 race being stolen. Trump has also endorsed Mark Finchem as Arizona's next secretary of state after he attended the Jan. 6 Capitol rally and introduced a bill to decertify 2020 election results.
But Florida, like Texas, allows the governor to appoint the state's election chief. After Secretary of State Laurel Lee resigned to run for a U.S. House seat this spring, DeSantis simply handed his right-wing ally the job.
DeSantis in May appointed controversial state Rep. Cord Byrd to oversee elections in the state, touting him as an "ally of freedom and democracy." DeSantis won his first election by less than half a percentage point against Democrat Andrew Gillum, the former mayor of Tallahassee.
"I look forward to his successes ensuring Florida's elections remain safe, secure and well-administered," DeSantis said in a statement. A news release from DeSantis' office praised Byrd as "a staunch advocate for election security, public integrity, the fight against big tech censorship and the de-platforming of political candidates."
In his own statement, Byrd vowed to ensure that "Florida continues to have secure elections and that we protect the freedom of our citizens in the face of big-tech censorship and ever-growing cybersecurity threats."
Byrd has refused to acknowledge Biden's win over Trump, citing unspecified "irregularities" in the 2020 election.
"He was certified as the president. He is the president of the United States," Byrd said after he was appointed. "There were irregularities in certain states. … I'm not the secretary of state of Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or Arizona. That's up to their voters. We in Florida had a successful election in 2020. And that's what I want to continue to have in 2022."
There is no evidence of any issues in the states Byrd cited that may have improperly swayed the election.
Byrd said Florida's election was "successful and accurate" but added that "we also know that people want to interfere and sow chaos," defending a spate of new voting restrictions, some of which a federal judge later ruled unconstitutional because they disenfranchised Black voters.
Byrd and his wife Esther, who was appointed by DeSantis to the State Board of Education, quit Twitter last year after she tweeted about "the coming civil wars" during the Capitol riot.
"In the coming civil wars (We the People vs the Radical Left and We the People cleaning up the Republican Party), team rosters are being filled. Every elected official in DC will pick one. There are only 2 teams … With Us [or] Against Us," Esther Byrd tweeted as the Capitol was under siege. "We the People will NOT forget!"
She also appeared to defend the rioters in another post she wrote on Facebook.
"ANTIFA and BLM can burn and loot buildings and violently attack police and citizens," she wrote, according to Florida Politics. "But when Trump supporters peacefully protest, suddenly 'Law and Order' is all they can talk about! I can't even listen to these idiots bellyaching about solving our differences without violence."
She also made "comments supportive of QAnon after the couple was photographed on a boat flying a QAnon flag," the outlet reported.
Cord Byrd dismissed criticism of his wife's comments last year, arguing that "people talk about civil wars in the Republican party."
"There are factions. People believe different things. It was a figure of speech and that's how it was intended," he told WJXT-TV.
Byrd, who will ultimately require confirmation by the Republican-led state Senate, will oversee the state's upcoming elections and the implementation of its new voting restrictions, including the creation of a new office in the Department of State to investigate allegations of irregularities. Democrats have pushed to hold confirmation hearings but have been ignored by Republican leaders.
While serving in the state House, Byrd co-sponsored the voting restrictions legislation and several other controversial bills, including a 2021 measure that imposed stiff criminal penalties in protests that turn violent after mass demonstrations following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
"We can act before it's too late. We do not need to have Miami or Orlando or Jacksonville become Kenosha or Seattle or Portland," Byrd said at the time. "We have the ability under House Bill 1 to act now to say you can protest peaceably but you cannot commit acts of violence, you cannot harm other people, you cannot destroy their property, you cannot destroy their lives."
Byrd also co-sponsored Florida's controversial "Don't Say Gay" bill, a 15-week abortion ban, a bill to ban schools from discussing race, and anti-trans and anti-immigrant legislation, according to the ACLU of Florida. Byrd also supported DeSantis' congressional map, which was adopted by the legislature and subsequently challenged in court for reducing the number of majority-Black districts in the state.
"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," Abelilah Skhir of the ACLU of Florida told NPR.
During a debate on the state's 15-week abortion ban, Byrd clashed with Black lawmakers on the House floor, calling them "fucking idiots," according to the Orlando Sentinel.
State Rep. Angie Nixon said at the time that she was "disgusted" by Byrd's behavior.
"Byrd is unhinged," she tweeted, accusing him of "antagonizing and cussing at Black Caucus members." He "clearly has biases & lacks composure," she wrote.
Byrd's office later denied the report.
After Byrd's appointment, Nixon slammed DeSantis' choice, arguing that the top election official "should be a consensus builder whose sole focus is running free and fair elections for every citizen of our state."
"Cord Byrd is not that person," she said in a statement. "He is unqualified in both his credentials and his temperament, has proved time and again he will put partisanship ahead of good policy, and is unfit to lead the elections department of a diverse state of more than 20 million people."
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."
The secretary of state's office said the allegations that Byrd would politicize the department "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."
DeSantis defended Byrd during a press conference in May, touting him as a champion of "election integrity."
"We are not going to have to worry in Florida about Zuckerbucks infiltrating our elections with Cord as secretary of state," the governor said, echoing a litany of election conspiracy theories. "We're not going to have to worry about ballot harvesting with Cord as secretary of state. We're going to make sure that the elections are run efficiently and transparently. But we are not going to allow these external influences to come in and to corrupt the operations. And we're certainly not going to allow political operatives to harvest all these votes, and then dump them somewhere."
So far, Democratic calls for a state Senate vote on Byrd's confirmation have fallen on deaf ears. State Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat, said in a statement that Byrd "must be thoroughly vetted and confirmed by the full Senate body before he is able to preside over the upcoming midterm elections.
"He is taking over at a critical juncture and will be the first to oversee a new election security force which has unprecedented authority to hunt election and voting violations," Bracy said.
State Rep. Carlos Smith, a fellow Democrat, said Byrd may be DeSantis' "most frightening appointment to date."
"Florida now has a QAnon conspiracy theorist and promoter of the big lie overseeing our state elections and DeSantis' election police," he said. "We need a Secretary of State whose top priority is free and fair elections, not a hyper-partisan GOP loyalist who takes orders from Ron DeSantis. Our right to vote is sacred and I worry about what this could mean for our democracy."
Democrats running to challenge DeSantis have already asked for the Justice Department to keep a close eye on the secretary of state's new election police, citing Byrd's involvement.
Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., a former Florida governor (and former Republican) who is running for the office again, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Justice Department to "consider using all available authorities and resources to protect the rights of Florida voters."
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, also cited Byrd when she asked the DOJ to keep tabs on the state.
"Due to these seriously concerning actions, it is imperative that the U.S. Department of Justice closely monitor the election-related actions of Florida officials and take appropriate federal action if necessary," she wrote, adding that the "collective measures" by DeSantis and the Florida legislature were "not isolated threats, but deliberate attempts to circumvent or override democratic norms. Discriminatory congressional maps, new voter suppression measures, and a Secretary of State with radical far-right views is a dangerous combination for Florida voters and the integrity of our elections."