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DeSantis privately elevates election deniers while publicly staying mum on 2020

<i>Joe Raedle/Getty Images</i><br/>Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa on July 22.
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Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa on July 22.

By Steve Contorno, CNN

Two months before he was Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ pick to oversee Florida voting, Cord Byrd was a featured speaker at a seminar for people who falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen and wanted training to stop it from happening again.

Leading the Orlando summit was Cleta Mitchell, a conservative lawyer deeply involved in Donald Trump‘s failed plot to overturn the 2020 election. In audio obtained by CNN, Mitchell introduced Byrd as someone committed to “election integrity ” — a phrase that has become a dog whistle for stoking myths about voting vulnerabilities. Mitchell described Byrd, a Republican state lawmaker at the time, as a trusted sounding board for new election policies and an active participant in weekly calls she hosted with like-minded officials across the country.

In turn, Byrd encouraged Mitchell’s trained activists to stay vigilant in the coming elections.

“You’re going to be our army on the ground monitoring your local (election supervisors) to ensure that they’re doing their job right,” Byrd said in the March recording. By the end of May, he was Florida’s next secretary of state.

Byrd’s past collaboration with Mitchell, unreported until now, is illustrative of the access election deniers and those who have given oxygen to their conspiracies have gained in the highest levels of DeSantis’ government. For the past 10 months, top officials in DeSantis’ administration have met numerous times with Florida activists greatly influenced by Mitchell and other national figures involved in the scheme to overturn Trump’s 2020 defeat, according to records obtained by CNN. These activists, who operate under the name Defend Florida, argue that even the election results in the Sunshine State — which Trump won by a healthy margin — were tampered with.

Publicly, DeSantis has straddled the GOP’s divide over the last election as he considers whether to run for president in the next one. He is careful not to alienate voters animated by Trump’s relitigating of 2020, while maintaining credibility with Republicans desperate to talk about something else. He rejected calls for an intrusive Arizona-style review of Florida’s election, but nevertheless championed changes to voting procedures that conspiracists have celebrated as evidence of their growing clout in Tallahassee. DeSantis recently embarked on a national tour to boost the campaigns of some of the most fervent election deniers nominated by his party this cycle, though he has not joined them in suggesting Trump should still be president.

DeSantis, who has refused to say if he thinks President Joe Biden was lawfully elected, also privately addressed the Orlando summit, which was organized by the Conservative Partnership Institute, a group that has attracted multiple Trump confidantes. Its leadership now includes Mitchell, who was on the phone with Trump when he pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to flip the election result in his state.

Documented, a watchdog group that tracks outside influence in politics, obtained the leaked recordings from the event and provided them to CNN. In his remarks, DeSantis recalled for the audience election night 2020, when the governor said he wanted to publicly declare Trump the winner in Florida before the networks had but “this is like the one time Fox News would not allow me to go on.”

“They’re always begging me,” DeSantis said. “They would not let me go on because I was going to say Trump won Florida.” Someone in the crowd yelled out, “Traitor.”

DeSantis went on to raise concerns about the election process in neighboring Georgia, dancing around the edges of the conspiracies that have rattled the state ever since Trump lost by less than 12,000 votes. He said there was “massive ballot harvesting” in Atlanta, demonizing a practice that until 2020 allowed for people in Georgia to legally drop off other people’s absentee ballots at voting locations and drop boxes. He alleged that Atlanta prosecutors wouldn’t investigate voter fraud even if presented with evidence.

DeSantis took particular issue with the amount of time needed for Georgia to finish tallying votes. It took days for the state to report a result. Election officials in Georgia had warned that counting absentee ballots often lasts past election night, but in 2020, the tight race and a surge in mail-in votes due to the coronavirus pandemic heightened the awareness of those votes counted later. Florida also counted mail-in ballots from military personnel and overseas voters received after the election, but Trump was too far ahead for the outcome to change.

“Even if you tell me it was 100% above board, it doesn’t sit well with people,” DeSantis said. “They’re not going to have confidence in that. Obviously, the more you spread it out, the more opportunities there are, you know, to not do it with integrity.”

Local election officials from both parties say they are troubled that DeSantis and others in his administration continue to entertain activists who have for the last two years hounded their offices with unfounded accusations of malfeasance and worked to undermine confidence in their operations.

“It’s unfortunate that their message is being amplified within government,” said Mark Earley, the supervisor of elections in Leon County and a Democrat who serves as president of the association representing local election officials in Florida. “It’s very disheartening. And it’s very hard to defend ourselves.”

Mark Ard, a spokesman for the Florida Department of State, did not respond when asked whether Byrd still participated in Mitchell’s organized calls. Ard said Byrd was “performing the role of a legislator” by participating in the Orlando summit and working with Mitchell’s group on election legislation. Byrd represented parts of Florida’s northeast coast in the state House for about five years until he was named DeSantis’ secretary of state.

“As a Representative, he was proactive in his role in ensuring that people were aware of legislation that would impact his constituency and was involved in discussions to improve legislation that would best suit the needs of his voters,” Ard said.

In a statement about his administration’s meetings with Defend Florida, DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said the governor’s office “hears concerns from a variety of citizen interest groups regularly” and forwards them to the Florida Department of State.

“These matters are taken seriously,” Griffin said, “as election integrity is critical to a democratic society.”

Defend Florida goes to Tallahassee

In the days after the 2020 election, DeSantis was among the first Republican leaders to suggest that Trump-aligned legislators in key swing states had the power to intervene in the choosing of electors, even after all the votes were counted. He floated the idea during an appearance on Fox News two days after the election. But he quickly pivoted to highlighting Florida’s successful election night.

By promoting Florida’s flawless election performance, though, DeSantis was at odds with an increasingly vocal group of Trump supporters who baselessly believed the state hadn’t escaped a national conspiracy to commit widespread voter fraud. Organized under the name Defend Florida and modeled after Arizona Trump supporters, they spent the year after the 2020 election knocking on thousands of doors across the state in an effort to prove voter fraud existed on a mass scale. Supporters of their cause put their demands on a billboard in Tallahassee addressed to DeSantis: “Audit Florida’s 2020 Election Now.”

In his public remarks, DeSantis repeatedly rebuffed Defend Florida’s calls for an audit, insisting the state had already adequately verified the election results. But behind the scenes, several members of DeSantis’ top staff were assembled for a meeting last December with representatives from Defend Florida, according to a calendar invite obtained by the watchdog group American Oversight and provided to CNN.

Two days after their meeting, Caroline Wetherington, a co-founder of Defend Florida, sent DeSantis’ legislative affairs director Stephanie Kopelousos a document full of anti-Muslim conspiracies that suggested voter fraud was committed by a member of the Seminole County canvassing board identified as “the woman in the hijab.” Wetherington noted that Defend Florida “did not put this information together” but twice forwarded it to Kopelousos.

If the governor’s office found any validity in the accusations, it didn’t follow up with Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Chris Anderson, a Republican appointed by DeSantis Ωƒwho told CNN that whoever authored the document was “misinformed.” Nevertheless, the governor’s office scheduled to huddle again with Defend Florida two weeks later, another calendar invite showed. Defend Florida landed another meeting in February with the state’s top election officials, then-Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a DeSantis appointee, and Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews, according to an email between Defend Florida organizers and the state provided by American Oversight.

Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox attended a meeting between Defend Florida representatives and the DeSantis administration in which he and Lee painstakingly debunked the evidence the group had collected. For example, the group claimed that having thousands of voters registered to an Okaloosa County courthouse suggested obvious fraud. Wilcox, a Republican, told CNN he informed the group that the courthouse served as the address for Air Force service members stationed at a nearby base.

Wilcox thought the Defend Florida representatives left with a better understanding of the state’s election processes. But after the meeting, the group continued to push the false conspiracy about the courthouse.

“I feel like pounding my head on the desk,” Wilcox said.

Multiple attempts to reach members of Defend Florida were unsuccessful.

Far from retreating, Defend Florida appeared emboldened by its brushes with power. The group claimed victory when state lawmakers passed an elections bill that required more regular review of voter rolls, one of their top priorities, and created a controversial new office to investigate election crimes. They plastered a “thank you” message to DeSantis on three Tallahassee billboards and sent his office a picture of their work.

“It has been a pleasure working with you and the Governor’s Office on Election Integrity over the past few months,” two members of Defend Florida wrote Kopelousos in a March email obtained by CNN. “Many of our members volunteered hundreds of hours to provide the data supporting the need for this legislation.”

Dozens of Defend Florida activists were on hand in April when DeSantis ceremoniously signed the election bill at a Hernando County sports bar, according to a video posted on Rumble. On Telegram, a messaging platform favored by right-wing groups, a member of the organization boasted that they were invited to be there by the governor’s office. DeSantis’ spokesman didn’t respond to a question about whether that was the case.

In a video posted online, Defend Florida activists celebrated outside the signing, where they were joined by Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com, who helped fund Arizona’s deeply flawed election audit.

“What you have accomplished is like the paradigm for what should happen in 49 other states,” Byrne said into the camera.

Raj Doraisamy of Defend Florida thanked Mike Lindell, the CEO of My Pillow, who continued to insist that Trump would be reinstalled in the White House more than a year after the election had ended.

“Mike Lindell, if you’re watching this, your team helped transportation, moved us from place to place,” Doraisamy said. “We could not have been able to do that without your help.”

Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at NYU law school’s Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank centered on defending democracy, said it was “dangerous and destructive to our political system and our democracy for there to be significant investment in and public official support for operations that are trying to sow distrust in the election system.”

“It’s disruptive to our political system, our entire government,” she said. “That is one of the principal challenges facing America.”

In his statement, Griffin, the DeSantis spokesman, said the governor has always maintained that “Florida’s election in 2020 was accurate, transparent, and conducted in compliance with Florida law.”

‘Become part of the woodwork’

DeSantis tapped Byrd to lead the Florida Department of State in April when Lee departed the office to run for Congress. As a state lawmaker, Byrd was known for championing contentious policies, including a ban on sanctuary cities and a so-called anti-riot law that a judged blocked on grounds that it could “criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians.” He regularly filed bills to restrict abortion and advertised himself online as “Florida gun lawyer.”

Byrd notably took a pause from Twitter in 2021 after his wife, Esther Byrd, posted to social media about the “the coming civil wars” in the days following the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. Byrd told a Jacksonville television station that his wife’s comments were hyperbole and a “figure of speech” about the divisions in the GOP.

Democrats criticized Byrd’s appointment, accusing DeSantis of putting a partisan in charge of Florida elections just months before the November midterms. Facing reporters for the first time as secretary of state in May, Byrd twice declined to say if Biden had won the election fair and square, citing undefined “irregularities” in other states. Instead, he answered the question by saying, “Joe Biden was certified by the Congress after counting the electors and he is the President of the United States.”

Byrd’s participation in the Orlando training by Mitchell’s organization was not reported at the time of his appointment. Ard, the Florida Department of State spokesman, said it was “no secret that Secretary Byrd, while a Representative, attended events, such as the March Election Integrity Summit in Orlando where he introduced Governor DeSantis.”

Lekha Shupeck is the state outreach director for Documented, which has collected audio from “Election Integrity Summits” across the country organized by the Conservative Partnership Institute. She said these events “rile up election conspiracy theorists and then turn them loose as poll watchers and poll workers.”

“Having both Florida’s governor and secretary of state be featured speakers at one of these summits should set off alarm bells for anyone concerned about the stability of democracy in the state,” Shupeck said.

The Conservative Partnership Institute did not respond to requests for comment.

The Orlando summit featured sessions titled “The Left’s Plans to Corrupt the 2022 Elections with Our Tax Dollars” and “The Problems with Voter Rolls,” according to a program provided by Documented. Pete Antonacci, who later served under DeSantis as director of the state’s new Office of Election Crimes and Security before his sudden death last week, was featured in two of the sessions. Esther Byrd also participated in two panels, the program said. According to the event webpage, Defend Florida was involved in the event.

In an April episode of her podcast, Mitchell said her goal is for her trained activists to “just become part of the woodwork” in every county election office in America.

“That’s what I think is the next step for Defend Florida,” Mitchell told Doraisamy, who was that week’s guest on her show.

It’s a prospect that alarms local election officials who are already inundated with a daily barrage of records requests from people who continue to believe there was widespread voter fraud. Wilcox said he now spends hundreds of hours responding to inquiries related to the latest conspiracies pushed by Lindell and others. One recent lengthy request rattled off demand after demand for documents related to election software Wilcox had barely heard of and didn’t use in Marion County.

“I just want to be the guy who tells you who won and who lost and let everything move on,” Wilcox said. “I want to be the carpet or the paint of the wall, not the story. But it’s gotten to the point where I can’t do that anymore. If I go out anywhere, it’s in constant response to allegations.”

But at the March summit in Orlando, Cord Byrd encouraged activists to continue those efforts. There were problems with some Florida election offices, he told the crowd. Sometimes, Byrd said, “it’s just incompetence” by otherwise “good people,” but other times, “it is intentional.”

“That’s where some of y’all are going to come in because you’re doing the data mining and the research that you can come and bring to your state representatives and senators, and then we can take that to our staff and the House and Senate and we can take that to the secretary of state’s office,” Byrd said.

CNN asked the Florida Department of State if Byrd had examples of data collected by Defend Florida or others that credibly demonstrated problems with election administration in the state. His office did not provide any.

Earley, the Leon County elections supervisor, said he was “confident the secretary would not make those kinds of statements today unless he had hard facts to demonstrate it.”

“Once you enter the world of elections,” Earley said, “your whole perspective changes.”

Asked if Byrd still believes there are election officials in Florida who make intentional mistakes, Ard said the secretary has a good relationship with local election supervisors and was encouraging attendees to be active participants in the democratic process.

“Our country functions on representative government and has for almost 250 years,” Ard said. “We want people to be involved in elections administration, to learn about the process, to understand the operations. By becoming involved in the process, voters will gain confidence in that process and understand why Florida is the gold standard for elections across the nation.”

Griffin, the DeSantis spokesman, declined to address Byrd’s appearance at the Orlando summit and participation in Mitchell’s organization. “He can respond for his own decisions,” Griffin said.

But in his own remarks, DeSantis told the crowd, “I appreciate what you guys are doing.”

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