Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has put in charge of the state's election systems a deeply conservative state lawmaker who has championed legislation to ban so-called sanctuary cities and calls himself the "Florida gun lawyer."
DeSantis announced on Friday the appointment of state Rep. Cord Byrd as the next secretary of state, a day after the current officeholder, Laurel Lee, announced she was resigning. Byrd takes over the Florida Department of State at a critical juncture in the agency's history: For the first time, the office will oversee a new election security force with unprecedented authority to hunt for election and voting violations in the state. The new election force was a top priority for DeSantis, who signed a law to create the Office of Election Crimes and Security earlier this year.
"Under the leadership of Governor DeSantis, Florida has led the way on election security and preserving freedom for its residents," Byrd said in a statement. "As Secretary of State, I will make sure 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."
The change in leadership comes amid a busy midterm election cycle where DeSantis will be on the ballot, and with the Department of State embroiled in multiple lawsuits over Florida's new congressional map and a 2021 law that put new restrictions on mail-in voting and other election measures. On Thursday, a state judge called the new DeSantis-backed congressional boundaries unconstitutional because they diminish the power of Black voters in northern Florida, but an appellate court on Friday stayed the lower court's ruling.
Lee, the outgoing secretary of state, has earned praise for being a steady hand from the county election officials who oversee voting across the state. Supporters of former President Donald Trump have at times put immense pressure on Lee and county election officials to conduct an Arizona-style review of the 2020 election, even though Trump won Florida by a healthy margin. Lee rejected those efforts, saying last year that the results in 2020 were "accurate, reliable."
In tapping Byrd for the post, DeSantis noted the lawmaker's sponsorship of a handful of divisive bills in recent years, including legislation to ban sanctuary cities and a 2021 measure signed by the governor that placed new restrictions on protests in the wake of civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. A judge halted implementation of the bill, calling it unconstitutional and a "trap for the innocent."
Byrd is a lawyer from Neptune Beach. His practice specializes in firearms-related cases, according to his website, such as helping clients get revoked concealed weapon licenses reinstated or appealing a firearm purchase denial. On the site and on Facebook, Byrd refers to himself as the "Florida gun lawyer."
Earlier this year, state Rep. Angie Nixon, a Black Democratic lawmaker, accused Byrd of "antagonizing and cussing at Black Caucus members" during floor debate on a bill to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Nixon said Byrd had hurled expletives at them as protesters staged a demonstration in the House gallery.
Byrd, in response, did not deny using the expletive but said it was not directed at state lawmakers and called Nixon a "one-trick pony" who routinely claims political opponents are racists and White supremacists, according to Florida Politics.
"Cord Byrd has been an ally of freedom and democracy in the Florida Legislature, and I am confident he will carry that mission forward as Secretary of State," DeSantis said in a statement. "I look forward to his successes ensuring Florida's elections remain safe, secure and well-administered."
Cord is the second Byrd appointed by DeSantis to a state post this year. In March, DeSantis named Byrd's wife, Esther, to the state Board of Education. The appointment resurfaced Esther Byrd's social media history, which included posts that seemed to describe the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol as "Trump supporters peacefully protest," while also alluding to "the coming civil wars." Cord Byrd told a Jacksonville television station that the remarks from his wife were "hyperbole."
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