TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – State Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican who has been at the forefront of controversial legislation supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis, will oversee the 2022 elections in Florida.
DeSantis announced Friday that Byrd will succeed Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who is stepping down as head of the Department of State effective Monday.
“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 prepared statement.
“I look forward to his successes ensuring Florida’s elections remain safe, secure, and well-administered.”
A news release from DeSantis’ office said Byrd, during his six years in office, has been “a staunch advocate for election security, public integrity, the fight against big tech censorship and the de-platforming of political candidates.”
In the news release, Byrd, a lawyer, said he will 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.”
But the appointment of the Northeast Florida lawmaker immediately drew criticism from Democrats who have squared off with Byrd over the years.
Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, issued a statement that said the state’s top elections official should be a consensus builder focused on running fair elections.
“Cord Byrd is not that person,” Nixon said.
“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.”
The release from the governor’s office listed a series of high-profile legislative proposals that Byrd has helped sponsor.
As an example, he played a key role in passing a 2019 bill to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” in Florida.
As another example, he helped sponsor a 2021 measure that enhanced penalties and created new crimes in protests that turn violent — a proposal that DeSantis championed after nationwide protests focused on racial justice following the 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
Black Democrats fought the bill (HB 1) and pointed to a history of civil disobedience.
But Byrd and other Republicans said the bill was needed to ensure the safety of Floridians and their property.
“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. 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 said as the House debated the bill.
In March, DeSantis appointed Byrd’s wife, Esther, to the State Board of Education.
The Byrds left Twitter after Esther Byrd drew criticism for tweeting about the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021.
“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,” Esther Byrd tweeted. “There are only 2 teams… With Us [or] Against Us.”
Lee’s departure comes as new congressional district lines are being challenged in court and as state and local officials prepare for the Aug. 23 primary elections and the Nov. 8 general election.
Byrd, whose appointment will ultimately require Senate confirmation, also will be in charge of carrying out a controversial new elections law.
That law included creating an office in the Department of State to investigate alleged voting irregularities.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, noting Byrd will oversee elections and the new office, tweeted Friday, “God help us all.”
In addition to the state Division of Elections, the secretary of state also oversees such things as the Division of Corporations, the Division of Historical Resources, and the Division of Library and Information Services.
(©2022 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida’s Jim Saunders contributed to this report.)