Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office met multiple times with a right-wing group whose co-founder promoted an Islamophobic conspiracy theory about an election worker, according to documents obtained by American Oversight and reported on by CNN.
The records of several such meetings back up claims made earlier this year by one of the group’s founders that it was in close contact with DeSantis and former Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee. They also, as CNN reported, come amid new revelations about the level of access “election deniers and those who have given oxygen to their conspiracies have gained in the highest levels of DeSantis’ government.”
On Dec. 16, 2021, and Jan. 3, 2022, DeSantis’ office met with members of Defend Florida, an election conspiracy group that pushed for an Arizona-style election “audit” in the Sunshine State following the 2020 vote. The group also met with then-Secretary of State Laurel Lee on Feb. 2, according to an email in which Defend Florida co-founders Caroline Wetherington and Raj Doraisamy expressed concerns about voter registration data. That email also copied Jovan Pulitzer, an election conspiracy theorist who was involved in the Arizona Senate’s sham “audit.”
American Oversight also obtained a Dec. 18 email in which Wetherington sent DeSantis’ legislative affairs director, Stephanie Kopelousos, an extensive compilation of outlandish conspiracy theories about alleged election fraud in Seminole County. The report singled out a county election worker who wears a hijab, describing them as “a rabid Advocate for Islamic causes” who previously “worked in the Middle East” and accusing them of changing votes and throwing away ballots.
In her email, Wetherington said that Defend Florida had not compiled the information, but that “citizens in Seminole county put these together.” The documents do not include any response from the governor’s office, but the Jan. 3 meeting took place two weeks later.
The records are especially concerning in light of the growing wave of threats and harassment against election workers by right-wing activists. As CNN reported, “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.”
The documents also contain an email from Defend Florida members thanking the governor for signing S.B. 524 into law, which established the state’s Office of Election Crimes and Security, a police force tasked with combating voter fraud. The law also contained other voter-suppression measures, including stricter voter-ID requirements for mail-in ballots and penalties for third parties who collect and submit absentee ballots from other voters. “It has been a pleasure working with you and the Governor’s Office on Election Integrity over the past few months,” the message from Defend Florida stated. “We are so thankful for the passage of SB 524. Many of our members volunteered hundreds of hours to provide the data supporting the need for this legislation.”
After DeSantis signed the bill into law, Defend Florida members celebrated alongside Big Lie promoter Patrick Byrne at a gathering, during which Doraisamy also thanked election denier and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a vocal ally of former President Trump. In August, DeSantis announced that the new office had charged 20 people with voter fraud, many of whom said they had not been notified by the state that they were prohibited from voting thanks to a confusing system that voting-rights advocates say makes it difficult to determine eligibility for those who were previously convicted of a felony.
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