Ask Americans what voter fraud looks like, and many will describe it as stuffing ballot boxes with votes from dead people or rigging voting machines so they spit out predetermined winners. They might even mention jackbooted thugs’, Ku Klux Klan riders’ or crooked corporations’ threatening voters’ jobs if they don’t vote a certain way. What they won’t describe as fraud is the case of an American citizen, who after being assured by government officials that he or she can register to vote, registers and votes.
The publicized arrests should be seen as voter intimidation in the name of election integrity.
What they might actually call a fraud is the sight of government officials dragging away those voters in handcuffs.
But the arrests of those who may have been misled is part of the latest scheme by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to burnish his conservative credentials before the 2024 presidential election. After having falsely claimed that voter fraud is a serious issue, DeSantis, who leads a state with almost 14.5 million registered voters, announced in August that the Office of Election Crimes and Security would charge 20 whole people who he said wrongly voted. Many, if not all of them, may simply have been confused about whether they could vote.
The publicized arrests should be seen as voter intimidation in the name of election integrity. DeSantis seems to be counting on the arrests, which seem to have targeted Black and brown voters instead of the majority-white Republican voters, to discourage some share of Democrats from voting in coming elections. It’s in keeping with past attempts in the South to use poll taxes, literary tests, grandfather clauses and violence to keep Black people from registering to vote.
Thanks to police bodycam video originally obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, now we get to see the confusion not only of the accused criminal voters but also the confusion of the police who were sent out to arrest them. When Nathan Hart told his arresting officer that someone at “the driver’s license place” told him to sign up to vote even after Hart told them he was a convicted felon, that officer said: “Then there’s your defense. You know what I’m saying? That sounds like a loophole to me.”
In 2018, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that restored the right to vote to many people convicted of felonies. However, people convicted of murder or felony sex offenses didn’t automatically get their rights to vote back. All 20 people DeSantis said would be charged fell into that group of convicted people whose rights weren’t automatically restored. But some Florida officials don’t seem to know the law, if we're to believe the reports that they had encouraged some of those who were later arrested to register.
Some government officials in Florida don’t seem to know the law, given that they reportedly had encouraged those who got arrested to register.
For example, 55-year-old Romona Oliver’s attorney said that despite Oliver’s having been convicted of a second-degree murder charge, she was given a voter ID card twice in 2020 by the Florida State Department, which handles the voter rolls and reports to DeSantis.
If Oliver is guilty by allowing her to register, then, was the State Department an accessory to voter fraud?
According to court documents, Terry Hubbard, who registered to vote at the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office, said the office sent him "a ballot and a letter in the mail stating he was eligible to vote." If Hubbard is guilty, how about the people at the Broward County Property Appraiser's Office?
In a September email, a spokesman for the Florida State Department told NBC News that the burden is on the people with criminal records to determine their eligibility. “These individuals lied when they registered to vote," that spokesperson, Mark Ard, wrote. "They were never eligible and there is no confusion on that point. We are confident that when all the facts and evidence are revealed through the legal process, the reasons these individuals were arrested will be clear.”
According to bodycam video, one officer making an election fraud arrest says, “I’ve never seen these charges before in my entire life.”
Another correctly pointed out to an arrestee that the law says a fraudulent voter must “willfully” commit the crime, not accidentally. When the police are telling you that the charges likely won’t stick, what’s the point of the arrest other than intimidation, harassment and abuse?
Note that DeSantis targeted people he knows Republican voters won’t have sympathy for: those with murder or sexual abuse convictions. It just so happens that, according to the Tampa Bay Times, 15 of the 19 who were arrested Aug. 18 by DeSantis’ vote police were registered as Democrats. It also just happens that, as The Palm Beach Post reports, 15 of those 19 are Black.
Will DeSantis’ vote intimidators risk consternation from Republican voters and trumpet the arrests of people who commit deliberate, premeditated voter fraud during this year’s election?
You see, before this sweep, the story of 2020 voter fraud had been set in the mostly white, pro-Trump retirement community called The Villages. Late last year, three white voters in The Villages, two of them registered Republicans and the other not affiliated with a party, were accused of voting more than once in the 2020 presidential election, a third-degree felony. In January, a fourth man from The Villages with no party affiliation was also charged. Each was accused of voting in Florida and another state.
His intention isn’t to safeguard the ballot box but to bully and intimidate Black, brown and formerly incarcerated people.
Charles F. Barnes and Jay Ketcik pleaded guilty and were put in a diversion program in April. Joan Halstead pleaded guilty and was put into a diversion program in August. John Rider, who has pleaded not guilty, awaits trial.
But instead of sending the police for them, authorities told two of those white Florida retirees in advance that they were wanted and allowed them to turn themselves in to police. (Rider was arrested as he tried to board a cruise ship.)
Given the fraud in The Villages, maybe DeSantis should send his voters house to house there in that mostly Republican community looking for criminal voters. But we know he won’t do that. Nor will he admit that his intention isn’t to safeguard the ballot box but to bully and intimidate Black, brown and formerly incarcerated people who are unlikely to vote the way DeSantis would like them to.