It was nearly a year ago when Gov. Ron DeSantis held a news conference, making what he characterized as an important announcement: The Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security — an office he created to pursue a problem that didn’t appear to exist in any meaningful way — had found 20 people who voted illegally in 2020.
The Republican governor, surrounded by uniformed officers, assured the public that the suspects were in custody and would be prosecuted.
As we’ve discussed, DeSantis seemed quite pleased with himself. He had created an election crimes office and it uncovered election crimes, just like he said it would. His press conference was a victory lap for the ambitious governor’s “election integrity” campaign.
Or so it seemed at the time.
It wasn’t long before the cases went to court and started falling apart. Most of the initial 20 arrests — each targeting former convicts who weren’t eligible to vote — have either seen the charges dismissed or plea deals that resulted in no jail time. Among the most obvious problems with these dubious charges is that the Floridians who’d been arrested had been notified by government entities they were eligible to cast ballots.
Indeed, The Tampa Bay Times highlighted the suspects who seemed utterly baffled as to why they were being taken away in handcuffs, insisting they had cast perfectly legal votes — not only because voters approved a state constitutional amendment in 2018, restoring voting rights to many felons, but also because they’d been told explicitly that they could participate in elections.
As the cases collapse in court, it might be tempting to think all’s well that ends well. It’s not as if DeSantis’ election crimes office has actually put people behind bars. Those who’ve faced dubious charges can simply return to their lives, right?
As a Washington Post report explained this week, the truth is far more disturbing.
The fallout came fast when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s new election police unit charged Peter Washington with voter fraud last summer as part of a crackdown against felons who’d allegedly broken the law by casting a ballot. The Orlando resident lost his job supervising irrigation projects, and along with it, his family’s health insurance. His wife dropped her virtual classes at Florida International University to help pay their rent. Future plans went out the window. “It knocked me to my knees, if you want to know the truth,” he said.
Washington, for example, after serving 10 years in prison, was told that he could vote after his release. After the Orange County Supervisor of Elections sent him a voter registration form, he completed the paperwork and was sent a voter card from local officials. Washington later cast what he thought to be a proper ballot — only to be arrested two years later thanks to DeSantis’ election crimes office.
Yes, the case against Washington was dismissed, but his life was nevertheless uprooted because his governor launched an unnecessary political scheme — and Washington is not the only one still dealing with the consequences of having been arrested for voting after being told casting a ballot was permissible.
"Those who eventually had their cases dismissed said the personal damage was still far-reaching," the Post added. "Some lost jobs and are now struggling to pay bills. Others who had fought to rebuild tarnished reputations after past crimes saw their mug shots end up splashed on television."
Making matters worse, the arrests from the governor’s election office received plenty of coverage, which in turn created a chilling effect among Floridians who have steered clear of ballot boxes, even if they were eligible to vote, because they feared unjust arrests.
As DeSantis prepares to seek national office, propriety might suggest that the far-right governor might feel some contrition in the wake of this unjust initiative. That’s clearly not happening: The Post’s report added that DeSantis “is moving to give the office more teeth, asking the legislature to nearly triple the division’s annual budget.”
This post revises our related earlier coverage.