Despite a flawless, statewide elections process in 2020, Florida Republicans approved a series of new voter-suppression measures in 2021. That, however, wasn’t quite good enough for Gov. Ron DeSantis.
About a year after signing needless restrictions on voting, the Republican governor also created a new police force dedicated to pursuing election crimes. The unit would have a generous, taxpayer-funded budget to pursue a problem that didn’t appear to exist in any meaningful way.
It was against this backdrop that DeSantis held a press conference a couple of weeks ago at a south Florida courthouse to make an important announcement: His special law enforcement division had found 20 or so people who’d voted illegally in 2020. The GOP governor, surrounded by uniformed officers, assured the public that these suspects have been arrested and will be prosecuted.
Even at the time, the announcement was underwhelming. After all, more than 11 million Floridians voted in 2020, so the idea that 20 or so voters improperly cast ballots was hardly proof of systemic flaws. What’s more, the accused in this case weren’t people who committed fraud, per se, but rather, unknowingly cast ballots they thought they were allowed to cast.
DeSantis nevertheless seemed pleased with himself. He’d created a special police force and these officers had uncovered election crimes, just like he said they would. His Aug. 18 press conference was a “mission accomplished” moment for the Republican’s “election integrity” campaign.
Or so it seemed at the time. A Politico report cast the developments in a controversial light.
Several people who were arrested last week as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ voter fraud crackdown were notified by official government entities they were eligible to vote, according to court documents and interviews. The defendants told authorities they had no intention of committing voter fraud, according to affidavits, and in some cases were baffled by their arrests because counties had sent them voter registration cards and approved them to vote.
Peter Washington, for example, after serving 10 years in prison, was told that he could vote after his release. 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.
Earlier this month, DeSantis’ task force arrested him — and other former inmates who’d also been told they could legally vote. Politico’s report quoted a local lawyer who said one of the accused was arrested by a SWAT team who took the suspect to jail in his underwear, all because he’d voted two years ago.
The resulting dynamic appears indefensible:
- Florida officials told these people they could vote.
- They voted.
- Florida officials then arrested these people.
Complicating matters, it’s an open question as to whether these charges will actually stick.
A Slate report added yesterday, “The first round of defendants are charged with voting while ineligible, a third-degree felony in Florida. This law applies to any voter who casts a ballot ‘knowing he or she is not a qualified elector.’ In other words, prosecutors must prove (to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt) that the defendants knew their votes were illegal. Clearly, they had no such knowledge. Election officials told them they could vote, and provided them with all the tools to do so. DeSantis likely hoped they would agree to a plea deal, but voting rights lawyers have already stepped in to ensure that they will fight the charges in court.”
In theory, this is the kind of fiasco that could prove to be a problem for a controversial governor seeking a second term. In practice, DeSantis is still favored to win re-election anyway.