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Florida man arrested for voting: ‘What is wrong with this state?’

The dubious arrests of felons in Florida who cast ballots was already controversial. The release of new bodycam footage makes the story even worse.

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Even after Florida Republicans approved a series of wildly unnecessary voter suppression measures last year, in the wake of a flawless statewide elections process in 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis said it wasn’t enough. He also needed a new state office dedicated to pursuing election crimes, which would enjoy 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 the GOP governor held a news conference two months ago, announcing that the Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security had found roughly 20 people who voted illegally in 2020. DeSantis, surrounded by uniformed officers, assured the public that the suspects were in custody and would be prosecuted.

The Tampa Bay Times published a report yesterday, highlighting the nature of those arrests, alongside a video of police bodycam footage that’s painful to watch.

When police went to arrest Tony Patterson outside his Tampa home in August, he couldn’t believe the reason. “What is wrong with this state, man?” Patterson protested as he was being escorted to a police car in handcuffs. “Voter fraud? Y’all said anybody with a felony could vote, man.” Body-worn camera footage recorded by local police captured the confusion and outrage of Hillsborough County residents who found themselves in handcuffs for casting a ballot following investigations by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new Office of Election Crimes and Security.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, even when the governor announced the arrests, his presentation was less impressive than he seemed to realize. After all, more than 11 million Floridians voted in 2020, so the idea that roughly 20 voters improperly cast ballots was hardly proof of systemic flaws.

But even more importantly, it seems that people arrested hadn’t been trying to commit fraud, but rather had unwittingly cast ballots they thought they were allowed to cast.

DeSantis nevertheless seemed pleased with himself. He had created an election crimes office and it uncovered election crimes, just like he said it would. His Aug. 18 news conference was a “mission accomplished” moment for the Republican’s “election integrity” campaign.

Or so it seemed at the time.

It wasn’t long before the story took an unfortunate turn. Politico reported a week after the arrests that several of those taken away in handcuffs had been “notified by official government entities they were eligible to vote.”

Peter 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.

He had plenty of company. In fact, the Times’ report highlighted Floridians who seemed utterly baffled as to why they were being taken away in handcuffs, insisting they had cast perfectly legal votes — not only because Floridians approved a state constitutional amendment in 2018, restoring voting rights to many felons, but also because they’d been explicitly told by officials that they could legally cast ballots.

My MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones went on to note this morning:

Perhaps unsurprisingly for those familiar with voter suppression tactics, 12 of the 19 people initially arrested by DeSantis’ vote police in August were registered as Democrats and at least 13 of them are Black, the Tampa Bay Times reported. This evokes memories of revanchist white politicians in the South after the Civil War. Florida has its own grim history of armed deputies of the state terrorizing prospective Black voters. Ron DeSantis is evidently reviving that tradition.

Looking ahead, there’s reason to believe that those who were charged as part of this apparent stunt won’t be punished: The Miami Herald reported that the cases are “on shaky legal ground,” in large part because the law requires the state to prove that the suspects intended to commit fraud, which is a bar prosecutors will likely struggle to clear.

It raises the very real possibility that this entire ordeal — the creation of DeSantis’ election crimes office, the investigations, the arrests, the chest-thumping news conference, the legal proceedings, et al. — could end with the charges being dropped.

But ahead of his re-election campaign, the Florida Republican will have proved his indifference to the interests of marginalized people while simultaneously discouraging future voting, which should be good enough for a fundraising letter and a few conservative media appearances.

“What is wrong with this state, man?” Tony Patterson asked the police at the time of his arrest. Two months later, that is not just a rhetorical question.