Police video captures outrage and exhaustion during DeSantis ‘voter fraud’ arrests: ‘Why now? Why me?’

Florida’s governor announced 20 people are charged with illegal voting in August, but newly released police video and court documents suggest they had no idea they did anything wrong

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 19 October 2022 08:17 BST
Police footage from DeSantis voter fraud arrests reveals confusion and anger

While police officers placed him in handcuffs outside his home in Tampa, Florida, Tony Patterson was shocked to find out why. Even the arresting officers had a difficult time explaining.

“I’ve never seen these charges before in my entire life,” an officer can be heard saying in recently released body-worn camera footage of Patterson’s arrest in August.

He was among 20 Florida residents – all formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions for murder or sex offences – arrested and charged with illegally voting, a third-degree felony, after Republican Governor Ron DeSantis opened investigations into allegations of voter fraud in the state.

“This happened years ago,” Patterson told officers in the video. “Why now? Why me?”

The defendants have argued that they did not knowingly commit a crime, and they believed that a 2018 state constitutional amendment granted them their right to vote. Previously never-before-seen videos obtained by The Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald reveal their confusion, anger and exhaustion as police placed them in handcuffs, two years after they had registered to vote and cast ballots in 2020 elections, believing they were newly enfranchised under the law.

Among those arrested, 12 were registered as Democrats and at least 13 are Black.

All of them had been issued voter registration cards.

But they are accused of violating a state law that prohibits people with convictions for murder or felony sex offences to register to vote, a group excluded under the 2018 amendment, which has sparked widespread confusion over eligibility and the responsibilities of state agencies to prevent such cases.

Voting rights advocates criticised the arrests as a political stunt that aims to villify formerly incarcerated people convicted of murder or sex offenses. They argue that the arrests have exposed gaps in a system that should have prevented “illegal” votes in the first place.

Court records and police reports reviewed by The Independent appear to show that the people targeted by the DeSantis administration – the first results of a $1.1m new agency under the governor’s office – were told by election workers or other government officials that they were eligible to vote.

“This is crazy, man,” Patterson can be heard saying while handcuffed in the back of a squad care. “Y’all are arresting me for something I didn’t know nothing about.”

Officers even appeared sympathetic, with at least one suggesting that the person he was arresting has a defence against a conviction.

In one video, a handcuffed Nathan Hart told officers that he signed up to vote at a “driver’s license place,” likely a Department of Motor Vehicles office, often a first point of contact for people registering to vote.

“I said, ‘I’m a convicted felon, I’m pretty sure I can’t,’” said Hart, a registered sex offender. “He goes, ‘Well, are you still on probation?’”

A person at the office told Hart to fill out the form, “and if they let you vote, then you can,” Mr Hart recalled them saying. “If they don’t, then you can’t.”

An officer can be heard telling him “there’s your defence” and “sounds like a loophole to me.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced arrests under his Office of Election Crimes
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced arrests under his Office of Election Crimes (Michele Eve Sandberg/Shutterstock)

According to court documents, the defendants in each of the cases reported that a county elections office or some government official or agency advised that they could register to vote.

Their cases have magnified the complications surrounding voting rights for people with felony convictions – and reflected the volatile political minefield after Florida voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment to restore them in 2018.

“I always listen to everybody else,” Patterson said during his arrest, according to the video. “I thought felons were able to vote. … Why would you let me vote if I wasn’t able to vote?”

“I’m not sure, buddy,” an officer replied. “I don’t know.”

Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told The Independent in August that the arrests underscore the “real human costs to a broken system.”

“We should have a statewide database that can verify eligibility on the front end, and none of these people would be in this situation,” he said. “We would not be having this conversation in the context of a political campaign. We could be simply trying to solve the problem.”

Voting rights groups have derided the governor’s newly enacted Office of Election Crimes as “a solution in search of a problem” and a potentially dangerous political tool that could be used to intimidate voters.

Opponents have argued that resources already exist to investigate and prosecute allegations of fraud, the scope of which has not come close to altering election results.

“But we now have this process where we didn’t clear anybody on the front end, gave them a voter ID card, then waited several years to arrest and prosecute them. That’s not the kind of system that screams ‘we have integrity’. We all want voter integrity. So let’s work together to fix the problem on the front end,” Mr Volz told The Independent.

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