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Florida’s new election police arrest 20 people with felony convictions for voting illegally

Ron DeSantis shows off new office days before primary elections, magnifying complications surrounding felony voting rights that state voters overwhelmingly wanted to restore

Alex Woodward
New York
Friday 19 August 2022 14:43 BST
Ron DeSantis announces 20 arrests for alleged voter fraud

Five days before midterm primary elections in the state, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that 20 people who were previously convicted of felonies were arrested for illegally voting in the 2020 presidential election, what he called the “opening salvo” of his recently opened office of election crimes.

The governor – flanked by 15 law enforcement officers – made the announcement from inside a courtroom in Broward County, home to more than 1.2 million registered voters, most of whom are registered Democrats, in a state with more than 14 million registered voters among 21 million residents.

Governor DeSantis said the 20 suspects – all between the ages of 43 and 72 – were previously convicted of murder or sex offenses, thus ineligible for their voting rights to be restored. They face up to $5,000 in fines and up to five years in prison, if convicted.

But the governor’s announcement on 18 August has highlighted the complications surrounding felony voting rights and eligibility requirements after Florida voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment to restore them, and exposed gaps in a system that should have prevented illegal votes in the first place.

In 2018, Florida voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution to restore voting rights for most residents with felony convictions – but Republican state lawmakers quickly undermined the measure by adding financial hurdles to restoring those rights, or risk being charged with felony voter fraud.

People convicted of murder or sex crimes are not eligible for enfranchisement in Florida, but there have been several high-profile illegal voting cases involving people convicted of felonies who unknowingly committed voter fraud, an easy target for prosecutors fulfilling a new “election integrity” mandate to prosecute election crimes.

“Today’s arrest of possible voters in Florida confirm what we’ve feared about the state’s new Office of Election Crimes and Security: It will be used to sow doubt in the minds of millions of Floridians about whether their vote truly counts,” according to voting rights group All Voting Is Local.

The state also has increased criminal penalties for returning absentee ballots that are not cast by a family member – what GOP critics call “ballot harvesting” but is often used by community organisations or churches to help gather ballots for older and disabled people or others who need assistance casting their ballots. Under the new legislation, doing so is a felony crime punishable with a fine of up to $50,000 and five years in prison.

The law also bans ranked-choice voting and puts new restrictions on third-party voter registration efforts.

(Michele Eve Sandberg/Shutterstock)

Earlier this week, a group of Democratic attorneys general from 16 states and Washington DC urged a federal appeals court to reject restrictions on mail-in ballot drop boxes implemented under a 2021 law, part of the GOP’s wave of state-level voting restrictions that followed Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election and his spurious claims of widespread fraud.

“No one disputes that there is a state interest in combating voter fraud,” the attorneys general wrote in their brief. “But a voting restriction must be genuinely aimed at advancing that interest and reasonably calibrated to the scope of the problem.”

In Florida, “the scope of the targeted problem is vanishingly small: the use of drop boxes, and mail ballots more generally, are well-established practices in Florida and around the country, and neither has given rise to substantial fraud,” they wrote.

The governor’s announcement touted the work of his recently enacted Office of Election Crimes and Security, a first-of-its-kind agency under the governor’s direction that voting rights groups have warned is “a solution in search of a problem” and a potentially dangerous political tool that could be used to intimidate voters from the polls.

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.

In 2020, the state received 262 election fraud complaints; 75 were referred to law enforcement. More than 11 million Florida voters participated in that year’s presidential election.

Despite those cases moving forward with prosecutions, including the recent arrests of four people in Republican stronghold retirement community The Villages, the governor claimed on Thursday that without his election crimes office, “nothing would get prosecuted, nothing would end up happening”.

Earlier this year, two men from The Villages – Jay Ketcik and Charles Barnes – pleaded guilty to casting more than one ballot in that year’s election.

Ketcik was among three Republican voters from The Villages charged in December 2021 with voting twice in the 2020 presidential election. Barnes was the fourth person from The Villages to be arrested for double voting in that election. The governor did not hold a press conference announcing those arrests or convictions.

Pete Antonacci, who was appointed by the governor to direct the Office of Election Crimes and Security, also claimed without evidence on Thursday that there were “plenty of illegal ballots cast” in a Democratic primary election in the county last year.

Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd, a DeSantis appointee who has refused to say whether President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, also praised the 20 arrests on Thursday.

Nikki Fried, Florida agricultural commissioner who is running in the Democratic primary for governor, called the governor’s press conference a “voter intimidation rally”.

“Ron DeSantis went to Broward County today for one reason and one reason only – to intimidate voters and suppress turnout in the most Democratic counties in Florida,” she said in a statement.

She said she would disband the election crimes office, if elected.

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