A Florida story deserves far more attention than it gets.
It’s about Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of the state, and the arrest of 20 Floridians. The crime they are accused of is a form of electoral fraud, especially voting, even though previous criminal convictions made them ineligible.
“Today’s actions send a clear signal to those who are thinking about vote-gathering or fraudulent voting,” DeSantis said at a news conference in August, touting the arrests as the first major score by an electoral integrity task force it launched last year. founded with much fanfare. . “If you commit an election crime, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The arrests, the statements and the sentiments behind them are not particularly surprising given that DeSantis has always presented himself as a tough, law and order governor. And they’re likely to endear him to conservatives who think America is overrun with voter fraud, mostly committed to help Democrats and usually involving minority voters.
Sure enough, most of the 20 Floridians arrested are black, according to media accounts.
But the reason for their arrests has not been properly investigated. The past weeks, multiple local and national publications have put together the stories of what many of these Floridians actually did and why. It seems less and less like episodes of nefarious election manipulation and more and more like cases of honest confusion about what a new electoral law says.
It’s the kind of situation that can give rise to some introspection and maybe even an apology from some elected officials. But DeSantis hasn’t even acknowledged that the arrests may have been a mistake, much less suggested that any of these Floridians deserve an apology — which perhaps says a lot about his style of leadership, as well as the many conservatives who applaud it.
An Attempted Redemption – And The Confusion It Caused
The background to this drama is Florida’s history of permanently disenfranchising convicted criminals.
For years, advocates have tried to end that practice, partly by arguing that people who have paid their debt to society deserved a chance to rejoin and partly by pointing out the disparate impact of disenfranchising blacks. voters. (Many laws that block convicted felons from voting go back to the post-reconstruction erawhen state officials tried to stop the recently liberated slave population from voting.)
In 2018, these advocates were able to obtain a constitutional amendment that would restore the right to vote on the ballot paper. It went overwhelming, with almost two thirds of Floridians votes in favour. But the amendment contained two important exceptions: Those convicted of sex crimes or murders could not vote. The 20 Floridians arrested in August for voter fraud had been convicted of these types of crimes, according to indictment documents.
“It was clearly illegal votes,” DeSantis said at a Wednesday press conference discussing the arrests. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
There may not be. But in stories of some arrests by reporters from the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, Politics and The Washington Posta clear pattern has emerged.
These Floridians say they had no idea their crimes made them ineligible to regain their vote, in part because the state approved their applications and issued them new voter registration cards. They say they only learned of their legal threat last month, nearly two years after the ballots were released, when the police showed up — in at least one case, in the form of a SWAT team knocking on their door.
“We don’t think people should be prosecuted when the state has a system in which the state itself is not able to check up front if someone is eligible to vote,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Restorative Rights. Coalition, to HuffPost.
One likely reason why these Floridians got their voting card is that the state agency responsible for the election has been overwhelmed trying to make the new system work. And that’s thanks in no small part to a law DeSantis and his allies enacted after the constitutional amendment was passed. The law requires criminals to pay old court fees before they can be given the right to vote; figuring out who’s to blame has been an administrative nightmare.
“If the state did its job, those individuals would have been warned that they were ineligible and removed from the list before they even had a chance to vote,” Patrick Berry, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said. in an email to HuffPost. .
Even some Republicans think officials should take it easy on the prosecution until the system works better: “I think it’s really up to law enforcement and prosecutors to exercise a level of grace and mercy where they believe it’s not their intent.” was to defraud,” Jeff Brandes, a GOP state senator from St. Petersburg, told the Herald.
DeSantis, on the other hand, has made no such concessions.
Instead, he has said that the responsibility for screening applications lies with local authorities, not the state — a position the state’s own election leader contradicted in an email. He also blames independent nonprofits that have helped convicted felons submit their applications, saying these groups should be more vigilant about clarifying the law’s exceptions.
When asked about the arrests at that Wednesday press conference, he defended them again, saying they had sent out an important signal: “I think this will help people show and discourage people from maybe any lack of clarity they have. about what the rules are in Florida,” DeSantis said.
A familiar pattern on voting rights – and politics
If the media reports and affidavits are correct and the justice system is working as it should, Florida’s lack of clear intentions could (and probably should) save Florida 20 from even more jail time. But that is not certain.
The evidence comes from Texas, a state where leaders have the same record of fighting the expansion of the right to vote and where a woman was sentenced to five years in prison for illegal voting despite strong evidence, she didn’t realize she was breaking the law.
Many suffrage advocates are outraged at DeSantis, and not just because of what the arrests have done for the lives of these Floridians. They also fear that these actions will have a chilling effect on people who are truly eligible to regain their voting rights.
“Some people have enforced the law against them. Others don’t.”
– Cecile Swoon, Florida League of Women Voters
“The state is prosecuting people for honest mistakes, creating more fear and intimidation, and undermining the promise of Amendment 4,” Berry said.
Some proponents have also noted that DeSantis didn’t make the same fuss over a handful of voter fraud cases involving residents of The Villages, whose relatively affluent residents tend to vote Republican. (In each of those cases, residents in two different states had voted, with unclear intentions.)
“You have a situation that has been demonstrated time and again,” Cecile Swoon, president of Florida Women’s League, HuffPost told. “Some people have enforced the law against them. Others don’t.”
Whether such statements have any effect on policy or politics remains to be seen, of course.
DeSantis is up for re-election in November, and despite recent polls showing a relatively tight race, most analysts expect him to beat Democratic candidate Charlie Crist. And that will position him well to seek the Republican presidential nomination, perhaps as early as 2024.
a record of arresting people for unintentional voter fraud is unlikely to hurt his position with many conservative voters. It might even help.