Florida Governor DeSantis’ New Election Crimes Unit Makes First Arrests



FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Thursday announced the first arrests made by the state’s new Election Police Force: 20 people previously incarcerated for murder or sexual assault who he says voted illegally in the 2020 elections.

The GOP-led Florida Legislature passed a bill creating the Bureau of Election Crimes and Security earlier this year at DeSantis’ request. While the 2020 election went well in Florida — DeSantis called it the “gold standard” for elections — the governor said there are still problems and conservative lawmakers have sought to further tighten voting rules.

The governor – widely seen as a potential 2024 presidential candidate – announced the arrests, saying the unit had “sprung into action to hold individuals accountable for voter fraud”. DeSantis said they were arrested for violating the rules of a constitutional amendment passed by Florida voters in 2018 that allows formerly incarcerated people to register to vote – except those who have committed a sexual assault or murder.

“It’s just the opening salvo,” DeSantis said. “It’s not the sum total of 2020.”

But polling groups and experts said if anything, the initial arrests indicate Florida’s electoral system is robust and crime is rare. Some have expressed concern that the new unit could have a chilling effect, particularly on vulnerable groups of voters, such as formerly incarcerated people who are legally eligible to vote.

“It’s 20 out of millions of voters,” said Michael McDonald, a voting expert and professor of political science at the University of Florida. “These arrests have no impact on the integrity of the electoral system.”

DeSantis made the announcement alongside law enforcement officers in Broward County, which has the most registered Democrats of any county in Florida. The arrests took place approximately six weeks after the office opened and five days before the state primary election.

In recent years, Florida has introduced new voting rules. Legislation passed in 2021 and again this year reduced the number of ballot boxes and also made possession of more than two ballots a crime. DeSantis said this was intended to eliminate “ballot harvesting.” Suffrage advocates say it criminalizes the once-common practice in places such as black churches where volunteers collected and distributed ballots.

For those convicted of criminal crimes, the process of renewing voter rights can be cumbersome. Legislation DeSantis signed requires them to pay all fines and costs stemming from their convictions, a confusing process because there is no central database for citizens and election supervisors to consult.

“To this day, we believe that if the state cannot hold up its end of the bargain, then it should be reluctant to begin compromising an individual’s liberty,” said Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. . “The state system is broken. These people should never have been registered.

US Representative Charlie Crist (D), a former governor of Florida who is vying to face DeSantis in the upcoming gubernatorial electionsaid Thursday’s arrests were aimed at “playing politics” and intimidating voters rather than securing the election.

“Ron DeSantis likes to say we had one of the best-run elections of 2020,” Crist said. “So why is he spending millions to change the system, including making it harder for people to vote?”

The arrests come at a time when election workers and officials are facing a continuous barrage of criticism and personal attacks in response to Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 White House race was tainted by fraud — a lie that has sparked distrust among his supporters about the veracity of the country’s electoral system.

DeSantis defended and continued to defend the accuracy and efficiency of Florida’s election offices, but he said voter fraud still happens. The Florida Department of State received 262 election fraud complaint forms in 2020 and referred 75 to law enforcement or prosecutors. About 11 million Floridians voted for the president in November.

“Before I came up with this, it was my idea, because people weren’t being prosecuted. There were just examples of things that seemed to slip through the cracks,” DeSantis said.

Thursday’s event, held in a courtroom in a public building, had a partisan tone. Attendees had to be on a list to enter the courtroom, and a woman who identified herself as a Palm Beach County Republican Party volunteer monitored who could enter.

At least one Democrat, Ben Sorensen, a Democrat who is Fort Lauderdale’s vice mayor and a congressional candidate, attempted to gain access to the event but was denied entry. Inside, DeSantis staff members seated the media in the back of the room. Guests, including Republican supporters and officials from across South Florida, sat in the jury box. Many held signs reading “My Vote Matters” which were passed out minutes before DeSantis entered the room.

Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of the Equal Ground Education Fund, which advocates for the right to vote, said the arrests could spark fear among people who have only recently regained the right to vote.

“It’s so scary for people who have already voted,” Burney-Clarke said.

McDonald, a University of Florida professor, expressed concern that Thursday’s arrests indicate officials are targeting specific groups of voters – particularly those who have been incarcerated before.

He stressed that Trump should repair his registration on the electoral lists in 2020 when he said his address was the White House, which made him ineligible to vote in Florida.

“I wouldn’t go after Donald Trump for this. He made a mistake and he corrected it,” McDonald said. “I think other people should be given the same consideration that Donald Trump was given. “

Amy Gardner in Washington contributed to this report.

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