by David M. Reutter
On August 18, 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced the first fruits of an investigation into allegations of voter fraud tied to the 2020 election. The state Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) arrested 20 ex-felons that day for voting illegally. That’s 20 potentially ineligible votes out of a total of 10.9 million cast — 0.0001835%.
Meaning the chance that your vote really shouldn’t count is only slightly higher than your odds of winning an Olympic gold medal.
DeSantis’ investigation was conducted by his new state Office of Election Crimes and Security (OECS), which he championed during the 2020 legislative session to investigate and prosecute election fraud. Tellingly for the governor, who’s said to be eying the GOP nomination for President in 2024, the first 20 arrests occurred mainly in Broward County, a Democratic bastion. DeSantis said those arrested were formerly incarcerated felons who voted illegally, either because their voter rights were not restored or because they were ineligible due to the severity of their crimes.
The arrests came six months after FDLE rounded up a group of ten Alachua County voters in a sweep prompted by a local Republican operative there. [See: PLN, Aug. 2022, p.30.]
In 2018, Florida made headlines with the passage of Amendment 4, restoring voting rights for most state felons. It specifically excluded those convicted of murder or felony sexual assault. Still, it was expected to re-enfranchise 1.6 million people. The Amendment, which was upheld by federal and state courts, was opposed by the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s publisher, because it left so many ex-felons mired in second-class-citizen status.
When FDLE released the names of the 20 recent arrestees, it said that they face third-degree felony charges for the voting violations. DeSantis said most were ineligible due to convictions for murder and sexual assault.
“This is just the first step. There are many more in the pipeline,” DeSantis promised. “We are not just going to turn a blind eye to this. The days of that happening in Florida are over.”
DeSantis said OECS is also investigating undocumented illegal immigrants who may have voted, as well as people who cast double votes in both Florida and another state. During his press conference, he was “flanked by police officers, [OECS] Director Pete Antonacci, Secretary of State Cord Byrd [(R)] and Attorney General Ashley Moody [(R)].”
“As elected leaders, it is incumbent on us to ensure free and fair elections and instill confidence in the voting process,” Moody said.
Yet after the arrests, at least two of those charged with illegal voting were given new voter cards. Nathaniel Singleton, 71, whose second-degree murder conviction renders him ineligible, received a new voter ID card from the Broward County Elections Supervisor on September 13, 2022 — nearly a month after DeSantis’ news conference announcing Singleton’s arrest. Another arrestee with a second-degree murder conviction, Romona Oliver, 56, remained on the county’s voter rolls nearly three months after she was picked up for registering illegally.
Prior to passage of Amendment 4, Florida felons were disenfranchised forever. So an application for voter registration required a simple check for a felony. Now, however, there must be deeper investigation into the type of felony and whether the applicant is still on probation or owes court fees, criminal fines or victim restitution — and much of that information is difficult, if not impossible to determine.
A week after the arrests, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) ginned up a new form that prisoners must sign upon release. Washing its hands of liability, DOC now reminds those leaving state custody “that you must solely determine if you are lawfully qualified to vote.”
Voting rights supporters decried the arrests and called for some of their own. “No one has done more to violate the integrity of Florida’s elections and make it harder for Floridians to be part of our democracy than Ron DeSantis,” said Florida Rising Executive Director Andrea Mercado. “If we had a real election integrity department, they would be arresting the governor for erasing Black districts and threatening neighbors helping neighbors cast their ballot.”
Mercado was referring to two things: a DeSantis-drawn congressional redistricting map that erased a majority-Black congressional district in northern Florida; and a provision in the 2021 elections law, SB-90, that prohibits anyone from providing refreshments to people waiting in line at polling places — lines that grow especially long in minority areas where the number of polls is often restricted. The law also prohibits anyone from dropping off a ballot for more than two other people, who must be family members, effectively outlawing groups that traditionally collect and deliver ballots for poor and elderly voters who can’t drive to a drop-box. A federal court struck down some of those provisions, but an appeal is pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which reinstated them in the meantime on May 6, 2022. See: League of Women Voters of Fla., Inc. v. Fla. Sec’y of State, 32 F.4th 1363 (11th Cir. 2022).
Contrasting with DeSantis’ press conference to trumpet the arrest of the 20 ex-felons accused of violating voting laws, the governor’s office was silent when four men from The Villages, a GOP bastion, were arrested in January 2022 for casting multiple ballots in the 2020 election.
Additional sources: Politico, Tampa Bay Times
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