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Opinion Ron DeSantis’s voter fraud prosecutions will have a chilling effect

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Fort Lauderdale last week. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

During what felt like a rally for an unannounced 2024 presidential campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last week trumpeted the arrests of 20 felons who allegedly voted illegally in the 2020 elections. These are the first cases brought by the state’s new election police force — and a clear effort to deter legitimate voting.

Mr. DeSantis says he came up with the 15-person Office of Election Crimes and Security to make sure anyone who isn’t allowed to vote gets prosecuted if they try. “If you commit an elections crime, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Mr. DeSantis said Thursday in Fort Lauderdale.

Yet the tiny number of cases brought so far underscores the paucity of voter fraud. For perspective, this is 20 arrests out of 11 million Floridians who cast ballots in 2020, though Mr. DeSantis called it “the opening salvo” and said the office continues to investigate.

A 2018 ballot initiative amended the Florida constitution to give formerly incarcerated felons the right to vote, but it excluded anyone convicted of murder or sexual assault. Mr. DeSantis says all 20 of the arrested voters fall into this category. His announcement would carry more credibility if the governor had faithfully followed the clear will of Florida’s voters. Instead, he undermined it, signing a law in 2019 that moved the goal posts by requiring felons to pay off any money owed in fines and fees before registering to vote, with the punishment for not doing so being another felony.

But the system remains so opaque that there’s no easy way to find out whether you owe fees or fines stemming from a past conviction. There’s no centralized tracking system for either citizens or elections officials to check. All 67 counties and various state agencies maintain their own databases. Mr. DeSantis’s broader goal is clear: to deter voting.

Given the political-rally feel to last week’s announcement, it was also troubling that Mr. DeSantis was flanked by uniformed police officers. The event was held in a public courtroom. But The Post’s Lori Rozsa and Tim Craig report that a woman who identified herself as a volunteer with the Palm Beach County Republican Party monitored who could enter. Guests, including Republican activists, sat in the jury box and waved signs saying, “My Vote Counts.”

Mr. DeSantis didn’t name the 20 people who were arrested, but he said most were from the heavily Democratic counties of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. The governor did not hold a news conference when four people who live in a GOP-dominated retirement community were arrested earlier this year for attempting to cast multiple ballots.

Mr. DeSantis plainly wants to make inroads with Donald Trump’s supporters, who have bought into the former president’s lies about the 2020 presidential election. How many of these 20 defendants understood they were breaking the law? Perhaps they mistakenly believed that the 2018 ballot measure permitted them to register.

More significant is the chilling effect this will have on formerly incarcerated people who legitimately have the right to vote but may now be afraid to take the risk they’ll get charged on technicalities or because of unpaid debt they don’t know about.

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