FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the first arrests made by the state’s new elections police force Thursday: Twenty people previously incarcerated for murder or sexual assault who he said had illegally voted in the 2020 election.
The governor — widely considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate — heralded the arrests, saying the unit had “sprung into action to hold individuals accountable for voter fraud.” DeSantis said they had been 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 for those who committed felony sexual assault or murder.
“This is just the opening salvo,” DeSantis said. “This is not the sum total of 2020.”
But voting groups and experts said that if anything the initial arrests indicate Florida’s election system is robust and crimes rare. Some 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 entitled to vote.
“It’s 20 people out of millions of voters,” Michael McDonald, an expert on voting and a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “These arrests are inconsequential to the integrity of the electoral system.”
DeSantis made the announcement flanked by law enforcement officers in Broward County, which has the most registered Democrats of any county in Florida. The arrests came about six weeks after the office opened and five days before the state’s primary election.
In recent years, Florida has introduced new voting regulations. Legislation passed in 2021 and again this year cut down on the number of ballot drop boxes and also make the possession of more than two ballots a felony. DeSantis said that is aimed at eliminating “ballot harvesting.” Voting rights advocates say it criminalizes the once-common practice in places such as Black churches where volunteers collected and delivered ballots.
For those convicted of felony crimes, the process of renewing voter rights can be cumbersome. Legislation signed by DeSantis requires them to pay all fines and fees stemming from their convictions, a process that is confusing because there is no central database for citizens and elections supervisors to consult.
“To this day we believe that if the state cannot hold up its end of the bargain, then they should be hesitant to start jeopardizing an individual’s freedom,” said Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “The state system is broken. These individuals should never have been registered.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D), a former Florida governor who is vying to face off against DeSantis in the upcoming gubernatorial election, said Thursday’s arrests were about “playing politics” and intimidating voters rather than securing elections.
“Ron DeSantis likes to say we had one of the best-run elections in 2020,” Crist said. “Then why is he spending millions to alter the system, including making it harder for people to vote?”
The arrests come at a time when election workers and officials have been coping with an ongoing 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 followers in the veracity of the country’s electoral system.
DeSantis has defended and continued to defend the accuracy and efficiency of Florida’s election offices, but he said voter fraud still occurs. 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 cast ballots for president that November.
“Before I proposed this, this was my idea, because people weren’t getting prosecuted. There were just examples of stuff seeming to fall 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 volunteer with the Palm Beach County Republican Party monitored who could enter.
At least one Democrat, Ben Sorensen, a Democrat who is the vice mayor of Fort Lauderdale and a candidate for Congress, attempted to gain access to the event but was denied entry. Inside, DeSantis staffers sat media in the back of the room. Invited guests, including Republican supporters and officials from across South Florida, were seated in the jury box. Many held signs that read “My Vote Counts” that were passed out a few minutes before DeSantis entered the room.
Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of the Equal Ground Education Fund, which advocates for voting rights, said the arrests could spark fear in people who only recently regained the right to vote.
“This places so much fear in people who have already cast their ballots,” Burney-Clarke said.
McDonald, the University of Florida professor, expressed concern that Thursday’s arrests indicate officials are targeting specific groups of voters — in particular those previously incarcerated.
He pointed out that Trump had to fix his voter registration 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 that. He made a mistake and he corrected it,” McDonald said. “I think other folks should be given the same consideration that was given to Donald Trump.”
Amy Gardner in Washington contributed to this report.
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