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UPDATE: DeSantis' voter fraud arrests unravel
In August, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) held a "campaign-style event" and announced that 20 people had been arrested "for breaking Florida’s elections laws." In a press release, DeSantis' office set aside the presumption of innocence, branding the group "election criminals."
The arrests were the result of charges filed by the Office of Election Crimes and Security, a new office created by DeSantis. The announcement successfully generated headlines that would appeal to voters looking for validation of Trump's lies about the 2020 election:
But since August, the narrative presented by DeSantis has fallen apart.
All of those charged were previously stripped of their right to vote after being convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense but voted in the 2020 election. Amendment 4, which was approved by Florida voters in 2018, allows most ex-felons to have their voting rights restored. But there is an exception for individuals convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses. As Popular Information previously reported, many of the individuals were genuinely confused about their eligibility.
How were 20 ineligible people permitted to vote? We now know it was because the State of Florida failed to do its job.
A prospective voter fills out a voter registration form and submits it to their local election supervisor. The local official then transmits the application to the Florida Department of State, which is responsible for cross-checking the application against a criminal database to determine whether the voter is eligible. In all 20 cases, the Florida Department of State did not flag the voter as ineligible. Therefore, local supervisors issued voter ID cards. So DeSantis is touting the arrests of people who believed they were eligible to vote because of the DeSantis administration's failures.
This is a big problem if DeSantis hopes to convict the people who were arrested. All 20 individuals were charged with one count of "false affirmation – voting or elections" and one count of "voting as an unqualified elector." Both of these charges require prosecutors to prove that the accused acted "willfully." But the people arrested believed their voting rights had been restored and, after receiving a voter ID from the government, believed they were eligible to vote.
The tale of the tape
Body cam footage, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, illustrates the absurdity of the voter fraud arrests. Police struggled to make sense of the charges and why they were tasked with making the arrests:
Even the Tampa police officer driving [Tony] Patterson to the jail seemed surprised by the charges against him… "I've never seen these charges before in my entire life," the officer said.
Handcuffed in the back seat, Patterson, 40, stewed. He said his brother encouraged him to register to vote.
"I always listen to everybody else. Vote for this. Vote for - come on, man," Patterson grumbled.
"I thought felons were able to vote. That's why I signed a petition form, that's what I remember."
"Why would you let me vote if I wasn't able to vote?"
"I'm not sure, buddy," the officer replied. "I don't know."
You can watch some of the footage here:
One case dismissed
One voter fraud case has already been dismissed. DeSantis created the Office of Election Crimes and Security to take the decision out of the hands of local prosecutors. But that decision may backfire.
In October, a Florida judge dismissed all the charges against one man, Robert Lee Wood, because "the statewide prosecutor didn’t have jurisdiction." In order for a statewide prosecutor to have jurisdiction, "the crimes alleged must have occurred in at least two judicial circuits." In this case, the judge ruled that all of Wood's alleged crimes took place in Miami-Dade County. Therefore, it would be up to the Miami-Dade County prosecutor whether to bring charges.
Similar arguments could lead to the dismissal of the election fraud charges against other defendants. The State of Florida is appealing the ruling.
Back to the drawing board
On Monday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that, since August, Floridians on probation "have been required to sign an updated form placing the burden on them to determine if they're eligible to vote." The form says:
By signing this letter, you agree that you alone are solely responsible for determining if you are legally able to register to vote, and that you must solely determine if you are lawfully qualified to vote. If someone tells you that you are eligible to vote, you must rely upon your own independent knowledge (as informed by your own attorney if applicable) of your individual circumstances, and not upon the advice of any third parties who may be incorrect or unqualified to interpret your eligibility.
The revised form is the clearest sign that the DeSantis administration recognizes that the first round of voter fraud charges are unlikely to stick.