Florida officials arrest and charge 20 people with illegal voting, DeSantis says

<span>Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Florida officials have arrested and charged 20 people with felony convictions and charged them with illegal voting, Florida governor Ron DeSantis said on Thursday, a move designed to show the muscle of a new office tasked with policing voting in the state.

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The announcement came just days before the state’s primary election and as early voting is under way. DeSantis, flanked by law enforcement, said the 20 people were charged with voting in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, some of the most Democratic in the state.

“They did not go through any process, they did not get their rights restored, and yet they went ahead and voted anyways. That is against the law and now they’re gonna pay the price for it,” DeSantis said. He also said all 20 had convictions for murder or sexual offenses, crimes that continue to result in a lifetime voting ban in the state. Florida voters lifted the ban for all other offenses in 2018.

The governor released few other details about the charges, and indictments and warrants weren’t immediately available. That lack of detail is significant. The rules around voting with a felony are incredibly complex around the country, Florida included, and many people with felonies can be confused about their eligibility. There have been several examples, including in Florida, of illegal voting cases involving people who had been convicted of felonies that turn out to be people who were confused. People with felonies can make easy targets for prosecutors looking to make a voter fraud case since they are already being monitored.

DeSantis used a press conference in Broward county on Thursday to champion the work of the office of election crimes and security, a first-of-its-kind office created this year and charged with investigating voter fraud. Peter Antonacci, the head of that office, said Thursday was a “special day”. “This is the day we begin taking fraud seriously,” he said.

The move is “obvious intimidation and suppression to keep eligible Floridians from even trying” to vote said Blair Bowie, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, who specializes in voting rights for people with felony convictions.

After Florida voters lifted the lifetime voting ban for people with most felonies, Florida lawmakers passed a measure that made it enormously difficult for people to figure out if they could vote again. In litigation challenging that measure, Florida election officials testified that they would regularly monitor the voting rolls to flag people who were ineligible, Bowie noted.

“It is Florida’s job to review voter registration applications when they are submitted and determine whether or not the person is eligible at that time,” Bowie said in an email. “The Florida Director of Elections swore under oath that they would check every registration for eligibility…every day. The first thing she said they would look for is the ineligible convictions (murder, sexual felonies) and that they would pull those registrations out”.

“Florida could have kept that promise and easily denied these voter registrations, preventing ineligible voters from casting ballots in the first place. Instead, they are spending money prosecuting people after the fact,” she added.