Fla. Govt. DeSantis’ new election crimes unit makes its first arrests

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the first arrests made Thursday by the state’s new election police department: Twenty people previously jailed for murder or sexual assault who said they voted illegally in the 2020 election.

The GOP-led Florida Legislature earlier this year passed a bill creating the Office of Election Crimes and Protection at DeSantis’ behest. Although Florida’s 2020 election went smoothly — DeSantis called it the “gold standard” for elections — the governor said there were still problems, and conservative lawmakers sought to tighten voting rules.

The governor – who is widely considered a 2024 presidential candidate – announced the arrests, saying “this unit has sprung up to hold individuals accountable for voter fraud”. DeSantis said they were arrested for violating provisions of a constitutional amendment passed by Florida voters in 2018, which allows those previously incarcerated to register to vote — except for those convicted of aggravated sexual assault or murder.

“This is just the opening salvo,” DeSantis said. “It’s not the 2020 total.”

But early arrests indicate that Florida’s election system is robust and crime is rare, if polling teams and experts are anything to go by. Some worried that the new section could have a chilling effect on particularly vulnerable voters, including those previously incarcerated and legally eligible to vote.

“It’s 20 out of millions of voters,” said Michael MacDonald, a polling expert and political science professor at the University of Florida. “These arrests are inconsistent with the integrity of the electoral system.”

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DeSantis made the announcement by law enforcement officials in Broward County, which has the most registered Democrats of any county in Florida. They were arrested six weeks after the office opened Five days before the state primaries.

In recent years, Florida has introduced new voting regulations. A law passed in 2021 reduced the number of ballot boxes again this year, making it an offense to have more than two ballots. DeSantis said he aimed to eliminate “ballot harvesting.” Voting rights advocates say it criminalizes a once-common practice in places like black churches where volunteers collected and distributed ballots.

For those convicted of felonies, the process of renewing voter rights can be complicated. A law 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 election supervisors to consult.

“To this day, we believe that if the state can’t stop its decision, they should be reluctant to affect an individual’s liberty,” said Desmond Mead, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “The system of government is broken. These people should never have been registered.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D), former Florida governor is running against DeSantis in the upcoming gubernatorial electionHe said Thursday’s arrests were “playing politics” and intimidating voters instead of securing elections.

“Ron DeSantis likes to say that we had one of the best-run elections in 2020,” Crist said. “So why is he spending millions to change the system, including making it harder for people to vote?”

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The arrests come at a time when election workers and officials are struggling Constant barrage of reviews and personal attacks in response to Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 White House race was tainted by fraud — a lie that fueled distrust among his followers in the veracity of the nation’s electoral system.

DeSantis has defended and continues 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 forwarded 75 to law enforcement or prosecutors. About 11 million Floridians voted for president that November.

“Before I proposed this, it was my idea because people weren’t being prosecuted. There were only examples where things seemed 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 Palm Beach County Republican Party volunteer kept track of who could enter.

At least one Democrat, Fort Lauderdale’s vice mayor and congressional candidate Ben Sorensen, tried to gain access to the event but was denied entry. Inside, DeSantis staff seated the media in the back of the room. Invited guests, including Republican supporters and officials from across South Florida, sat in the jury box. Several held signs reading “My Vote Count” moments before DeSantis entered the room.

Jasmine Burney-Clarke, founder of the Equal Ground Education Fund, which advocates for voting rights, said the arrests would spark fear among people who had recently regained their right to vote.

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“It’s very scary for people who have already voted,” Burney-Clarke said.

McDonald, a University of Florida professor, expressed concern that Thursday’s arrests are targeting specific voters — particularly those who have been previously incarcerated.

He pointed out that Trump should Correct his voter registration When he said his address was the White House in 2020, that made him ineligible to vote in Florida.

“I’m not going to go after Donald Trump for that. He made a mistake and he corrected it,” MacDonald said. “I think other people should be given the same consideration that was given to Donald Trump.”

Amy Gardner in Washington contributed to this report.

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