FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced Thursday the first arrests of the state’s new police force: 20 people previously incarcerated for murder or sexual assault that he said had illegally voted in the 2020 election. .
The Florida GOP-led legislature earlier this year passed a bill on behalf of DeSantis establishing the Office of Election Crimes and Security. Although the 2020 election went smoothly in Florida — DeSantis called it the “gold standard” for elections — the governor said problems remain and conservative lawmakers have sought to tighten voting rules further.
The governor – widely regarded as a potential 2024 presidential candidate – ushered in the arrests, saying the unit had “stepped into action to hold individuals accountable for voter fraud”. DeSantis said they were arrested for violating the rules of a 2018 constitutional amendment passed by voters in Florida that would allow previously incarcerated people to register to vote — except those who committed sexual assault or murder.
“This is just the opening salvo,” DeSantis said. “This is not the total for 2020.”
But voting groups and pundits said the first arrests indicate Florida’s electoral system is robust and crimes are rare. Some expressed concern that the new unit could have a chilling effect, particularly on vulnerable groups of voters, such as previously detained people who are legally entitled to vote.
“It’s 20 people out of millions of voters,” Michael McDonald, a voting expert and a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “These arrests do not affect 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 Florida counties. The arrests came about six weeks after the office opened and five days before the state primaries.
Florida has introduced new voting rules in recent years. Legislation passed in 2021 and again this year has reduced the number of ballot boxes and also makes possession of more than two ballots a crime. DeSantis said that aims to eliminate “ballot collection”. Voting rights advocates say it criminalizes the once common practice in places like 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 arising from their convictions, a process that is confusing because there is no central database for citizens and election monitors to access.
“To this day, we believe that if the state can’t keep its promises, they should hesitate to endanger an individual’s freedom,” said Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “The state system is broken. These people should never have been registered.
US Representative Charlie Crist (D), a former Florida governor who is running 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 running elections in 2020,” Crist said. “Then why is he spending millions trying to change the system, including making it harder for people to vote?”
The arrests come at a time when election officials and officials face an ongoing barrage of criticism and personal attacks in response to Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 White House race was tainted with fraud — a lie. who has aroused mistrust among his followers in the correctness of the country’s electoral system.
DeSantis has championed and continues to defend the accuracy and efficiency of Florida’s electoral offices, but he said voter fraud still occurs. The Florida Department of State received 262 voter fraud complaint forms in 2020 and referred 75 to law enforcement or prosecutors. About 11 million Floridians voted for president in November.
“Before I suggested this, this was my idea because people weren’t being prosecuted. There were just examples of things that seemed to fall through the cracks,” DeSantis said.
Thursday’s event, which was held in a courtroom in a public building, had a partisan tone. Those in attendance 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 checked who was allowed in.
At least one Democrat, Ben Sorensen, a Democrat who is vice mayor of Fort Lauderdale and a candidate for Congress, attempted to enter the event but was denied entry. Inside, DeSantis employees sat in the back of the media room. Invited guests, including Republican supporters and officials from all over South Florida, sat in the jury box. Many were holding signs that read, “Counting my votes” that were handed 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 have only recently regained the right to vote.
“This is causing so much anxiety in people who have already cast their vote,” Burney-Clarke said.
McDonald, the University of Florida professor, expressed concern that Thursday’s arrests indicate that officials are targeting specific groups of voters — particularly those previously incarcerated.
He pointed out that Trump had to correct his voter registration in 2020 when he said his address was the White House, making him ineligible to vote in Florida.
“I wouldn’t go after Donald Trump for that. He made a mistake and corrected it,” McDonald said. “I think other people should be given the same attention as Donald Trump.”
Amy Gardner in Washington contributed to this report.