Donald Trump has made unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud a centerpiece of his presidency, as well as his reelection campaign. He claimed millions of people voted illegally in 2016, created an inept committee to investigate voter fraud, and now opposes mail-in voting, claiming it’s inherently fraudulent.
Now it appears that the president himself committed voter fraud.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that when Trump registered to vote in Florida, he claimed the White House as his legal residence. On the same day he filled out his voter registration, however, Trump formally declared himself a “bona fide resident” of Palm Beach, the location of his Mar-a-Lago club. The president therefore tried to register to vote under an out-of-state address that is not, in fact, his legal residence.
Under Florida law, providing false information on a voter registration form is a third-degree felony, punishable by five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. As the Washington Post notes, the state has previously targeted individuals for registering under the wrong address. In 2018, Deltona City Manager Jane Shang faced charges for listing City Hall as her residence to avoid disclosure of her home address. She ultimately avoided prison through a deferred prosecution agreement that included a hefty fine and community service. In 1993, a restaurateur was charged with voter fraud and jailed for registering under the wrong address.
Trump corrected his registration 31 days after the initial filing, and he seems to have made an honest mistake. That is no surprise: Most alleged instances of voter fraud arise out of errors committed by either voters or election officials. But Trump’s Justice Department has little sympathy for such mistakes. In 2018, federal prosecutors charged 20 people in North Carolina with voting illegally in the 2016 election. Law enforcement arrested these individuals before dawn, then dragged them to jail cuffed and shackled.
This sting was the result of a sweeping, invasive investigation in which the DOJ demanded millions of voter records from the state. But the 20 defendants were not a crew of sophisticated election thieves. They were confused immigrants who believed they could vote. Election officials had even mistakenly urged some of them to register. As punishment, they received small fines. A federal judge scolded prosecutors for obsessing over voter fraud instead of addressing election mismanagement. While the Justice Department fixated on this operation, it overlooked a sophisticated GOP election fraud scheme that led to far more serious charges, as well as a do-over election.
An honest mistake also lies at the heart of the most notorious voter fraud prosecution of the past decade. In 2016, Crystal Mason believed she was allowed to vote: She had served prison time for a felony conviction for filing false tax returns but was out on supervised release. Mason didn’t realize that, unlike many states, Texas does not restore felons’ voting rights until they’ve completed a probationary period. She cast a provisional ballot that was never even counted. Attorney General Ken Paxton—who frequently lobs false claims of voter fraud—charged her anyway. Mason was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
In a sane world, Mason would not be behind bars. North Carolina’s 20 accidental lawbreakers would never have been hauled to jail. And Trump should not be charged now with a felony in Florida. But if the law were to be applied equally according the president’s own standards, prosecutors would throw the book at him. Trump’s error should serve as a teachable moment that illustrates how easy it is to commit inadvertent voter fraud. Instead, it’s just another reminder that the voter fraud squad will do anything—including criminalizing innocent people—to suppress votes.
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