Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made a spectacle out of the round of arrests made by his election police force earlier this month, jailing 20 people on charges of voter fraud and promising more prosecutions to come. At least one target was dragged to jail in his underwear by a SWAT team at 6 a.m. But it turns out that the individuals ensnared in DeSantis’ dragnet had no idea that they could not lawfully vote. The governor’s own appointees flubbed their legal duty to stop them from registering. And because of their sloppy errors, all 20 defendants may well be acquitted of crimes they did not intend to commit.
DeSantis’ misadventure traces back to Amendment 4, the ballot initiative that was supposed to restore voting rights to most people who had completed sentences for felony convictions. (Those convicted of murder and sex offenses were excluded.) Floridians overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment in 2018. Yet DeSantis and his fellow Republicans promptly sabotaged the amendment by enacting an unnavigable, incomprehensible system for individuals who wished to regain their right to vote. The state refused to establish a coherent process for people convicted of felonies to learn they are eligible to cast a ballot. Many Floridians with disqualifying convictions, including the defendants arrested this month, are therefore unaware that amendment 4 does not apply to them.
After Donald Trump pushed the lie of mass voter fraud in 2020, Florida Republicans created an investigative unit to uncover “election crimes.” It was obvious that this office would continue the work that GOP lawmakers began in the wake of Amendment 4: persecuting Floridians who made the honest mistake of voting despite a disqualifying conviction. That, of course, is exactly what happened. It appears that most if not all of the 20 men and women arrested by DeSantis’ election police did not realize they were not allowed to vote due to disqualifying convictions. They believed, in good faith, that they could exercise their civil rights.
But they did not reach this conclusion on their own. As Politico’s Matt Dixon has reported, these defendants were told by Florida officials that they were legally permitted to vote. And because they believed these officials, they now face up to five years in prison for the crime of voter fraud.
In affidavits and media interviews, defendants share the same tragic story: They filled out a voter registration card; their county election office approved it, telling them they could vote; they cast a ballot in 2020; and now they are charged with a felony offense. Because local election officials approved each registration, DeSantis’ spokespeople have sought to blame them for failing to uncover the disqualifying convictions. This accusation conveniently overlooks a crucial fact: Florida law tasks the state government with flagging felony convictions that bar a resident from registering to vote. It wasn’t local officials who dropped the ball. It was the DeSantis administration. (Update, 5:45 p.m.: The head of the election police, a DeSantis appointee, explicitly told local election supervisors that they were not at fault, contradicting the governor’s claims.)
Here’s how the process works. When the county supervisor of elections receives a registration application, they forward it to the state. The Division of Elections, part of the Department of State, then determines whether the applicant is “potentially ineligible based on a felony conviction without civil rights restored.” If the agency finds evidence of ineligibility, it informs the county supervisor, who then tells the applicant why his registration was denied. If the applicant confirms the allegation, he’s removed from the voter registration system. If the applicant denies the allegations, he can demand a hearing to prove that he is eligible.
This process is mandated in a Florida statute. As Dixon pointed out, it is also enshrined in a 2009 rule issued by the Florida Department of State. In case that were not enough, the director of elections testified under oath in 2020 that the state bears responsibility for checking applicants’ felon status. As the Guardian’s Sam Levine noted on Saturday, her testimony affirmed that applicants are checked against a law enforcement database within 24 hours. (Local election officials do not even have access to that data.) Three sitting county election supervisors have told Dixon that this process is, indeed, the current system for screening potential felony convictions.
It’s easy to see why DeSantis is eager to direct culpability away from state governments. The governor appoints the head of both the Division of Elections and the Department of State. His own administration greenlighted the defendants’ voter registration applications, and now it has arrested them for voting. That doesn’t look like election security. It looks like entrapment.
But even if DeSantis were correct, shifting responsibility to county supervisors would not absolve his appointees. Three people charged with voter fraud registered with the Broward County supervisor of elections—which, according to the governor, should have uncovered their disqualifying convictions and denied their applications. Who served as Broward County supervisor of elections when these individuals registered? Peter Antonacci, whom DeSantis appointed to lead the election police. The man in charge of prosecuting voter fraud previously facilitated fraud among the very individuals he’s now prosecuting.
In response to these revelations, DeSantis’ spokespeople have primarily directed a flood of hate and harassment toward Dixon for his invaluable (and, to the governor, embarrassing) reporting. But they cannot conceal the state’s errors for long. The first round of defendants are charged with voting while ineligible, a third-degree felony in Florida. This law applies to any voter who casts a ballot “knowing he or she is not a qualified elector.” In other words, prosecutors must prove (to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt) that the defendants knew their votes were illegal. Clearly, they had no such knowledge. Election officials told them they could vote, and provided them with all the tools to do so. DeSantis likely hoped they would agree to a plea deal, but voting rights lawyers have already stepped in to ensure that they will fight the charges in court.
Perhaps the governor won’t mind when the criminal case against these voters falls apart. His intention, after all, was to create a chilling effect on others’ rights, frightening eligible residents out of trying to vote. He has put a target on the back of every Floridian who was supposed to regain full citizenship under Amendment 4. Plenty of formerly incarcerated people might look upon this episode as proof that it is not worth attempting to rejoin the electorate. Even if every defendant is ultimately acquitted, DeSantis’ quest to prove that he can undermine democracy just as viciously as Trump remains intact.