ORLANDO, Fla. — Flanked by law enforcement, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his new election security office Thursday afternoon in a Fort Lauderdale courthouse and its effectiveness just weeks after it began investigating cases.
Twenty people, mainly from Democratic strongholds like Broward County and the Orlando area, were being arrested that day for voting illegally in the 2020 election, he declared, citing each as an example of voter fraud he campaigned to stamp out.
“Some people say there’s no voter fraud. That never happens,” he said. “This is a third-degree felony in the state of Florida, they could face a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison for illegally voting in our elections.”
Though the governor’s vague reference said otherwise, voter fraud has been known to exist in every election cycle, with arrests made in conservative strongholds like The Villages as well as more progressive cities. However, voter fraud remains rare, statistically, with only dozens of people caught out of the millions of ballots cast by Floridians in 2020.
It also never happens as part of a widespread and coordinated campaign to undermine an election, as voting rights advocates point out. Instead, it’s on an individual level. The 20 arrested Thursday were mostly felons and others who cast ballots without being eligible to vote, DeSantis stated.
“They did not go through any process, they did not get their rights restored,” DeSantis said. “Yet, they went ahead and voted anyways. That is against the law, and now they’re going to pay the price for it.”
That remains to be seen.
Neither DeSantis nor his allies, including Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, provided the names or details of the cases for Thursday’s arrests. The details will be important. In a technical sense, casting a ballot when you’re not registered to vote isn’t going to send you to prison. Florida’s statutes are riddled with the word “willfully,” meaning a person must know their actions were illegal as they filled in the bubbles.
That has come into play before. Earlier this year, six sex offenders were found to have voted illegally in the 2020 election in Lake County. However, the prosecutor declined to charge any of them with a crime.
“In all of the instances where sex offenders voted, each appear to have been encouraged to vote by various mailings and misinformation. Each were given voter registration cards which would lead one to believe they could legally vote in the election,” State Attorney’s Office Division Supervisor Jonathan Olson wrote in a statement. “The evidence fails to show willful actions on a part of these individuals. Therefore, the State is unable to file charges.”
So, how does this confusion happen? According to elections officials, courts are supposed to notify the state when someone’s eligibility to vote changes. The state then notifies county officials, who can remove a person from the rolls or lawfully add them.
Sometimes, that communication breaks down.
“There are multiple checks on a registration. But it’s only as good as the information that is available in that check,” Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said, saying the arrests made showed the other set of checks was working as intended.
In The Villages case, two of the three arrested pleaded guilty soon after. Both received far less than the maximum punishment: 50 hours of community service and a three-month civics course.
The Attorney General’s office said names and other details of those arrested Thursday would be released as soon as office staff verified that the paperwork was correct. Due to the new office handling the cases, the AG’s office — a firm ally of the governor — and a statewide prosecutor will be responsible for charging the arrested people and taking them to trial to prove they willfully violated the law.
As for the governor, DeSantis promised that Thursday’s arrests were only round one.
“There’s many more [cases] in the pipeline,” he said. “We’re not just going to turn a blind a blind eye to this. The days of that happening in Florida are over.”
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