As Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) readies his impending presidential run, he’s built a brand largely off of former president Donald Trump’s: appearing “tough on crime” and making noise about election security.
Florida’s Office of Election Crimes and Security (OECS) is at the nexus of those issues. Launched last year, DeSantis has said the new police force will investigate fraud allegations throughout the state in order to find violations of election law. But state Democrats and activists alike see it as a political stunt designed to be “splattered across front pages,” as DeSantis tries to court Trump supporters and Big Lie believers ahead of his expected 2024 run.
While he claims the task force was created to root out voter fraud, the governor himself has boasted about Florida’s robust election security in the past. “What we do in Florida is, there’s a pre- and post-election audit that happens automatically,” he said back in 2021. “So, that has happened. It passed with flying colors in terms of how that’s going.”
DeSantis doesn’t seem to have lied about that: The OECS only net 20 arrests last year. The governor made a big show of announcing the 20 supposedly illegal votes but his administration has not unearthed any sort of election malfeasance on a grand enough scale to justify its multi-million dollar budget.
A recent lawsuit, however, highlighted what the state has accomplished with the program: letting former felons vote and sending them to jail.
Last week, the League of Women Voters of Florida filed a lawsuit against Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd (R) alleging that the state has enacted a “byzantine” voter registration system that fails to comply with federal rules.
Florida’s voter registration applications, the group argues, don’t adequately clarify eligibility requirements for formerly incarcerated citizens, even though they’ve changed substantially in recent years. “It increases the risk that a returning citizen will be investigated, prosecuted, and re-ensnared in the criminal system,” the complaint said.
Their evidence? It’s already happened.
Since Florida passed a ballot measure seeking to reinstate suffrage for about 1.4 million formerly incarcerated residents, state Republicans have rolled back its reach.
On June 28, 2019, DeSantis signed a bill (SB 7066) limiting the reinstatement to those who’ve completed the full terms of their sentences, like getting off probation or paying court-ordered fees, which was soon challenged in court.
An appellate court eventually ruled in DeSantis’ favor, but acknowledged complaints that “it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the facts that determine eligibility to vote” before batting them down for being too vague.
Those complaints would be realized over the next few years. Last August, for example, DeSantis held a campaign-style press conference to announce the OECS’ first 20 arrests. But it became clear that the arrestees didn’t even know they’d committed a crime.
“The state promised that it would treat registrations like requests for eligibility determinations—which, by the way, is required by federal law,” Blair Bowie, who oversees the Campaign Legal Center’s Restore Your Vote project, told TPM. “Instead, they shifted the full burden of responsibility for making eligibility determinations to the potential registrants. And what’s worse, they didn’t provide any useful information to the registrants to allow them to determine if they were eligible.”
Hillsborough, Florida resident Nathan Hart was among them. He told TPM that he’d registered on a whim in March 2020, when a man flagged him down outside his local DMV encouraging him to apply.
“I told him, I wasn’t sure because it was a first degree felony that I had,” he said. “And he goes, ‘well, the best way to find out if you’re approved or not is to just go ahead and register to vote. And if you’re approved, you’ll be good.’”
The Florida State Department was quick to reject this assumption to TPM. When asked about the state’s responsibility to alert registrants of their eligibility status, department spokesman Mark Ard highlighted a statute saying that when a resident submits a voter registration application, they’re swearing that they are eligible to vote.
But Cecile Scoon, president of the voting rights group who brought the lawsuit, argued that Ard was “completely ignoring the law.” She pointed out that the Division of Elections, the office within the State Department tasked with overseeing eligibility statuses, accepted the responsibility during legal proceedings for Amendment 4.
Rep. Laurel Lee, Florida’s former secretary of state and current House Republican, also put that interpretation in writing. “The Florida Department of State has a duty under section 98.075(5), Fla. Stat. to identify those registered voters who have been convicted of a felony and whose voting rights have not been restored,” she told ProPublica and Times/Herald back in 2020. “The law requires the department to review information from a number of sources and make an initial determination as to whether information is credible and reliable.”
But Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews testified back in 2020 that they had a backlog of 85,000 applications that were flagged for voter registration eligibility—and only 20 staffers at the time to go through them.
Officers from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office showed up to Hart’s doorstep three years later to arrest him for a crime that took five minutes to commit. “I was just flabbergasted,” he said. “I had no idea what they were there for.”
When voting rights groups challenged SB 7066 in court, election officials in the state “swore up and down” that they would assume the responsibility to ensure that new voter registrants were eligible under the new rules, Bowie said.
“Fast forward three years later, we learn that Florida election officials did not do what they swore under oath they would—they did not ensure that everyone who registered was eligible to vote,” she told TPM. “Instead, they let them register and cast ballots—and then turned around and prosecuted them.”
Hart, a former DeSantis supporter himself, agrees. “It’s painfully obvious to everyone who’s not an extreme supporter of the governor that this is some political maneuver to make him look good to his constituents a few months before the election happened,” he said.
Once he reached the courtroom – his was so far the only case of those arrested to actually make it to trial and it ended in a partial acquittal – statewide prosecutors argued that he had voted illegally on purpose, he told TPM. “They accused me of just inventing this guy out of whole cloth,” he said. “And that I’d checked off the boxes that my rights were restored when in actuality they hadn’t been.”
But Hart maintains that he didn’t realize that he was ineligible. “I’m not exactly a Florida constitutional lawyer,” he said, “so I would have no way of knowing that.”