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Questions grow over Gov. DeSantis' voter fraud arrests

 Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and press inside a Broward Courtroom. DeSantis announnced the arrests f 20 people for illegally voting while surrounded by Election Crimes and Security Office Director Peter Antonacci, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Secretary of State Cord Byrd, and Mark Glass, acting commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Gerard Albert III
/
WLRN
Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and press inside a Broward Courtroom. DeSantis announnced the arrests f 20 people for illegally voting while surrounded by Election Crimes and Security Office Director Peter Antonacci, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Secretary of State Cord Byrd, and Mark Glass, acting commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Governor Ron DeSantis caused waves when he announced 20 people with felony convictions were arrested for illegally voting in 2020, in the first set of charges arising from his recently-formed election crimes unit.

These felons, a group that includes many from South Florida, did not meet the criteria to be eligible to vote under Amendment 4. That measure, which passed in 2018, does not allow those with convictions for murder or felony sex crimes to regain the right to vote.

At a high profile press conference in Broward last month - where he was flanked by a dozen Broward Sheriff's Office deputies, Attorney General Ashley Moody, his new head of elections security Peter Antonacci and the acting commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Mark Glass - Gov. DeSantis placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the felons.

"Today’s actions send a clear signal to those who are thinking about ballot harvesting or fraudulently voting," he said, in a statement released on Aug. 18. "If you commit an elections crime, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

But soon after the announcement, reporters found that most of the people arrested had received voter ID cards and thought they were eligible to vote. To many, the responsibility lies elsewhere. The blame has been passed from the people who voted, to their local elections supervisors to the state. Some have cast doubt on the ability of prosecutors to bring these cases to court.

As fallout from the arrests continue, WLRN's Gerard Albert III spoke with Matt Dixon, Politico’s Florida bureau chief.

"They're supposed to be flagged as an eligible felons and not allowed to vote. And that didn't seem to happen here," he said. "So they got voter cards, which for most of the folks who voted, seemed like a government sanctioned signal that their rights to vote had been restored."

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

What can you tell us about the 20 people charged?

The governor is right in the sense that a lot of them are convicted felons that are not eligible to vote. So they probably did vote ineligibly. But when you kind of peel the onion back on the governor's 20 arrests, and the big press conference he held to amplify this, it looks a little different, or at least not quite as black and white.

Most of these folks did get to register, their paperwork went through local county elections officials. Then it went to the Florida Department of State which administers elections statewide. And for whatever reason, it kind of slipped through the cracks during that process. They're supposed to be flagged as ineligible felons and not allowed to vote. And that didn't seem to happen here. So they got voter cards, which for most of the folks who voted, seemed like a government-sanctioned signal that their rights to vote had been restored. So they went and voted.

During the press conference, Governor DeSantis put the blame on the felons who voted. Then director of election crimes and security Peter Antonacci, sent letters to the local election supervisors saying that they did nothing wrong. Then the governor said it was up to these local supervisors to check if the felons were able to vote. What are the election supervisors saying?

We've spoken with five or six elections supervisors, including the guy who runs the statewide association, and almost unilaterally, they say that at the county level, there's only a cursory check to make sure all the information is there. County supervisors don't have access to the sort of law enforcement databases that the state has to check backgrounds of people and it's just out of their wheelhouse at the local level.

So all the signs point to the idea that the Department of State is the workhorse, as far as vetting eligibility and looking if someone is ineligible because they're a felon or otherwise. And we don't quite know yet how this happened. But for whatever reason these 20 folks, at least, got through that vetting process without being flagged as an ineligible felon. So local elections officials sent them a card and told them they could vote.

These people with felony convictions who were arrested, had served time in jail for serious crimes, either murder or some sort of sexual crime. And now they face up to five years in jail on charges of false affirmation and voting as an unqualified elector. Both of those charges are third degree felonies. What can you tell us about those cases?

All these folks did serious jail time, but they did the amount of times that the justice system gave them, and now they are potentially going back in the criminal justice system to a $5,000 fine or up to five years in prison, [that's] how DeSantis framed it during the press conference. A lot of these folks don't have a lot of resources or a high degree of education. So they're going to have to navigate this new entrance into the criminal justice system without a lot of resources.

What does this tell you about what's to come in Florida's upcoming midterm elections?

It's really hard to digest the messaging, in a logical way, that we're hearing from the governor's office. Because almost every single indication we have from election law experts, to testimony under oath, to the state's own rules for this vetting process, [is that] the responsibility lies with the Department of State, not local elections officials. But they keep pointing the finger at local elections officials and that's their continued insistence.

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Gerard Albert III