By Alejandro Ramirez
On Oct. 18, the Tampa Bay Times released police body camera footage of 20 people who were arrested on Aug. 18. The 20 people were arrested for allegedly committing voter fraud in Florida for the 2020 presidential election.
Governor Ron Desantis held a press conference on Aug. 18 to announce the arrests.
These are the first arrests made by the Office of Election Crimes and Security. The office was created this year at the urging of Desantis and it wants to hold people accountable for voter fraud.
“Today’s actions send a clear signal to those who are thinking about ballot harvesting or fraudulently voting. If you commit an election crime, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Desantis at the conference.
According to Desantis, the 20 arrests were felons and some were convicted of murder or sex crimes, which meant that they were excluded from 2018 Florida Amendment 4.
This amendment restored felon’s right to vote, proving that they have paid all their dues and their fees, proving that they are not convicted of murder or sex crimes.
“They do not have the right to vote,” DeSantis said in a Reuters article. “Now they’re going to pay the price for it.”
However, court documents show that the 20 people were able to register to vote and because of this, they had believed that they could cast a ballot.
The confusion appears to have come from the wording of Florida’s voter registration forms. According to FOX 13, applicants have to swear that they are not a felon, or if they are, that they’ve had their rights restored. It makes no mention that those who had been convicted of murder or sex crimes cannot vote.
This wording in the registration forms made it confusing for the counties and for the felons who intend to vote in elections.
“A number of groups were concerned that the way it was written was not very clear, despite the fact that it was supposed to clarify things. Some counties were using the old voter registration forms and some used the new state one,” said Ryan Welch, assistant professor in the department of political science and international studies. “They were different based on this new law and it caused confusion at the county level. It seems that the county election offices seemed to be unclear of who was allowed to vote or not.”
Those arrested for allegedly committing voter fraud were confused.
One of them alleged that he was encouraged to vote at the “driver’s license place.” He had told them that he can’t, because he was a registered sex offender. He had just finished his probation. He alleges that the people still told him to vote.
“He said, well, fill out this form, and if they let you vote, then you can. If they don’t, then you can’t,” said the man arrested for voter fraud.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, voter ID cards were handed to the 20 people after an initial check by the Department of State. According to some local election officials, counties forward voter registrations to the state, which is supposed to have statewide databases to cross-reference for eligibility.
The cop arresting him seemed sympathetic as he offered legal advice to the man.
“There’s your defense, you know what I’m saying? That sounds like a loophole to me,” said one of the officers.
“The confusion there seems to be that they were told they could vote. So, the question is who messed up?” said Welch.
The accused face charges of up to five years in jail and/or 5000 dollars in fines. According to Florida laws, Voter fraud can only be prosecuted if the accused willingly committed it.
“It says that they were approached or told that their right to vote was restored. In that case, they wouldn’t have the intent to commit voter fraud. So, I don’t know how far these cases will go,” said Tori Walters, a history and criminology major at UT.
“If genuinely, the registration form said nothing about the qualifications of a voter, every one of their cases should be dropped,” said Gabby Silletti, political science major.
One of these voter fraud cases was dismissed on Oct. 21 in Miami-Dade County after a judge ruled in favor of the defense’s claim that the statewide prosecutors had no jurisdiction.
According to Florida laws, the alleged crimes must have occurred in at least two judicial circuits in order for the statewide prosecutors to have jurisdiction. The defense argued that the alleged crime only occurred in Miami-Dade, and therefore, the statewide prosecutors don’t have jurisdiction.
According to Welch, it will be interesting to see what other judges rule for their election fraud cases because it calls into question the purpose of Florida’s Office of Election Crimes and Security.
“They rely on state prosecution. So, if judges are saying that the State doesn’t have jurisdiction in these cases, it will be interesting to see what they can actually do,” said Welch.