Police body camera footage has emerged of members of Florida law enforcement arresting bewildered individuals accused of voting illegally this August. The footage, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, shows the results a new effort by stunt-loving Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to crack down on supposed fraud. The voters caught in the “gotcha” arrests are former felons, most of them Black, who contend they were told by election officials they were eligible to vote.
“Voter fraud? Y’all said anybody with a felony could vote, man,” Tony Patterson said as police arrested him. Patterson was referring to a 2018 state constitution amendment passed by Florida voters that restored the voting rights of individuals convicted of a felony (excluding murderers and sex offenders) once the terms of their sentence had been completed. In what was described by opponents as a “pay-to-vote” scheme, DeSantis signed a law in 2019 that prevented this restoration from taking place until the individual had paid off all court ordered fines. The bill overcame legal challenges, but its caveats and implementation caused confusion amongst those looking to take advantage of their newly restored rights.
The arrests are the product of the recently created Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security, heavily promoted by DeSantis as an outfit to investigate and prosecute instances of election fraud in the wake of the 2020 election. According to the Times and the Miami Herald, of the 19 individuals arrested in August, 12 were registered as Democrats and at least 13 are Black.
Those accused by DeSantis of committing fraud now face up to five years in prison if convicted. As explained by the Times, Florida’s voter registration system only requires an interested voter to attest that they are not a felon, or that they’ve had their rights restored, without offering much clarity as to what scenarios would exclude one from voting. In the case of Romona Oliver, who was arrested while leaving her house for work, Oliver was granted voter ID cards twice by the Florida Department of State, the entity responsible for verifying the eligibility of voters.
“I’ve never seen these charges before in my entire life,” one officer said to Tony Patterson, the man who said he thought anyone with a felony could vote. In another arrest, officers listened as Nathan Hart explained that he’d been encouraged to register by canvassers, and that he was told the registration would not go through if he was ineligible.
Florida election law requires that the intent to commit fraud be established in cases accusing voters of committing fraud, providing a viable avenue for those charged to defend themselves. However, the nature of the arrests indicate that DeSantis’ task force is more focused on individual intimidation rather than tamping down voter fraud or investigating systemic electoral misconduct.
In May, elderly residents of a Miami public housing building reported that they had been duped by GOP canvassers into changing their voter registration from Democrat to Republican. Following the 2020 election, members of the heavily Republican retirement community The Villages pleaded guilty to having attempted to vote twice in favor of former President Donald Trump.
With the midterm elections approaching, some prominent Republican candidates have already hinted at their intent to challenge any result other than a win for themselves, and some are bound to fall back on unfounded allegations of voter fraud to make their claims. Under DeSantis’ model of election security, systemic malfeasance is far less likely to be punished than a voter registration error.