Ron DeSantis arrests convicted felons in Florida for voter fraud, he explained

In August, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that the state of Florida is arresting 20 people who knowingly registered and voted illegally in the 2020 election. He said the arrests were “just the first step” in his attempt to crack down on alleged widespread voter fraud in the state, despite the fact that there is no evidence that voter fraud is a major problem in the state.

Those caught that day weren’t conspirators in some vast voter-rigging scheme: Most of the people arrested had previously been convicted of murder or sex crimes in Florida, which automatically makes them ineligible to vote there even if they’ve completed their sentences, terms and other related charges with the court.

Last week, the Tampa Bay Times published body camera footage recorded by local police as they made several arrests. It caused an uproar. The videos showed arrestees reacting with genuine shock and confusion at the allegations. Even the police themselves seem confused and even sympathetic at times.

The big question that the video itself and the negative reaction to it poses is: If these people weren’t allowed to vote in the first place, why were they held accountable when the state didn’t do accurate background checks?

“Why did you let me vote when I couldn’t vote?” asked Tony Patterson, one of the people who was arrested on the video.

According to Lawrence Mower, a Tallahassee reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald who first obtained footage of the arrest, that’s because Florida’s voting rights laws are extremely confusing and have been in effect since 2018. Mower spoke with Vox’s Sean Rameswaram earlier this week for an episode Today, Explained — Vox Daily News Podcast – about the arrests and DeSantis’ motivation for starting the program that led to them.

Below is an excerpt from the interview, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so download it Today, Explained anywhere you get podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Sean Rameswaram

What was the thought process behind releasing the video of these arrests?

Lawrence Mower

We put it out there saying this is different. You know, witnessing these people being arrested for voting is something you don’t see every day. You’re looking at someone like Romona Oliver, a 55-year-old woman who spent 18 years in prison for second-degree murder. He has a job. She has remarried since leaving prison. She is arrested on her way to work. She looks like a grandma.

In another case of Tony Patterson, a man who is a registered sex offender. He stopped outside his house and the police told him you have a warrant for your arrest. And he says, “What for?” You can see from the video that it is hard to believe. There’s another telling video, a guy named Nathan Har. Although he was not allowed to vote, he was given a voter’s card. The state did an initial check and cleared him to vote in 2020. The agency that arrested him even told him that his story sounded like a loophole.

Sean Rameswaram

You also write that the police sympathize with the arrested people.

Lawrence Mower

Yeah, that’s pretty extraordinary. It’s not every day that you hear a police officer lending advice on sex offender defense while arresting that person. So the local police seem perhaps skeptical or almost sympathetic to the plight of these people here. It’s not the type of typical perception you get here when you hear “murderers and sex offenders.”

[Editor’s note: You can hear clips of the reactions being described in the Today, Explained episode or watch the videos here on the Tampa Bay Times’s website.]

Sean Rameswaram

What is causing the shock on the reactions in the videos?

Lawrence Mower

The reactions of these people call into question the laws they are accused of breaking. They are accused of willfully breaking the law, willfully voting when they were ineligible. And I mean, just watch the video. Does it appear that these people knew they were breaking the law at the time? I think there’s probably a real question for a lot of people, maybe even for the jury, whether these people, you know, appear to have intentionally broken the law.

Sean Rameswaram

To understand what’s going on in these videos, you need to understand Florida’s Amendment 4. Can you remind us what that amendment did?

Lawrence Mower

This allowed anyone convicted of a crime to vote. If you have no sex offense on your record, if you have no murder on your record, and if you have completed all terms of your sentence. You know, Amendment 4 when it passed [via ballot initiative in 2018], was considered the greatest expansion of democracy in the United States since the civil rights movement. We’re talking about as many as 1.4 million people in Florida who are likely to get their voting rights back.

Sean Rameswaram

Governor DeSantis takes office in 2019. What is his relationship to Amendment 4?

Lawrence Mower

He was against the amendment, as were most of the top Republicans here. And DeSantis encouraged lawmakers to take a very tough line on fines and fees. He’s the one who actually pushed lawmakers to require people with felony convictions to pay all fines, fees and victim restitution before being allowed to vote.

So DeSantis is setting up a new office to investigate voter fraud, right?

Lawrence Mower

The Election Crimes and Security Office was something DeSantis requested from the Legislature in 2021. It is the first office of its kind, and those were some of the concerns some in the Legislature had when the office was created. They thought – how will this office be used? Because it puts quite a lot of power in the hands of the politician.

Sean Rameswaram

Okay, and I imagine this office is how we get to these arrests?

Lawrence Mower

In August, DeSantis held a press conference to announce the Office of Election Crimes and Security’s first steps. It announces the arrest of 20 people. This is not a debate. They were not allowed to vote, but were still issued voter ID cards cleared by the Secretary of State and were not prevented from going to the polls and casting their ballots in 2020. Yet DeSantis announces these arrests and touts that they were the first actions of this new office. You know these people will pay the price.

Sean Rameswaram

So it’s clear that if you buy that there was massive voter fraud in the 2020 election, the arrest of 20 people who appear to be confused about whether or not they were eligible to vote isn’t really the goal of some larger conspiracy. commit election fraud, right?

Lawrence Mower

No it is not. You see, DeSantis has been under pressure from conservatives in Florida since 2020 to audit the 2020 Florida election, which President Trump won in Florida by a landslide. It was a blow by Florida standards. So it’s no secret to the political class that this was a response to pressure from the right to do something about voter fraud. And these 20 arrests do not point to any kind of joint fraud.

Sean Rameswaram

Okay, so what do these arrests actually point to?

Lawrence Mower

It points to mistakes in DeSantis’ own office. You know, the basic question here is why were these people allowed to register to vote in the first place? Why can’t the Secretary of State — again, this is DeSantis’s own office — why can’t he still tell you when you register to vote whether or not you are eligible to vote?

Sean Rameswaram

What is DeSantis, then, to indulge the people who really want to see him police elections in this way — when you admit he doesn’t really seem to care that much?

Lawrence Mower

It’s no secret to anyone in Florida, much less nationally, that DeSantis wants to run for president. And of course he is running for re-election this year. And so it’s an issue where he can be seen as vulnerable and it’s something that he has control over. So he can create an election security force and make arrests that make headlines so it looks like he’s doing something.

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