Days before Florida’s primary this year, a new task force, dubbed the “election police,” arranged the arrest of 20 people, putting them in handcuffs and loading them into police cruisers.
Their crime? Voting.
In 2018, Florida residents voted overwhelmingly to end the state’s draconian lifetime ban on voting for people who have been convicted of felonies, a policy that has disenfranchised more than 1 million people.
Gov. Ron Desantis called the voters’ approval of the amendment a “mistake.” He promptly signed a bill, backed by the Republican-controlled state legislature, requiring ex-felons to first have any court fees, fines or restitution paid before their right to vote is restored. And legislators failed to set up a system for the formerly incarcerated to verify that all such obligations have been met.
But extensive reporting since the arrests indicate that those arrested had registered to vote after the 2018 referendum was passed and as formerly incarcerated people were encouraged to do so, including by state election officials. A judge’s order blocking the legislature’s action and calling it a discriminatory type of poll tax was in effect for several months before a federal appeals court stepped in and allowed it to take effect.
The election police force is the brainchild of DeSantis, who is jockeying for the 2024 Republican nomination for president.
It consists of 15 non-sworn investigators, who operate under the Florida Department of State and have an estimated budget of $3.7 million. The Office of Election Crimes and Security oversees a voter fraud hotline, where it receives tips for review or further investigation on allegations of election law violations or election irregularities as it works with local law enforcement to make arrests.
Before the division was established as part of other changes in Florida election law, voter fraud was a misdemeanor. Now the charge is a third-degree felony punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and up to 5 years in prison.
DeSantis has promised that more arrests will come and that the next people the Office of Election Crimes and Security will pursue are “illegal aliens” improperly voting and people who illegally cast multiple ballots in the state. There is no evidence that either is happening in Florida or anywhere in the U.S. to an extent that could have an impact on any election.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Voting rights advocates see DeSantis’ moves as a brazen attempt to suppress voting in order for the Republican Party to hold onto power.
Even if a formerly incarcerated person could prove eligibility under the standard set by the legislature, why would they risk voting if people in a similar situation were arrested even after they were told they could vote?
In 2020, nearly 8% of Florida’s voting age population was barred from voting because of the state’s felony disenfranchisement policies. The rate for Black residents was double that.
DeSantis vetoed the Republican-controlled legislature’s redistricting of U.S. congressional maps this year, replacing it with his own plan that went further in tilting the advantage to Republicans.
While statewide elections in Florida only narrowly favor Republicans – Trump won the 2020 election in the state with 51% of the vote, and DeSantis won in 2018 with just under 50% – gerrymandered congressional districts have given the party a 16 to 11 advantage in congressional seats.
DeSantis’ redistricting map goes much farther, giving Republicans the advantage in 20 out of what are now 28 congressional districts due to population growth.
It was protested by civil rights advocates as an extreme racial gerrymander because of the lengths it went to eliminate districts in which Black voters had significant influence.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave this new map an F.
The new map’s elimination of a plurality Black voting district in northern Florida held by Congressman Al Lawson is likely unconstitutional, Circuit Judge J. Layne Smith said in initially blocking the plan. The map splits it off into three other districts.
DeSantis’ map also reduced the percentage of non-white voters in Florida’s 10th Congressional District, which is represented by Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat.
Several organizations including Black Voters Matter and League of Women Voters of Florida have sued, arguing the map violates the Fair Districts Amendment in the state’s constitution. But the state Supreme Court overruled Smith’s order and upheld DeSantis’ map.
Changes to vote by mail
Any registered Florida voter can cast an absentee ballot by mail without an excuse, or in person during the state’s early voting period.
A new law touted by DeSantis places new limits on that process, however.
It targets organizations that have assisted elderly and disabled voters and organized get out the vote campaigns in Black communities by making it a crime for an individual to deliver or possess more than two ballots on behalf of someone else in addition to their own.
Florida introduced secure drop boxes to provide more flexibility to voters who didn’t want to rely on the U.S. Postal Service or had trouble getting to their local election office at the right time to drop off absentee ballots. DeSantis renamed them “secure intake ballot intake stations” amid national pushback within the Republican Party about their use in the 2020 election.
New legislation supported by DeSantis and Republicans in the state legislature restricts them to early voting locations and requires that they be supervised, eliminating the 24-7 aspect that made them useful and popular in the first place.
Lastly, voters are no longer allowed to request vote-by-mail ballots for two general elections in advance. They now have to apply or request a vote-by-mail ballot for every general election cycle.
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