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Voter fraud arrests under fire, breaking down the amendments on Florida's midterm ballots

 Tampa Bay police carrying out the arrest of a Tony Patterson, one of 20 people arrested for alleged voter fraud during the 2020 election.
Screenshot of Tampa Bay Times video
Tampa Bay police carrying out the arrest of a Tony Patterson, one of 20 people arrested for alleged voter fraud during the 2020 election.

Ex-felons are now "afraid to vote" on the back of a series of contentious arrests trumpeted by Governor Ron DeSantis, according to a South Florida social justice reporter.

In August, law enforcement officers across Florida rounded up 20 people on charges of voter fraud after they cast ballots in the 2020 election. DeSantis said they had been convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense and therefore were not eligible to vote under Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to some felons. 

This week, impactful footage of the arrests obtained by the Tampa Bay Times showed cops as perplexed as those being taken into custody. It brought back to the forefront Florida's troubled implementation of the 2018 constitutional amendment.

Speaking on the South Florida Roundup, Wayne Washington, who covers West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach and issues of race for The Palm Beach Post, said he has been told many of the felons had no idea they couldn't vote.

"The state arrested these folks in large part because they voted thinking that Amendment 4 had restored their right to vote," he said.

Washington says that because they had registered to vote and were given voter ID cards, attorneys think these cases will become problematic.

"If we can't tell people who should be eligible to vote and who should not be eligible to vote, I would imagine that those cases are going to be difficult to bring home and get convictions on," said Washington.

Even as one of the cases was thrown out by a judge on Friday, Gov. DeSantis has stood firm on the arrests, which were driven by his controversial Election Crimes and Security office.

But Howard Simon, the former director of the Florida ACLU, told the South Florida Roundup that creating the office — and the voter fraud arrests — are part of a political stunt by the governor.

"It has nothing to do with effectiveness. It has nothing to do with election integrity. It has everything to do with politics and sending a message," said Simon, who is currently a board member of the Florida Policy Institute.

Washington says some elected Democrats think the election crimes office will focus disproportionately on Black voters and that it could’ve affect the political landscape.

"They believe it's a tool that will intimidate voters — frighten voters — and will reduce turnout in ways that will help Republicans," he said.

He added: "We know that Black voters do, in fact, overwhelmingly support Democrats. And so if you take an action, if you establish a policy that shrinks down Black voting power, you absolutely will conversely increase Republican voting power. You will help Republicans. And so while we don't know that that's the intent, we know that's the impact."

In order to vote, felons must also pay their legal and financial obligations. Simon, of the FPI, calls this a 'pay-to-vote' system. The minimum that the state can do, he says, is create a voter verification system.

“But it would be really a better correction to this injustice to separate the obligations of pay from the right to be a full citizen once you have served your time," he added.

In 2020, federal judge Robert Hinkle ruled that the lack of clarity as to who is eligible to vote in the state would create a chilling effect for people with felonies who want to participate in elections.

Washington said he has been told these arrests are already playing on the minds of former felons interested in participating in elections.

"They think that they're eligible to vote, but they're afraid to vote," he said. "They see the governor on the news holding a press conference, talking about arresting people after they voted.

"And so these are folks who've served time in prison, they're unwilling to risk going back to jail or going back to prison to vote in an election… And so any small number of people deciding not to vote could have a very large impact," he said.

On the South Florida Roundup, we also spoke to the Sun-Sentinel's opinion editor Steve Bousquet and the Palm Beach Post's opinion editor Anthony Doris about the three congressional amendments that Floridians have on their ballot. Both newspapers independently advise their readers to vote no on the amendments.

Listen to the full episode above. Read WLRN's election coverage here.

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Helen Acevedo