Polling places in Leon County ahead of the 2020 primaries. Credit: Issac Morgan
Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried wants to know why the DeSantis administration is prosecuting a group of former felons for voter fraud while ignoring the state Division of Elections’ failure to flag them as ineligible.
In a letter delivered Tuesday to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Democrat Fried concedes that the 20 arrestees, trumpeted by governor during a news conference last month, had violated the law, if inadvertently. As people convicted of murder and sex crimes, they were ineligible to vote under Amendment 4, the 2018 constitutional amendment restoring voting rights for other offenders under certain circumstances.
But she also notes that it is the responsibility of the Division of Elections to screen prospective voters for criminal records, because the county supervisors of election lack access to the necessary state databases.
And, because the Legislature added a requirement that reentering citizens pay all fines, fees, and restitution before they can vote, and the state lacks a master list of those “legal financial obligations,” there’s been considerable confusion about who is eligible to cast ballots.
“Unfortunately, much confusion still persists, especially given many formerly incarcerated individuals have limited financial resources or education surrounding election law,” Fried wrote.
“It has been reported that many of the 20 individuals arrested were misled to believe they were eligible to vote having served their sentences, submitted a voter registration application, and were registered to vote by the state. There appears to have been no intent on the part of these individuals to break the law — or even an awareness that by voting, they were doing so as they acted on information from government officials that they trusted to be accurate.”
DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin declined to comment. A spokesmen for the Florida Department of State, which houses the Division of Election, said comment would be forthcoming.
Fried, the only Democrat holding statewide elected office, will leave the Florida Cabinet following this year’s election, having lost her party’s gubernatorial primary to U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.
During his news conference, DeSantis argued that the arrests vindicate his new Office of Election Crimes and Security. Fried, however, wrote that the entire episode “appears to have been nothing more than a publicity stunt.”
“While under current law, these individuals were not eligible to vote, the persecution of this predominantly Black group of Floridians who broke the law without intent is not only disproportionate punishment but cruel,” she wrote.
“That cruelty is even more so as it becomes evident that what should have been investigated was how and why the state provided ineligible voters with registrations and that their traumatic arrests appear to have been done for pure publicity purposes, stoking fear and discouraging others who are eligible from exercising their rights to vote in the future,” she added.
“Left unanswered and unaddressed, the Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security’s highly questionable actions create the perception of a state government willing to employ strict enforcement towards vulnerable citizens, while avoiding scrutiny of its own practices — bringing into question how election integrity is being preserved,” Fried wrote.
“Only by uncovering the state’s failures in this situation and why it merited such a draconian response against these 20 individuals causing them untold hardships, including why it was deemed necessary and by whom, can election integrity be claimed.”
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