At the Leon County Courthouse, 2020 voters could vote early in person or by dropping their ballots in a drop box. Credit: Diane Rado
Update: The governor’s office issued a terse press release at 5:37 p.m. announcing that he had signed the bill.
Say you’re a governor who announced during a splashy press conference that your new and much vaunted elections-crimes unit had rounded up some 20 former felons for improperly voting, only to see the cases fall apart in court. What do you do?
Well, one option would be to consolidate prosecution authority in one, statewide entity, one controlled by your close political ally, rather than leave charging decisions to local elected state’s attorneys and otherwise make these cases easier to prosecute.
That’s the option Gov. Ron DeSantis chose, and his Republican allies in the Florida Legislature have gone along, approving legislation during last week’s special session vesting these cases within the Office of Statewide Prosecution, itself lodged within the Florida Department of Legal Affairs, overseen by Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody.
The bill (SB 4B) cleared the House and Senate on party-line votes and is already on DeSantis’ desk, awaiting his signature.
To Democrats, it was another instance of Republicans stoking fears of largely nonexistent voter fraud to rile fellow partisans while intimidating Democratic constituencies — and, indeed, the arrests were concentrated in Democratic-leaning counties, as the Phoenix reported in August.
“The message this body is sending is that if you’re a returning citizen you better watch out. Even after they serve their time, even after they paid their fees and fines, we’re telling y’all that we still don’t want you to vote. Which by the way, some of those folks arrested voted for Trump, so this is not a partisan issue,” said Democrat Anna Eskamani of Orange County during floor debate.
Cases in trouble
The measure allows Statewide Prosecutor Nicholas Cox to charge elections-related crimes related to any statewide or federal election, referendum, petition drive, voter registration, or conspiracy to commit any related crimes.
The arrests DeSantis hailed last summer targeted former felons who cast ballots in Florida elections, including the 2020 balloting. Amendment 4, approved in 2018 by a supermajority of the voters, was intended to reenfranchise felons unless they’d been convicted of murder or a sexual offense.
The Legislature later voted to require that eligible former felons first pay all fines, fees, and victim restitution, but the state lacks a central records repository where they can confirm eligibility. And of the recent arrestees, many had been sent voter registration forms by elections officials and believed that made them eligible.
These cases ran into trouble fast, either at the hands of local prosecutors or judges. The Phoenix asked Moody’s press office for the status of these cases and hadn’t heard back as of Wednesday, but reportedly three cases were thrown out while a fourth accused person entered a guilty plea.
As recently as Monday, a judge rejected charges on the ground the statewide prosecutor lacked jurisdiction because the alleged crime hadn’t transpired across two or more of the state’s 20 judicial circuits, as required under Florida law.
The new legislation gets around that by presuming multiple-jurisdiction involvement if someone in another part of the state files voting forms through the state capital in Tallahassee.
“The expansion of jurisdiction of statewide prosecutor is being used as yet another tool to disenfranchise Black voters,” said Democratic House member Yvonne Hinson.
“This administration’s targeted arrests and prosecution of returning citizens has been met with a roadblock. And, in the same way that the Legislature has changed voting laws year after year when the results don’t match their expectations, so, too, is the Legislature changing the rules of the game when they find themselves in a losing position,” Hinson said.
Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, a Republican from Miami-Dade County, defending the measure, declared: “This is a matter of checks and balances and additional supervision when it comes to who can prosecute these crimes — and to ensure that crimes are in fact prosecuted in case there is a state attorney who decides not to prosecute. There have been many instances where prosecutors have not prosecuted crimes, crimes where they did have evidence to go forward and they just didn’t do it.”
Perhaps he was referring to Andrew Warren, suspended by DeSantis as state’s attorney for Hillsborough County for allegedly abusing his prosecutorial discretion, a suggestion rejected by a federal trial judge.
Florida Rising, which advocates for voting rights, issued a written statement denouncing the measure.
“This is a scare tactic by Gov. DeSantis and Republicans to prohibit the progress that was made in 2018 with the passing of Amendment 4. The state of Florida failed the some 20 returning citizens who were targeted and arrested in August 2022 for voter fraud, after being told they were eligible to vote and were encouraged to do so by receiving a voter registration card,” said Patricia Fleurinord, the group’s criminal justice organizer.
“Instead of criminalizing individuals for an honest mistake, state officials should make the process easier and less complex for Floridians. This has been a running theme for Gov. DeSantis since taking office. His agenda of wanting to silence Black and Brown communities, Black and Brown education, and Black and Brown participation in democracy is no longer surprising, but it will be stopped,” she continued.
To Tiffani Lennon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, the entire special session — which included legislation firming up DeSantis’ power to transport asylum seekers who might be thinking about coming to Florida — “was nothing but a flagrant display of an abuse of power.”
“There was zero public support for these bills and no pressing need to have them steamrolled through the legislative process. Additionally, there was significant opposition to the bills that demanded more than a week’s worth of time and debate,” Lennon said.
“Numerous civil rights organizations made clear that Senate Bill 4B will only further complicate Florida’s already unnavigable voting rights restoration process. It seeks to circumvent the consistent rulings from state courts that have denied the Office of Statewide Prosecution, which seems to operate under Gov. DeSantis’ whims.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.