Most Floridians have heard of the high-profile arrests of former felons by Governor Ron DeSantis’ election police. And they may have felt little sympathy for those arrested on electoral fraud charges, based on the fact that they had previously been convicted of some of the worst crimes society can imagine: murder and sex crimes that sometimes involved children.
But a closer look reveals much to be concerned about, starting with the fact that DeSantis’ office has yet to provide an explanation as to why they’ve singled out just 20 out of hundreds of cases of voters flagged for potential ineligibility — and why others , whose cases were largely identical to the 20 indicted, were not prosecuted.
Because each of the men charged appears to have paid their debt to society. They thought they had gained a measure of redemption. When they registered to vote, they received confirmation in the form of a voter ID card with their polling place and a list of their congressional, legislative, and local districts so that they could research candidates and make decisions. This was clearly costly to them, which is remarkable in a society where many Floridians don’t even bother to register.
So they voted. And this is where those 20 stories diverge, opening a rift that strains the concept of justice to its breaking point.
As far as the Sentinel and other media outlets have been able to discern, the difference in treatment seems to depend on where those 20 former felons lived: Those who were arrested lived in mostly Democratic counties, including Orange and Broward. And the arrests received high-profile publicity clearly designed to deter other former felons from future attempts to have their votes counted.
Others, in red-leaning counties, were spared after quiet correspondence between local election officials and prosecutors.
“Individuals across the state should be treated in a similar way, and so this just highlights the inequality in the system,” said State Representative Michael Gottlieb, a Fort Lauderdale attorney representing an ex-felon arrested in August. Christopher Cann of the Orlando Sentinel last month. “There’s something wrong with that, especially when we’re using a state police force for political prosecutions.”
No matter how you feel about voting former felons, it’s hard not to agree with that conclusion. Still, it’s the inescapable impression that DeSantis’ Office of Election Crimes and Security has left, even as Gottlieb and other attorneys who came forward to defend the 20 arrested voters have been drawing attention to the discrepancies for months.
It’s that casual acceptance of inequality that we have a hard time digesting — and that we’ve been waiting fruitlessly for DeSantis or someone at the Electoral Crimes Bureau to explain. Instead, we’ve seen a pat on the back between the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the State Division of Elections, and DeSantis’s separate election crimes unit.
Cann obtained correspondence between local election officials and Fifth Judicial Circuit prosecutor Bill Gladson — whose coverage area includes Lake, Sumter, Marion, Citrus, and Hernando counties, all of which are outspoken conservatives — that reflect the kind of thinking behind the statewide arrests. should have influenced.
In each of the cases his office reviewed, Gladson concluded that the ex-felons were actually ineligible to vote. Due to the seriousness of their crimes, they fell outside the parameters of an amendment to restore their rights approved by voters in 2018 and had not petitioned the cabinet to have their rights restored (which remains an option for any offender, regardless of the gravity of their crimes). crimes).
But when they registered to vote in their counties, it was allowed — because the state had not formally notified the local election regulator that they were still ineligible. “The individuals were mistakenly given voter registration cards” and believed they were eligible to vote, Gladson wrote. It’s a fair reading of the law: If the overburdened State Department was unable to flag ineligible voters, local regulators had no way of knowing which applications should have been rejected.
No similar pardon was granted to the hapless 20. Instead, their quest to regain validity in society resulted in relentless shock. After spending years behind bars and then fighting to restore their lives upon release, they were again handcuffed and taken to prison with new charges pending. For some, it would mean the loss of everything they had struggled to rebuild: their jobs, their homes, their chance to repay loved ones who had suffered with them.
Orlando resident Peter Washington Jr., who was convicted of sexual charges in the 1990s, is one of them. In May, he told Cann about the impact the new charges had on his life: In 2021, a year after he first voted at the Hiawassee Road Public Library, he was arrested. Within a week he had lost his job and his plans for his future – to own his own business, to become a pastor, to contribute to the life he built with his wife – lay in ashes.
“My family doesn’t deserve this, my wife doesn’t deserve this,” he said. “Sometimes it brings tears…because I said (to my wife) I would never do anything intentionally to hurt you.”
Many of those cases are now falling apart. Some have been fired, including those against Washington. But the damage, and the obvious chilling effect it’s had on other ex-felons, lingers.
Meanwhile, the DeSantis election security police have gone quiet. Will Florida see another round of high-profile arrests in the months leading up to the 2024 election — just enough to drive other voters away from the polls?
Floridians shouldn’t wait to find out. Instead, they should reach out to their legislators and demand that they pull funding and authority away from DeSantis’ private electoral crimes unit, and use it to support statewide efforts to identify ineligible voters, a step that will help local election officials process applications without fear of more mistakes.
It’s not about protecting sex offenders and murderers, as DeSantis’ office probably wants the Floridians to believe. It is about honoring the will of voters who expressed their support for the restoration of voting rights in 2018, including the clear limits they placed on those rights. It’s about telling the governor that it’s not okay to publicly humiliate and torture a select group of people as a form of political theater while blinding others.
It’s the striking contrast between DeSantis’s repeated insistence that anyone caught voting illegally in Florida should be punished — while refusing to explain why some wrong voters should go unpunished.
It’s about equal justice – and that’s something that everyone in Florida, starting with the governor, should consider a high priority.