Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a May 17, 2022 press conference in Miami. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

ACLU Accuses DeSantis of 'Grotesque Abuse of Power' for Voter Arrests

Newly released body camera footage, says the rights group, "reveals the real, human impact of these anti-voter schemes and the confusion it has created."

The ACLU of Florida on Wednesday condemned Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis following the publication of police body camera videos showing sympathetic officers arresting confused people--most of them Black--who believed they were eligible to vote for alleged "voter fraud."

"When people register and/or vote without realizing they're ineligible, the proper course should be to cancel their registration, not prosecute them."

"The body camera footage reveals the real, human impact of these anti-voter schemes and the confusion it has created. It is devastating for our communities," the civil liberties group said in a statement.

Of the 19 people arrested by DeSantis' Office of Election Crimes and Security, 13 were Black and 12 were registered Democrats. Most had applied to register to vote under Amendment 4, a voter-approved 2018 ballot measure meant to restore voting rights for 1.4 million former felons. The stakes transcended Florida and criminal justice reform--a botched state voter purge of purported former felons played what one federal civil rights commissioner called an "outcome determinative" role in the 2000 U.S. presidential election.

Most of the applicants who were arrested were approved by the Florida Department of Elections, which sent their voter registration cards ahead of the 2020 elections. All were charged with third-degree felony voter fraud, a crime punishable by as many as five years behind bars and up to a $5,000 fine.

"The arrests are a grotesque abuse of power by Gov. DeSantis," ACLU of Florida continued. "Although the governor and Legislature claimed that they passed S.B. 7066 in 2019 to 'clarify' Voting Restoration Amendment 4, in reality, the law created an unworkable pay-to-vote system that is intentionally difficult and complex to navigate."

In what some critics called a backlash against Amendment 4, Republican state lawmakers in 2019 passed S.B. 7600, which created wealth-based hurdles to former felons wishing to restore their voting rights by requiring them to pay all outstanding fines, fees, and restitution before being cleared to vote.

A federal judge in 2020 ruled that S.B. 7600 violates the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, the 24th Amendment's poll tax proscription, and the National Voter Registration Act.

The encouragement and assistance aspiring voters--including prisoners--received from Florida officials in restoring their rights exacerbated the confusion experienced by many of those shown being arrested in the videos, as well as the officers who apprehended them.

"The state of Florida has failed its citizens," ACLU of Florida asserted. "People returning to our communities are forced to navigate a maze of bureaucracy in order to determine whether they are eligible to vote."

"Compounding the failure is the fact that Florida has no central database of convictions and outstanding legal financial obligations to help returning citizens navigate the confusing rules the state created to undermine the promise of Amendment 4," the organization added.

The group continued:

After the state of Florida made it virtually impossible for returning citizens to determine whether they are eligible to register to vote, earlier this year Gov. DeSantis pushed the Legislature to create an elections police force. The timing of these arrests and the respective announcement in August, less than a week from the primary, made clear then that the purpose of this office is to investigate and intimidate Florida voters. Florida is not just punishing its citizens for their poverty, but criminally charging individuals who have attempted to wade through the morass to determine what they owe to vote under S.B. 7066. In doing so, the state presented an impossible choice to returning citizens: stay disenfranchised, or risk criminal prosecution. And we know that those who will be most impacted by these arrests are low-income Floridians and Black and Brown communities.

"When people register and/or vote without realizing they're ineligible, the proper course should be to cancel their registration, not prosecute them," argued ACLU of Florida. "It is the state's responsibility to determine the eligibility of Floridians registering to vote, and the state should devote resources to determining a voter's eligibility, not to upend lives in order to prosecute mistakes."

"Florida politicians must honor the will of Florida voters," the group added, "and create a streamlined process for full restoration of voting eligibility for those with past felony convictions who have completed their sentences."

DeSantis announced the imminent arrests of the people in the videos at an August press conference during which he declared: "This is just the first step. There are many more in the pipeline. We are not just going to turn a blind eye to this. The days of that happening in Florida are over."

Critics noted that there was no such fanfare accompanying a string of genuine fraud cases involving Republicans living in The Villages, a retirement community in Sumter County, some of whom voted twice.

"If Florida is looking for people committing voter fraud," tweeted Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, "it should start in The Villages."

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