By Tim Craig and Lori Rozsa, The Washington Post, September 4, 2022.
BELLE GLADE, Fla. — When Leo Grant Jr. cast his ballot in the 2020 election, it was the first time the 53-year-old had ever voted — an act that made him feel like he was setting a good example for his three sons and fulfilling his role as a citizen.
But in August, three Florida officers showed up at his home near Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County as he was about to go bass fishing with a friend. They had handguns tucked into holsters strapped to their jeans and carried shackles.
Grant had committed a grave offense, they said: election fraud. He’d voted despite a sexual offense conviction two decades earlier in 1999. They placed handcuffs around his wrists and drove him to jail.
“I’ve been a good father and I follow the law,” he thought. “I do good for the community. And here they come to my house and pick me up for voting?”
Grant, a high-ranking officer in his local Freemasonry chapter, is one of 20 individuals — most of whom are Black — charged by an elections police force created by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to pursue allegations of election fraud and improper voting. Those arrested are all accused of voting in violation of a state law that forbids those convicted or murder or felony sexual offenses from casting ballots.
Yet, in the days that followed DeSantis’s campaign-style event to announce those arrests, cracks have begun to emerge in the state’s case amid intensifying questions about whether the governor and his election police unit have weaponized their new powers for political gain.
Several of those charged told The Washington Post that they were led to believe by election officials and voter registration groups that they were eligible to vote as part of Florida’s widely publicized push to restore the voting rights of most felons. They expressed despair that they could face prison time for simply misunderstanding the law.
Attorneys representing some of those being prosecuted said the state appears to have targeted individuals who made honest mistakes amid a shifting and confusing legal landscape. They are skeptical the cases will hold up in court, noting prosecutors will need to prove those arrested knew they were ineligible.
What’s more, those arrested had submitted voter registration applications that were processed by the state — a move that for many amounted to a green light that they were eligible. In Florida, the state Division of Elections is responsible for identifying who isn’t qualified to vote and would have been required to flag their applications. Attention has now turned to the state’s role is signing off on their registrations. Three were cleared in Broward County, where the local election chief at the time was Pete Antonacci — now director of the Office of Election Crimes and Security, who did not respond to a request for comment.
“If the state is unable to determine that these people were not eligible to vote, how on earth are these individuals themselves supposed to know?” asked Daniel C. Smith, a University of Florida political science professor and expert on state and national election laws. “It’s really unconscionable. … They’re punching down and targeting the low-hanging fruit.”
DeSantis has touted the prosecutions as necessary to protect the security of Florida’s elections. But there is no evidence that fraud marred the 2020 vote. The aggressive action by the new election crimes unit has drawn sharp criticism from voting rights advocates, who say DeSantis is using his power as governor to launch politically motivated prosecutions as he ramps up for a possible presidential run in 2024.
A DeSantis spokesman responded to a request for comment on the state’s role in approving voter applications and criticism of the election police unit’s tactics by referring to the governor’s previous remarks, in which he has indicated local election offices and individual voters bear responsibility.
“They did not get their rights restored, and yet they went ahead and voted anyways,” DeSantis said in announcing the arrests on Aug. 18, flanked by more than a dozen Broward County Sheriff’s deputies. “And now they’re going to pay the price for it.”
But even some Florida Republicans are anxious that the state has gone too far in its attempt to promote the GOP’s embrace of “election integrity” in the wake of former president Donald Trump’s false claim that the 2020 vote was stolen.
More than 11 million people voted in the Sunshine State in the last presidential election, and DeSantis has acknowledged there is no indication that fraud at any significant scale took place.
“They have jobs. They have businesses. They have families,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes (R). “And now all the sudden they’re being put under arrest for something they thought was doing their civic duty.”
Radio ads, a push to vote
In the Florida legislature, Brandes authored the bill that implemented Florida’s Amendment 4 after nearly 65 percent of state voters supported a 2018 referendum calling for the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders who had felony convictions — unless they had been charged with murder or felony sexual offenses.
The landmark amendment went into effect on Jan. 8, 2019, clearing the way for an estimated 1.4 million offenders to register to vote. The state’s ban on felons voting — which had disenfranchised an estimated 1 in 5 Black Floridians — had been imposed after the Civil War to bolster the political power of White residents.
In the months that followed, voting rights organizations poured resources into Florida to spread the word about the new law. They put up billboards, aired radio ads, and hired canvassers to stand outside shopping centers, churches and restaurants urging ex-offenders to register. But the legal landscape was confusing: A year after the amendment’s passage, GOP legislators passed a law requiring the would-be voters to pay any fines related to their offense before being allowed to register.
Nathan Hart, who lives near Tampa and works as a street sweeper on the overnight shift, said he registered to vote at a local Department of Motor Vehicles office in March 2020. Hart, 49, said a man was standing in the office’s lobby urging people to register to vote. The father of two wanted to cast a ballot but noted he had a felony conviction. In 2002, he’d been charged with molestation.
Nevertheless, the man helping sign up voters waved his record aside, referencing the passage of Amendment 4, Hart recalled. He filled out the paperwork to vote as a Republican, and his registration card arrived in the mail a few weeks later.
“I figured it was official,” Hart said.
On the morning of Aug. 18, two state law enforcement agents and a county sheriff’s deputy knocked on his door and took him into custody, charging him with one count of false affirmation on a voter registration form and one count of being an “unqualified elector.” Both charges are third-degree felonies. He was held for 14 hours in jail and then released pending a court date. Hart and the others arrested that day now face fines of up to $5,000 and as much as five years in prison.
Hart worries that the life he’s built since he got out of prison — rarely missing his midnight to 7 a.m. shift to support his family — will be shattered.
“Almost everything I’ve fought for over the last 20 years is going to evaporate,” Hart said. “I’ll lose my job. I’ll lose my car, my relationship with my daughter could be ruined.”
‘A different standard of justice’
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waits to speak during a news conference to announce the arrest of 20 individuals accused of voter fraud at the Broward County Courthouse on Aug. 18, 2022. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
When DeSantis announced plans for the election force in January, the governor billed it as a first-of-its kind unit. He urged Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature to allocate nearly $6 million to hire 52 people to “investigate, detect, apprehend, and arrest anyone for an alleged violation” of election laws — despite a lack of evidence to suggest fraud was a problem in the state. Legislators trimmed his request down to $1.2 million and 15 investigators.
They would be stationed at unspecified “field offices throughout the state” and act on tips from “government officials or any other person,” the governor’s proposal for the office states.
One of those tips came the day the unit launched on July 1. Mark Glaeser, a Republican who specializes in political research, said he wrote an email to the office urging them to investigate his belief that 2,000 sex offenders had improperly registered to vote in Florida, including about 500 he claims cast ballots in 2020. Glaeser said he did his own work to match newly-registered voters with state criminal databases, information that is publicly available.
“For whatever reason, the Department of Elections, and the secretary of state, did not pick up on this when they registered en masse before the 2020 election,” he said.
In Florida, the Department of State works with law enforcement agencies and criminal databases to determine whether someone is eligible to vote. They are charged with verifying identities, examining whether the person registering to vote has committed a felony and if so, if they qualify to cast a ballot under Amendment 4. An election official is required to notify an applicant if they don’t qualify, and they are then given a chance to appeal.
Alan Hays, supervisor of elections in Lake County, said local offices like his accept applications and then transmit that information to Tallahassee. After the state gives its stamp of approval, the county then issues voter information cards.
“We don’t, as supervisors, have any investigative authority, nor do we have any prosecutorial authority,” Hays said.
Voting rights advocates say election officials should have done a better job on the front end of assessing who was qualified to register to vote.
“If the governor’s administration really cared about keeping their voter rolls super accurate and up to date, they would be doing their job and identifying people who were not eligible,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, a voting rights attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “That would be the state of Florida doing its job to protect election integrity.”
Laurel Lee, a DeSantis appointee, was Florida’s secretary of state from January 2019 until May of this year, the period of time in which the law changed regarding felon voting. Lee, who is now the Republican U.S. House nominee in Florida’s 15th District, did not respond to requests for comment.
DeSantis has deflected questions about the role of the state elections office, instead pointing to local supervisors of election. But Antonacci, the head of the Office of Election Crimes and Security, sent a letter to county election leaders the day DeSantis announced the arrests indicating they bore no responsibility for registering those charged.
“Through no fault of your own, records demonstrate that the convicted felons listed in the attached Exhibit A were registered to vote, and voted in your county,” he wrote.
Voting rights advocates say those now facing prosecution are being treated drastically differently than other Floridians who have faced election fraud charges in the past.
In 2021, four residents of The Villages, a predominantly White Republican retirement community outside Orlando, were arrested for double voting in the 2020 election. Authorities said they’d cast ballots in both Florida and another state. Two of those charged allowed to turn themselves in. Three have accepted pretrial intervention deals requiring them to do community service and earn at least a C in a civics class.
“It’s such a different standard of justice,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “The people in The Villages got such nice treatment. They didn’t have SWAT teams coming to their front door.”
‘I would probably die in jail’
Attorney Larry S. Davis, who is helping to coordinate legal defenses for some of the suspects, said police used heavy-handed tactics in the recent arrests, including one man in Miami-Dade County who was arrested by more than a dozen officers armed with automatic weapons. The man, who was taken away in his underwear, spent 1 1/2 days in jail until his wife could post a $10,000 bond, Davis said.
Davis said he plans to challenge the charges, contending that authorities have not met the required threshold to prove voter fraud. Florida law states that prosecutors must show that those arrested knew they weren’t qualified to vote and did so anyway. He also believes the state does not have jurisdiction because the alleged crime only took place in one county.
“For there to be fraud, there must be intent,” Davis said. “When my client received his voter registration from the elections office, his only intent was to participate in the election.”
Further north, in Pompano Beach, Terry Hubbard was preparing to feed his neighbor’s chickens when two Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers arrived at his home in early August. He said they put him into the back seat of their vehicle and began asking why he voted in 2020.
“They kept me in the car for about an hour,” Hubbard recalled. “They wanted to know where did I vote? How did I get registered? Then they wanted me to go look for my [voter registration] papers.”
Hubbard had registered to vote in August 2019, nearly two decades after serving a 12-year sentence for sexual battery of a minor. The 64-year-old man has gotten by working odd jobs in his neighborhood and decided to register to vote after hearing on the radio that those with felony convictions were now eligible.
He went to the Broward County Property Appraiser’s office and said he was told it was okay to vote.
In 2020, a letter from the Center for Voter Information, a Washington-based voting group, arrived in the mail. “I have sent you the enclosed vote by mail ballot application already filled out with your name and address,” it stated. “You can also request a ballot on your County Supervisor of Election’s website.”
Hubbard applied for his mail-in ballot and returned it with a vote for Joe Biden.
Tom Lopach, president of the Center for Voter Information, said his organization uses state records to send out vote-by-mail applications, and that it falls on the state, not outside voter outreach organizations, to make sure that file is up to date.
About a year after he voted, Hubbard was hit by a car, resulting in swelling of his brain, he said. Hubbard now battles sharp phantom pains and a loss of memory and cognizant skills. When the deputies showed up at his house in August, he struggled to find the documents they requested. He was never arrested, but 10 days later, received a summons from Broward County Circuit Court.
“Are they going to arrest me there?” Hubbard asked a reporter who visited him. “What could they charge me with. … Do I need a lawyer?”
When he learned he’d been charged with improperly voting, he winced.
“I am 64 years old,” he said. “I would probably die in jail.”
‘He is being vigilant’
Even as the future of Hubbard and the others charged hangs in the balance, their arrests are intensifying an already acrimonious political environment in Florida.
Democrats and voting rights advocates have decried DeSantis’s actions, accusing the governor of upending lives to advance his own political ambitions. They also contend that DeSantis is trying to intimidate some voters from casting a ballot in November, when he is up for reelection.
Fort Lauderdale Vice Mayor Ben Sorensen, a Democrat, who ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress this year, said he believes that DeSantis is trying to “politicize and weaponize his election police force to suppress voter turnout and engagement.”
“I think it is a basic attack on democracy, and it’s just reflective of his ongoing efforts to minimize the minority vote,” said Sorensen.
Ernest Olivas, a Broward County Republican official who attended the campaign-style event where DeSantis announced the arrests, countered that the governor is merely working to restore Republican voters’ confidence in elections.
“He is being vigilant, and he is helping to calm Republicans and restore their faith in the election process,” Olivas said. “It doesn’t mean you have to show me 10,000 fraudulent ballots because that is not the root of the problem … You just have to let the public know you are being vigilant, and that you are watching things great, and small.”
Meanwhile, in Orlando, Peter Washington is confused and concerned about why he could end up back in jail.
He registered to vote in May 2019 at the encouragement of his wife. Over a decade before, he’d been released after serving time behind bars for an attempted sexual battery conviction. He said he didn’t know that made him unqualified. Casting a ballot felt like a step toward becoming a full citizen again.
“Who would ever say, ‘I know I’m not supposed to vote, but I’m going to vote anyway and commit a crime?’ Washington, 59, said. “I wouldn’t be in my right mind, knowing that I’d go back to prison and put my whole family in jeopardy, just to go and vote. That would be crazy.”
— Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report
By Tim Craig
Tim Craig is a national reporter on the America desk. He previously served as head of The Washington Post’s Afghanistan-Pakistan bureau, based in Islamabad and Kabul. He has also reported from Iraq, the District and Baltimore. Twitter
By Lori Rozsa
Lori Rozsa is a reporter based in Florida who covers the state for The Washington Post. She is a former correspondent for People magazine and a former reporter and bureau chief for the Miami Herald. Twitter
Image Credits: Leo Grant Jr. poses at his home in South Bay, Fla. (Josh Ritchie for The Washington Post)