Videos show confusion as Florida police arrest people on voter fraud charges
By Michael Wines and Neil Vigdor
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida announced in August “a first salvo” of criminal charges in what he called a long-overdue crackdown on voter fraud by his newly created Office of Election Crimes and Security.
But recently released body camera footage indicates that people arrested on charges of voting illegally seemed puzzled and appeared to have run afoul of the law through confusion rather than intent. The arrests targeted people convicted of felonies.
In Florida, under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018, many former inmates had their voting rights restored, but others did not, leaving many people uncertain or misinformed about their eligibility to vote.
In the videos that were obtained earlier this week by The New York Times from the Tampa Police Department, those arrested repeatedly told officers that they were blindsided by the charges and had been cleared to vote by election officials. The videos were published earlier by The Tampa Bay Times.
The emergence of the videos brought fresh scrutiny to DeSantis’ pursuit of voter fraud allegations, which critics said disproportionately focused on people of color and have netted fewer than two dozen arrests this year in a state that cast 11 million votes in the 2020 election.
In one of the videos, Tony Patterson, 43, was standing outside his Tampa, Florida, residence when officers approached him Aug. 18 to tell him that they had an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
“For what?” Patterson asked the officers, who explained that he was not eligible to vote as a convicted sex offender and was being charged with two felonies for voting illegally.
“What is wrong with this state, man?” Patterson said. “You all put me in jail for something I didn’t know nothing about. Why would you all let me vote if I wasn’t able to vote?”
The officer acknowledged that he was not familiar with the specifics of Patterson’s case or Florida’s election law, which bars convicted murderers and sex offenders from voting.
When officers carry out warrants, they often do not know the details of the cases, one officer told Patterson, who is Black.
According to court records, Patterson pleaded not guilty to charges that he made a false statement about his voting status and cast a ballot when he was not eligible to do so, which are third-degree felonies. A public defender for Patterson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Patterson is among 20 former felons statewide whose arrests on fraud charges were showcased by DeSantis in an August news conference touting work by his new election crimes office, which received about $1 million in state funding. DeSantis had asked the state Legislature in the winter to create the office to aggressively prosecute voter fraud, despite compelling evidence that fraud in Florida elections — and elections elsewhere — is a minuscule problem.
Critics have called the arrests a political stunt staged to burnish DeSantis’ conservative credentials as he seeks a second term as governor in November — and after that, a possible bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
“This is absolutely nothing but political theater,” Mark P. Rankin, a lawyer in Hillsborough County, Florida, who is representing one of the 20, said Wednesday. “It’s sad because these are people who were put in handcuffs, taken to jail, charged with felonies and are facing prison sentences.”
DeSantis’ office had no immediate comment. But in August, he defended the arrests against criticism, saying that when people sign up to vote, “they check a box saying they’re eligible. If they’re not eligible and they’re lying, then they can be held accountable.”
Rankin said his client, 56-year-old Romona Oliver, had been convicted of second-degree murder but had completed her sentence and rebuilt her life, marrying and holding a steady job.
Legal experts, including at least one Republican state legislator, have said that many if not all of the 20 arrests appear unjustified because the supposed perpetrators had no idea that they were breaking the law. In Florida, a conviction of voter fraud requires proof of intent.
Some defendants have said they registered to vote only after being wrongly assured that they could cast ballots under the constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to many former felons. In fact, the amendment excluded people convicted of murder or felony sex offenses, who must apply separately to have their rights reinstated.
All of the 20 defendants had been convicted of murder or sex crimes. But each of them was issued a registration card after an application was approved by the secretary of state.
And in each case, the defendants were told they had voted illegally long after their ballots had been cast.
“The statute says they have to willfully vote knowing that they’re not eligible to vote,” said Roger L. Weeden, an Orlando, Florida, lawyer who represents two of the 20 defendants. “That’s going to be very hard for them to prove.”
Weeden, who said he was helping coordinate legal help for some defendants, said he was unaware of any of the 20 cases that have been fully adjudicated.
Jonathan Olson, a supervisor in the state attorney’s office in Lake County in central Florida, has said in a letter that his office would not prosecute six people arrested on identical charges because each appears “to have been encouraged to vote by various mailings and misinformation.”
The police officer who drove Patterson to jail acknowledged that Florida’s voter eligibility laws have been a source of confusion.
“There’s fine print, as far as my understanding goes,” the officer said.
At a news conference Wednesday, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, an advocacy group for former felons, called for an overhaul of the state’s felony records to make it simple for former felons to see whether they are eligible to vote.
And Nicole D. Porter, senior director of advocacy at a national prison rights group, the Sentencing Project, upbraided the state for making the arrests to begin with.
In many cases, “these folks were in contact with government officials, nonpartisan officials, who talked to them about voting, and they took action to participate in their civic democracy,” she said. “And now they are being prosecuted and subjected to imprisonment and jail time because of it.
“What we’re seeing right now in Florida is absolutely egregious,” she added. “And these videos are just heartbreaking.”