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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is adept at showy stunts designed to appeal to his conservative base (the war on Disney, “where woke goes to die,” and so on). Meanwhile, his allies quietly assure national reporters that he has a strong, normal record of governance in Florida (restoring the Everglades and the like).
On the topic of voting, unfortunately, one of DeSantis’s Fox News–friendly exploits has had real and crushing consequences.
Start with the basics: Florida long had the country’s worst felony disenfranchisement law, a direct remnant of the Jim Crow constitutions of the late 1800s. People with felony convictions were banned from voting for life. That added up to about 1.7 million otherwise eligible voters — disproportionately Black men, given the imbalances of the criminal justice system.
The Brennan Center challenged this law for over two decades. We helped write and pass a constitutional amendment in 2018 to end that system of disenfranchisement. Amendment 4 won with 64 percent of the vote (which means that 1 million DeSantis voters supported it). The governor and the legislature responded by passing a law to gut the reform, denying the right to vote unless an individual had paid all fines and fees dating back decades. It is painfully hard for many individuals to find out what they owe and whether they are eligible to vote. No office keeps a list.
That’s where DeSantis’s latest stunt comes in. You see, he has refused to embrace Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen 2020 election. In fact, he bragged that Florida’s election practices were the “gold standard.” How then can he pander to an electorate fully frothing over Trump’s Big Lie?
To do so, DeSantis established an election police force to look for “fraud.” Last year, he announced, to great fanfare, that he had found the crooks who were undermining our democracy — 20 people ineligible to vote under state law, but who had registered and voted anyway.
That’s a tiny number for a big dragnet. Worse, many of the accused genuinely believed they were eligible to vote. Some had been told they could vote by government officials. Most, if not all, had also received voter information cards in the mail. Yet nobody in Florida’s government told them their rights had not been restored. They didn’t knowingly commit voter fraud — they made a mistake.
Some local prosecutors refused to bring charges, pointing out that, for example, “in all of the instances where sex offenders voted, each appear to have been encouraged to vote by various mailings and misinformation. Each were given voter registration cards which would lead one to believe they could legally vote in the election.”
Hence the newest twist. The governor tried to take the cases out of the hands of these fair-minded prosecutors but was stymied by state law. So the legislature has now passed a law granting statewide prosecutors the power to act against certain election-related crimes that are “facilitated by or connected to the use of the Internet.” Voters pick the local prosecutors. The state attorney general, a DeSantis ally, oversees statewide prosecutors.
Why is DeSantis doubling down on this stunt? Partly, he wants to score political points with believers of the Big Lie. But it’s more than that, and worse than that. His current campaign to publicly punish people who are ineligible to vote yet accidentally do so because they are confused or misled about their eligibility will chill many legitimate voters with past convictions from exercising the franchise. It seeks to intimidate other Floridians with past criminal convictions from even trying to vote.
It’s voter suppression. And that’s no stunt.