The First Arrests from DeSantis’s Election Police Take Extensive Toll

Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti
Some of the first voters in line to vote at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg in November 2022.

ORLANDO – The fallout came fast when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s new election police unit charged Peter Washington with voter fraud last summer as part of a crackdown against felons who’d allegedly broken the law by casting a ballot.

The Orlando resident lost his job supervising irrigation projects, and along with it, his family’s health insurance. His wife dropped her virtual classes at Florida International University to help pay their rent. Plans went out the window.

“It knocked me to my knees, if you want to know the truth,” he said.

But not long after, the case against Washington began falling apart. A Ninth Judicial Circuit judge ruled the statewide prosecutor who filed the charges didn’t actually have jurisdiction to do so. Washington’s attorney noted that he had received an official voter identification card in the mail after registering. The case was dismissed in February.

One by one, many of the initial 20 arrests announced by the Office of Election Crimes and Security have stumbled in court. Six cases have been dismissed. Five other defendants accepted plea deals that resulted in no jail time. Only one case has gone to trial, resulting in a split verdict. The others are pending.

In its first nine months, the new unit made just four other arrests, according to a report the agency released earlier this year. Critics say the low numbers point to the overall strength of Florida’s electoral system and a lack of sufficient evidence to pursue further charges. Nonetheless, as he gears up for a possible presidential run, DeSantis is moving to give the office more teeth, asking the legislature to nearly triple the division’s annual budget from $1.2 million to $3.1 million. The Republican governor also pushed through a bill ensuring the statewide prosecutor has jurisdiction over election crime cases – an attempt to resolve an issue several judges have raised in dismissing cases.

Voting rights advocates and defense attorneys say the expansion of the statewide prosecutor’s role to include elections enforcement is alarming. The office was created in 1986, and its portfolio typically includes offenses like extortion, racketeering and computer pornography involving two or more judicial circuits. The statewide prosecutor is appointed by the attorney general, Ashley Moody, a political ally of DeSantis, and also submits an annual report to the governor.

Defense attorneys say DeSantis is using the statewide prosecutor’s office to circumvent the role of local prosecutors, who have declined to pursue such cases.

“This cannot be what the framers of the Florida Constitution had in mind when creating this state’s system of justice,” Palm Beach County public defender Carey Haughwout wrote in a motion as part of the defense against one of the felons charged.

Neither Statewide Prosecutor Nicholas Cox nor Secretary of State Cord Byrd returned requests for comment. Cox has served in the role since 2011, predating DeSantis.

DeSantis has continued to defend the unit’s work. But the governor’s press secretary, Bryan Griffin, recently said that investigators won’t go after voters who are simply confused about Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for most felons. He would not comment on whether the policy represents a reversal from the administration’s earlier stance, referring a reporter to Byrd’s office, which did not respond.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the judicial track record of the Office of Election Crimes and Security.

Those who eventually had their cases dismissed said the personal damage was still far reaching. Some lost jobs and are now struggling to pay bills. Others who had fought to rebuild tarnished reputations after past crimes saw their mug shots end up splashed on television. For Washington, the arrest also brought something else.

He no longer believes in America’s electoral system.

‘They’re going to pay the price’

All of those arrested in August had been convicted in the past of murder or a felony sex crime, and that disqualified them from voting under a recent constitutional amendment that gave most formerly incarcerated people the right to vote.

Washington pleaded no contest in 1996 to attempted sexual battery of a child and was initially sentenced to probation, according to court records. But records show the father of four violated the terms of his probation by failing to register with the state. He spent the next 10 years behind bars.

“It took me a long time to rebuild my name,” Washington said on a recent afternoon. “It was slow, but I was working on it. I got a job, then I got a better job. Then I met a wonderful woman, and I got married. Things were looking up more and more every day.”

Registering to vote felt like the next logical step toward restoring his status as a full citizen. Florida had just passed an amendment restoring the rights of many former felons. Washington said he was unaware his conviction on a sex crime charge disqualified him. The Florida Department of State in Tallahassee and the local election supervisor signed off on his application and issued him a voter ID card, as they did with the other felons who were later arrested, according to their attorneys.

In 2020, Washington and his wife stood in line for 45 minutes to vote for Joe Biden. Then they went out to a celebratory meal at Chili’s.

“It was a proud moment for us,” his wife, Sholanda Jackson, recalled.

More than 11 million people voted in Florida in the 2020 election – the highest turnout in nearly three decades. DeSantis praised elections officials, saying at a news conference a day after the vote that, “The way Florida did it, I think, inspires confidence.”

Nevertheless, DeSantis pushed for the creation of the nation’s first election crime unit, saying the next year that more reforms were needed to ensure Florida’s vote was secure.

That eventually led Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers to Washington. Nearly two years after casting his ballot, FDLE agents showed up at his home and arrested him in his driveway. Most of those charged that day were people of color, and police body-camera footage shows several looking baffled as they are taken into custody, asking why they are in handcuffs for voting.

Washington and the others arrested were charged with providing false information on their voter registration forms and voting as an unqualified elector. Each charge is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

At a news conference that same day, DeSantis praised the election crimes unit for having “hit the ground running,” making the arrests within six weeks of opening.

“They did not get their rights restored, and yet they went ahead and voted anyways,” DeSantis said, surrounded by sheriffs deputies in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom. “That is against the law, and now they’re going to pay the price for it.”

A ‘power grab’ in the legislature

The arrests spurred anger and swift pushback. Defense attorneys began filing for the cases to be dismissed, noting the state had given those arrested permission to vote and questioning the role of the statewide prosecutor.

Several judges agreed, ruling the statewide prosecutor did not have the jurisdiction to bring the cases because the alleged offenses happened in only one county.

“These are cases that should have been brought by the local prosecuting authorities, except DeSantis can’t control them, and make them take these cases that are weak, against individuals that did not intend to break the law,” said Michael Gottlieb, a Democratic state representative from Broward County who is also representing one of the defendants.

The state legislature – where Republicans hold a supermajority – offered a solution: In February, lawmakers quickly passed a new law stating the statewide prosecutor indeed has jurisdiction in alleged voter fraud cases.

An attorney who helped organize the statewide prosecutor’s office when it was formed in 1986 said the new powers over election cases would have been hard to fathom back then.

“At that time, it was about organized crime,” said attorney Barbara Linthicum, who also served on the state’s Elections Commission. “I can guarantee you that it never came to anybody’s mind that they would be prosecuting election laws.”

The law passed easily over objections from Democrats and voter rights advocates. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida decried it as an “unnecessary and harmful expansion” of the statewide prosecutor’s office. Another group, All Voting is Local, criticized it as a “power grab” meant to take cases from “impartial state attorneys and give them to a subservient prosecutor.”

Backers of the bill, including Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, a Republican from Miami who sponsored the legislation in the House, argued it was necessary to ensure election fraud cases are prosecuted – mirroring a DeSantis criticism that local authorities were failing to act on concerns of election fraud.

State prosecutors contend few voter fraud cases are ultimately brought forward because they don’t meet the bar necessary to levy charges. Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a Democrat, noted prosecutors need to show evidence of both a voter crime and intent.

If that bar is met, he said, “We’ll pursue it.”

Many referrals, few arrests

In its first nine months, the Office of Election Crimes and Security referred hundreds of alleged illegal voting cases to local law enforcement for possible charges – but few resulted in any arrests.

A third of the cases sent to law enforcement for possible criminal charges were detected through the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a data-sharing consortium of more than 30 states, the office acknowledged in a January report.

The election crimes office noted the consortium helped detect 1,177 cases of individuals who appear to have voted in both Florida and another state. Nonetheless, Secretary of State Cord Byrd recently decided to join several other Republican-led states in withdrawing from ERIC. He cited concerns about the system’s “partisan tendencies” and said it would help protect voter information.

Critics of ERIC, including some aligned with former president Donald Trump’s false stolen-election narrative, have claimed the group is actually a left-wing organization sharing voter data with liberal groups. ERIC’s leaders have denied those allegations. Elections experts and state lawmakers from both parties say the system helped keep voter rolls clean and also enabled states to more easily detect voter fraud.

“In the short term there will be some additional legwork that will have to go into those processes, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do them,” Byrd said at his confirmation hearing in late March.

For voter rights advocates, the election crime unit’s few arrests and failures in court are signs there is little voter fraud in Florida.

“That’s just clear evidence that Florida created this new election crimes office to root out a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Patrick Berry, a lawyer with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, which researches and advocates on voting rights issues. “While a tiny fraction of those cases have led to an arrest, the majority of those arrests were people who were very likely confused or misled about their eligibility to vote.”

Statewide prosecutors have already moved to exercise their expanded authority under the new law granting them the ability to pursue election fraud cases. They have filed motions in both dismissed and pending cases – citing the “remedial legislation” – and arguing the charges should be adjusted to reflect the change. It’s unclear whether the legislation can be applied retroactively, but defendants and their attorneys are on guard. Washington’s lawyer said the state is appealing his case.

‘It’s a trap’

Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti
Nathan Hart of Gibsonton was arrested for voter fraud after voting in the 2020 general election.

Washington said he began to feel free again when his case was dismissed after six months. But he remains on edge over whether authorities might find another way to charge him with an election crime through the newly empowered state prosecutor.

“It’s like they just won’t leave you alone,” he said.

A few months ago, he found a new job. But it meant taking a 10 percent pay cut. And now, instead of supervising irrigation projects, he said, “I’m back to digging.”

A long-planned cruise is off the table, and extras he and his wife once budgeted for – the occasional dinner out, traveling to see family in Louisiana, tickets to gospel concerts – are not in their plans for the foreseeable future.

Others arrested in the August roundup find themselves in a similar predicament.

A jury in Tampa found Nathan Hart, 49, guilty in February of making a false statement on his voter registration form but not guilty for voting as an “unqualified elector,” a split verdict. He was sentenced to two years probation.

After his trial, Hart lost both a part-time job at a retail shipping center and his longtime job driving a street sweeping truck at night because his probation included a nighttime curfew. He said he was unemployed for a month and a half, and now has a job cleaning parking lots. Meanwhile, his attorneys are appealing the guilty verdict.

“My daughters need to see me never giving up,” Hart said.

Last year, he took one of his daughters camping in the mountains of northern Georgia. Now, he said, “I can’t even afford to take her out for an ice cream.”

Another defendant, Romona Oliver, pleaded no contest to the charges but faced no jail time. Her attorney, Mark Rankin, said she “basically just walked away.”

“She didn’t admit she did anything wrong. She got no probation, no fine, no cost of investigation,” he said. “What she suffered was the stress of being arrested for no good reason, and worrying about court dates and about possibly going back to prison.”

For Washington, the lesson of it all is clear: Voting is dangerous.

He knows now he can’t vote – unless he applies for and receives clemency – but he’s telling others they should be wary of it, too, even if they don’t have a criminal record. One of his adult children has already decided he won’t be casting a ballot. A friend is doubting it, too.

“I told him I wouldn’t advise it,” he said. “Because it’s a trap.”