DeSantis’ push to crack down on voter fraud faces an early loss

Lynne Sladky/AP Photo
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A South Florida judge on Friday dropped charges against a Miami man swept up in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to crack down on voter fraud, signaling an early legal loss for the administration’s highly touted elections investigation unit.

Miami Judge Milton Hirsch dismissed two voting-related charges the state filed against 56-year-old Robert Lee Wood, claiming that Office of Statewide Prosecutor does not have jurisdiction in the case. The Office of Statewide Prosecutor brought the charges on behalf of the newly-formed Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security, which was created at DeSantis’ urging during the 2022 legislative session to stop voter fraud.

Hirsch determined that the prosecutorial unit doesn’t have jurisdiction because it doesn’t cover multiple judicial circuits, which is a requirement for the statewide prosecutor to get involved. The state argued that because the initial voter registration application was filled out in Miami-Dade County and processed in Leon County, the Office of Statewide Prosecutor could bring the charges.

Larry Davis, an attorney representing Wood, said he is “pleased with the ruling by Judge Hirsch.”

Wood was among 20 mostly Black defendants arrested in August as part of a voter fraud crackdown led by the Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security. The first wave of arrests, which were announced during a high profile press conference in mid-August, focused on people previously convicted of felonies who voted despite not having their voting rights restored.

Yet since those arrests, new information was uncovered showing that most of the defendants were told by state officials that they could vote. In each case, the defendants registered to vote without issue. Election officials with the DeSantis administration processed the voter registrations, which caused confusion among the defendants who believed they were legally allowed to vote.

The 20 defendants, if convicted on the felony voter fraud violations, face five years in a prison and a $5,000 fine.

The DeSantis administration intends to appeal the decision.

“We continue to view the Florida Office of Statewide Prosecution as the appropriate agency to prosecute these crimes.” said Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for DeSantis. “The state will continue to enforce the law.”

Hirsch’s ruling could cause issues for the state’s 19 remaining cases related to DeSantis’ voter fraud crackdown, each of which were brought by the statewide office.

“The precedent of this case should have an impact on those cases, too,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “The lack of statutory authority should apply to all their remaining cases as well.”

Volz’s group has worked with the defendants, helping them find free legal counsel and raising money for their legal defense funds. The organization previously spearheaded the passage of Amendment 4, which set up a process where most people convicted of a felony could apply to get their voting rights restored.

“This strengthens our resolve to continue to place people over politics and honor the commitment we made to the 1.4 million people impacted by Amendment 4, who should be enjoying the opportunity to fully participate in our democracy,” Volz said.

Court records from August showed that most of those arrested told the Florida Department of Law Enforcement they thought they were eligible to vote because both state and county election officials did not flag their registration application and they were sent voter cards.

A fresh round of scrutiny toward the arrests, which authorities carried out during early morning raids, came after the Tampa Bay Times published body cam videos from Hillsborough County deputies as they arrested one of the individuals swept up in the arrests.

Police told Tony Patterson, a Black registered sex offender, on the way to jail that they were just as confused as he was by the arrest, according to the Times-published video.

“Why would you let me vote if I wasn’t able to vote?” Patterson asked.

“I’m not sure buddy, I don’t know,” the officer replied.