TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced criminal charges Thursday against 20 people for voting illegally in 2020, the controversial new Republican’s first major public move. electoral police unit.
The charges mark the opening salvo for the Bureau of Election Crimes and Security, which from its inception drew widespread criticism from Democrats and voting rights groups who feared the unit served as a political tool for the governor.
DeSantis said the people charged were convicted of murder or a felony sex offense and are therefore exempt from a constitutional amendment that restores voting rights to some felons. He said most of the defendants were from Broward, Miami-Dade or Palm Beach counties, all Democratic strongholds. He released few details.
The 20 people were among the more than 11 million Florida voters who voted in the 2020 election.
“They didn’t go through any process, they didn’t get their rights back, and yet they went ahead and voted anyway,” DeSantis said at a campaign-style event in Fort Lauderdale before cheering on supporters. “That is against the law and now they are going to pay the price for it.”
DeSantis, a rising Republican and possible 2024 presidential candidate, pushed the state legislature to create the election police unit to address voter fraud concerns that have proliferated in the GOP following false claims by former President Donald Trump that his reelection was stolen.
Voter fraud is rare, usually occurs in isolated cases, and is usually detected. An Associated Press investigation of the 2020 presidential election found fewer than 475 potential cases of voter fraud out of 25.5 million votes cast in the six states where Trump and his allies contested their loss to Democratic President Joe Biden. DeSantis has previously praised Florida for running a smooth election in 2020.
The Bureau of Election Crimes and Security was created as part of an election law package passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature earlier this year. The unit reviews fraud complaints and conducts preliminary investigations, and the law requires the governor to appoint a group of special officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to pursue alleged violations.
Pre-existing state law had allowed the governor to appoint officials to investigate election law violations, but did not require him to do so.
Peter Antonacci, a former Broward County supervisor of elections appointed by DeSantis to lead the election police unit, said more voter fraud charges were coming. Antonacci said he is “sure” there were illegal votes cast in a recent Broward County congressional election decided by five votes. He did not provide additional details.
“You will see more of these actions, and you will see more of these actions until the people behind them stop promoting them and the people who want to take risks know that there is a negative risk in voting when you are not eligible to vote,” he said.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor, said DeSantis’ ad was intended to “intimidate voters and suppress turnout in Florida’s most Democratic counties.”
“Everyone wants the election to be safe, but Ron DeSantis, who has never refuted Donald Trump’s Big Lie, is the last person we can trust with the ‘election police,'” he said.