Florida lawmakers approved a budget that includes more money for an election investigations office championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that has generated controversy and outrage but few results.
In particular, in August, arrested 20 people accused of not being eligible to vote when they cast their ballots in the 2020 election, but who were also told by the DeSantis administration that they could legally vote.
The proposed $116 billion spending plan passed unanimously in both houses Friday includes $1.4 million for the Office of Election Crimes and Security, which was created in 2022 as part of what DeSantis described as ongoing «integrity efforts.» electoral» of the state. That’s an increase of about 20 percent from the 15-person office’s current $1.1 million budget.
In his budget proposal released in January, DeSantis asked lawmakers to increase the office’s budget to $3.1 million.
«Election integrity is a critical component of our system of government,» Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade, who oversaw the portion of the House budget that includes the election research office, told NBC News. «Ensuring that we commit the necessary resources to maintain our electoral integrity was a piece of cake.»
Democrats and voting rights groups have opposed the creation of the office from the start, but that criticism intensified in August when state law enforcement used morning raids to arrest 20 people who had been jailed for felonies. and they voted in the 2020 election after their release.
Each of those arrested had submitted voter registration forms that were approved by county and state elections officials, and were issued voter identification cards. Most later said they did not know they were not eligible to vote. It is the responsibility of the Florida Department of State, which is part of the DeSantis administration, to screen voter registration applications for eligibility standards.
At least six of those 20 initial arrests were dismissed. Five accepted plea deals that resulted in no jail time, and only one went to trial. The office said in a report that it made only four other arrests during his first nine months.
Attorney Robert Barrar, who represents Ronald Miller, one of the 20 people arrested, called the the expanded funding for the unit «a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.»
“The Florida Legislature and the Governor like to call this a free state. Well, what’s free in a state that discourages people from voting and wastes taxpayer money to further its own political agenda?» she said.
It is the second time in recent months that Republican lawmakers have moved to strengthen the program. During a special legislative session in February, they passed a law making it clear that the Florida state attorney had jurisdiction over the cases. That came after an initial round of charges were dropped because judges across the state said that office, which is in charge of enforcement, had no jurisdiction.
Those arrested were mostly low-income minorities, now returning to the criminal justice system after serving time for prior crimes.
In interviews with NBC News, lawyers for many of those arrested by the election police unit eviscerated the program and criticized the effort by state Republicans to expand it as a huge waste of money.
“We are wasting millions to protect electoral integrity from a non-existent threat,” said Larry Davis, whose client, Robert Lee Wood, faced two counts of voter fraud.
A judge initially dismissed the charges against Wood, but the state filed an appeal, which is still pending.
“He’s still mired in this mess,” Davis said.
Wood, decades earlier, was convicted of second-degree murder, making him ineligible to vote in Florida. However, the Florida Department of State approved his voter identification card after he submitted an application after being encouraged to do so during a voter drive in Miami.
Several of those arrested told law enforcement they thought they could vote because of confusion over a 2020 ballot measure approved by Florida voters that opened a path for people who had been incarcerated for felonies to regain their rights. of vote. Under that constitutional provision, those convicted of murder or serious sexual assault are ineligible.
Davis described the day of Wood’s arrest last August in harrowing detail. Wood was awakened in the early hours of the morning by law enforcement officers «pointing automatic weapons at him.»
He ended up spending two days in jail after his arrest, a period that worsened his heart problems and landed him in the hospital for several days, Davis said.
“He had no idea that he did anything illegal,” Davis said.
Barrar, the attorney representing Ronald Miller, said his client was also taken from his home at dawn with guns pointed at him and charged with illegally voting and registering to vote.
Miller, who was also convicted of second-degree murder decades earlier, said he was encouraged to register to vote by a pollster and then received his approved voter identification card in the mail from state officials.
“They took him out of his house, with guns pointed at him, in his underpants, for doing nothing wrong,” Barrar said. “It interrupted his whole life. He had to go to jail, a friend had to bail him out.”
While the charges against Miller were eventually dropped, the state appealed, meaning the saga “still hangs over his head,” Barrar said.
Mark Rankin, the attorney for Romona Oliver, who initially faced felony charges from the unit, called the force «nothing more than a waste of taxpayer funds» and an example of «political theater.»
“There is no evidence of a voter fraud problem in Florida. There is no evidence to begin with to suggest that the election police force was needed,” Rankin said.
Oliver, his client, ended up taking a plea deal on one of the election police force charges he had faced, allowing him to avoid punishment. Oliver from Tampa did not oppose voting illegally in the 2020 election; prosecutors dropped another felony charge related to his voter registration.
Decades earlier, she was convicted of second-degree murder, disqualifying her from voting.
However, Oliver’s voter registration was approved in 2020 by the Florida Department of State, which sent him a voter identification card.
“What they have done so far shows that it should be disbanded rather than expanded and public funds spent on it,” Rankin said.