Publicly Arresting Formerly Incarcerated Voters Is Voter Intimidation—Not ‘Election Integrity’

The midterms were the first election in Florida’s history in which registered Republicans outpaced Democrats at the voting booth. Were DeSantis’ public arrests to blame?

When three police officers showed up at the front door of Tampa, Fla., resident Romona Oliver to tell her she was being arrested for voter fraud, she was shocked. “Oh my god. Voter fraud? I voted, but I ain’t commit no fraud.” Oliver, 55, told police she was given a voter registration card by a local official.

While being handcuffed outside his home, Tony Patterson, 44, protested, “Why would you let me vote if I wasn’t able to vote?”

Under the direction of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in August arrested Oliver, Patterson and 18 other people with felony records for breaking Florida’s elections laws during the 2020 election—even after several officials had explicitly told them that they could legally cast ballots.

They faced third-degree voter fraud felony charges, up to a $5,000 fine and five years in prison. Twelve of the 20 people arrested were registered Democrats. At least 13 were Black.

The Tampa Bay Times released police bodycam footage from the arrests, showing confusion from the accused “criminal” voters and skepticism from the police officers sent out to arrest them.

Nathan Hart, 49, told officers someone at the “driver’s license place” encouraged him to register: “He said, ‘Well, just fill out this form, and if they let you vote, then you can. If they don’t, then you can’t.’” “There’s your defense,” one officer replied. “Sounds like a loophole to me.”

Some fear these public arrests will have a chilling effect on voter turnout in future elections. Already, the 2022 midterms were the first election in Florida’s history in which registered Republicans outpaced Democrats at the voting booth. In Florida counties President Joe Biden won in 2020—including Hillsborough, where Tampa is located—Republican turnout was higher than that of Democrats.

“It’s jarring to think about a grandfather getting pulled from his house by SWAT team for voting in our state,” Neil Volz, deputy director of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told Facing South in an interview. “The reaction is just as bad as the system itself. … The idea that while the state is unable to tell somebody whether they’re eligible or not, they can then also arrest them on the back end, that just doesn’t make any sense. Real people’s lives are being impacted by it.”

Florida voters have faced years of whiplash when it comes to voting rights for those formerly incarcerated.

Regardless of where she lives in the U.S., though, once a person is labeled a felon, she carries a “badge of inferiority,” wrote Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow—subject to a lifetime of second-class citizenship of surveillance that violates privacy, jeopardizes employment and housing opportunities, and threatens participation in the democratic process.

“Whatever you think about the [criminal justice system], it’s undeniable that 95 percent of the people in it are coming out of it,” said Volz. “And if we create a way in which people can flourish, then we know that communities can flourish, and that this can actually be something that brings people together.”

Laws in 48 states ban people with felony convictions from voting, according to recent research from The Sentencing Project. Many of these restrictions date back to the post-Reconstruction era and were designed to lock freed slaves out of the voting process.

In the last election, about 4.6 million Americans—or 2 percent of the voting population—were ineligible to vote due to these laws or policies.

“This report makes it clear that millions of our citizens will remain voiceless,” said Amy Fettig, the group’s executive director. “Felony disenfranchisement is just the latest in a long line of attempts to restrict ballot access, just like poll taxes, literacy tests and property requirements were used in the past.”

Florida leads the nation in disenfranchisement, with over 1.1 million people currently banned from voting—many of whom can’t afford to pay court-ordered monetary sanctions. Over 930,000 Floridians who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised because they can’t pay the fine, according to the Sentencing Project—despite a 2018 ballot referendum that promised to restore their voting rights.

Race plays a critical role in voter disenfranchisement. One in 19 Black Americans is disenfranchised—a rate 3.5 times higher than non-Black Americans. Felon disenfranchisement laws prevent more than one in 10 Black adults in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia from voting.

“The question of specific voting restrictions, the broader issue of voter suppression and the disproportionate impact on marginalized communities should be front and center on the public agenda,” said Christopher Uggen, co-author of the 2022 report.

As the U.S. continues to test the stability of its democracy and the fairness of its elections, voter intimidation and felony disenfranchisement threaten the universal right to vote, a core tenet of American democracy.

Let the people vote.

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Michelle Moulton (she/they) is a former editorial intern with Ms. and a graduate of Smith College, where she majored in the study of women & gender and sociology. Her beats include reproductive justice, LGBTQ rights, domestic violence intervention and pop culture.