Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is calling on investigators to probe the decision by the state election police to prosecute 20 felons who are accused of illegally voting in 2020, a decision she calls a publicity stunt.
Fried, the lone Democratic member of the Florida Cabinet, on Tuesday wrote a letter to the Department of State’s Inspector General requesting the office investigate the decision to charge the 20 individuals and how election personnel incorrectly registered the individuals to vote.
“While under current law, these individuals were not eligible to vote, the persecution of this predominantly Black group of Floridians who broke the law without intent is not only disproportionate punishment but cruel,” Fried wrote.
“That cruelty is even more so as it becomes evident that what should have been investigated was how and why the state provided ineligible voters with registrations and that their traumatic arrests appear to have been done for pure publicity purposes, stoking fear and discouraging others who are eligible from exercising their rights to vote in the future.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the arrests last month as part of the first major news out of the Office of Election Crimes and Security, which came online in July under the Department of State. Immediately, the state received pushback for arresting the individuals, many of whom say they were under the impression they could vote after receiving the OK from local election offices.
Fried, a recent gubernatorial candidate who lost the Democratic nomination to Charlie Crist, has been a vocal critic of DeSantis. She previously called on the U.S. Department of Justice to monitor Florida’s election activities, including the police unit, and has called the unit part of an effort to intimidate voters.
“Left unanswered and unaddressed, the Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security’s highly questionable actions create the perception of a state government willing to employ strict enforcement towards vulnerable citizens, while avoiding scrutiny of its own practices — bringing into question how election integrity is being preserved,” Fried concluded.
“Only by uncovering the state’s failures in this situation and why it merited such a draconian response against these 20 individuals causing them untold hardships, including why it was deemed necessary and by whom, can election integrity be claimed.”
The Governor’s Office declined to comment on the letter, and the Department of State did not immediately respond to Florida Politics.
The issue hinges on Amendment 4, which allows felons to vote when they complete their sentence, including after they pay restitution. However, the amendment excludes felons convicted of murder and sexual offenses until the State Clemency Board restores the individual’s right to vote. All 20 suspects are felons who had previously been convicted of murder or sexual offenses.
Although some of those arrested have said they were never told they couldn’t vote and even received voter registration cards, DeSantis stands by the fact that the felons were ineligible to vote and that, in registering, they falsely checked boxes affirming they are eligible to vote.
The 20 suspects face third-degree felonies associated with voting violations. The charges carry a possible $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
During a news conference last week, DeSantis put the onus of confirming a voter’s eligibility on local Supervisors of Elections.
“They’re the ones that are registering people. You go in your county and you register locally. You’re not registering in Tallahassee at the state government, and so it’s really their responsibility to ensure that those voting rolls are accurate,” he said.
The Governor’s communications director, Taryn Fenske, also told POLITICO that Supervisors should be held accountable if they are telling murderers they can vote.
However, a Department of State rule requires the state to provide the county offices with lists of people who potentially are ineligible because their rights have not been restored.
David Ulewicz, the Inspector General for the Department of State, reports to Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel, who was cc’d to Fried’s letter. Miguel, in turn, reports directly to DeSantis.