Ahead of Tuesday’s primary election in Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’s new Office of Election Crimes and Security made its first arrests of people it alleged engaged in voter fraud in the 2020 election. Almost all those charged were people who were formerly incarcerated and mistakenly thought they were eligible to vote. People of all political affiliations “are now being dragged from their homes in handcuffs because all they ever wanted to do was participate in democracy,” says Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who spearheaded an initiative to reenfranchise people with prior felony convictions, before it was overturned by Republicans.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We turn now to Florida, where the newly formed Office of Election Crimes and Security has made its first arrests of people it accuses of committing voter fraud tied to the 2020 election. The arrests come just as voters are set to go to the polls Tuesday in the state’s primary. The office was a pet project of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who announced the arrests Thursday.
GOV. RON DESANTIS: The state of Florida has charged and is in the process of arresting 20 individuals across the state for voter fraud.
AMY GOODMAN: Many of those arrested were people who were formerly incarcerated. The state said they did not have their voting rights properly restored or were ineligible due to their convictions.
For more, we go to Orlando, Florida, to speak with Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which works with returning citizens on restoring their voting rights. They’re helping some first-time voters hitting the polls for the primary. He’s also chairman of the Floridians for a Fair Democracy, spearheaded Amendment 4, which reenfranchised more than 1.4 million Floridians, but then Republican lawmakers overturned that. His latest book is titled Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Desmond. If you could start off by explaining what is going on? Who were these people arrested? What message was being sent? And go back to when you really spearheaded this movement, that got overwhelmingly approved in Florida, that returning citizens, as you say, formerly incarcerated people, can be able to vote again.
DESMOND MEADE: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me on again, Amy. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you.
You know, when I look at this situation, what I see more than anything is that we’re in dangerous times right now. And I do believe that we’re at a moment where we may have to just shift some of our dialogue — right? — and engage in a more holistic and a deeper conversation about what democracy really means to us. Right? What we’re seeing here with these individuals who were arrested was the state actually crossing a line, and a very important line, when you talk about democracy and when you talk about criminal justice reform.
These individuals arrested was, in some way or another, given assurances by the state that they were in fact able to vote, able to register to vote. The onus is on the state to determine whether or not an individual is eligible or not. And when these individuals actually reached out to the state — or, in some cases, the state reached out to them to encourage them to register to vote — once they did that and they was able to participate in an election, guess what: Now they’re getting arrested.
And it’s very disheartening. You know, we’re talking about, just like in Amendment 4, we led this effort to enfranchise people from all walks of life and all political persuasions. Right? We fought just as hard for the person who wanted to vote for Donald Trump as the one who wished they could have voted for President Barack Obama. In these arrests, we’re seeing Republicans, we’re seeing Democrats, we’re seeing NPAs, that are now being dragged from their homes in handcuffs, because all they ever wanted to do was participate in democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to just be very clear for people. You spearheaded Amendment 4, this historic ballot initiative that restored the right to vote to most state residents with felony convictions. Until then, Florida had been one of only four states — the others were Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — where people who had committed felonies needed to petition the governor to have their voting rights restored — a grim 19th century legacy of, really, ultimately, slavery, of 19th century laws that passed after the 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote. But the Republican-dominated Legislature overturned that and said that people, like you, yourself, Desmond Meade, had to repay every penny of what was owed. Explain what that was and how this leaves — how do people even know what they owe?
DESMOND MEADE: Yeah, that’s something that we’ve been talking about for quite some time, after the passage of Amendment 4. It was a major subject in a lawsuit that followed the enactment of the legislation, the fact that the state does not have a centralized database — right? — to be able to ascertain exactly how much a person may owe, or give someone assurances that, “Listen, you owe so much amount of money, and if you pay that, you’re good to go.” Right? But —
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you owe it for?
DESMOND MEADE: Well, for outstanding fines and fees, such as maybe court costs, restitution, and all various types of fees that the Florida Legislature have allowed the courts to use to collect revenue to keep the doors open. But, Amy, I think that this really speaks to a deeper issue. And the deeper issue is, at the end of the day, if a citizen cannot rely on the state to determine their eligibility, if a citizen cannot rely on the state to determine how much they owe, then that citizen should not be held criminally liable. That citizen should not be drug from their homes in the middle of the night — right? — in handcuffs in the middle of an election.
And it’s very concerning not just to returning citizens, but over the last several days I’ve been receiving calls even from conservatives that are concerned about even the timing of this. You know, if there are people out there who are concerned about the raid on Mar-a-Lago two years from a presidential election, then they should definitely be appalled at what is happening in the middle of an election here in Florida.
AMY GOODMAN: So, why did they think they could vote? If you could explain that? What role did the state play, as you said?
DESMOND MEADE: They played a very important role. Let’s be clear: The burden is on the state to determine whether or not an individual is eligible to register to vote. If I believe that I am eligible to vote, I would go to the supervisor of elections, and I would fill out a voter registration form. The supervisor of elections would then take that form and send it to the secretary of state, where they conduct whatever investigations they need to conduct, they run it through whatever systems they need to run it through, and then make a determination as to whether or not I’m eligible to vote.
In the case of Alachua County, you had an individual who was approached by the supervisor of elections office and said, “Hey, write your name on a piece of paper. We’re going to check to see if you’re eligible to vote. And if you are, we will send you a pamphlet, and then you can go and register to vote.” Well, guess what: This individual, days later, received the pamphlet from the supervisor of elections office saying that that person can vote, and that person registered to vote.
At the end of the day, the burden is on the state. We go to the state, and we fill out an application, and the state needs to make those determinations prior, prior to issuing a voter identification card. And so —
AMY GOODMAN: In the end, do you think these arrests are just going to be thrown out, but what matters is the message that’s sent for tomorrow’s, for Tuesday’s primary, making people, perhaps over a million people, terrified to dare to go to the polls, because what if they’re wrong? What if they somehow don’t have the right to vote?
DESMOND MEADE: Amy, this is unprecedented. And what I’m concerned about is it’s a message that’s not only for Florida, but for this country. It’s a message that is really compelling us to have this conversation, right? And I’m talking about a conversation on both sides of the aisle. This is a time where we can’t be throwing innuendos back and forth, and really look at the deeper question: Is this how we want our democracy to be, where in the middle of an election American citizens are being drug from their home in handcuffs? Right? This is totally unacceptable. Right? And this is happening to both Republicans, it’s happening to Democrats, it’s happening to people that are registering NPA. And so the timing couldn’t be worse than what it is right now. And if it can happen in Florida, it can happen anywhere in this country. And every citizen, no matter what their political persuasions, needs to be very concerned.
There’s also a criminal justice element here. Right? Removing someone from the roster requires the lowest burden of proof, right? And that is the preponderance of the evidence. But when you start talking about taking a citizen’s liberty, I mean, that’s the worst thing that you can do to an individual, is to take their liberty. The burden of proof, the standard of proof is at its highest, and that is beyond a reasonable doubt. Right? And a critical element to these charges is that a person knowingly and willfully registered to vote and voted. Right? In all of these cases, these individuals relied on the state to determine their eligibility, therefore there is no willingness or knowingly element that’s present. But yet these individuals are drug from their homes. Most of these individuals were interviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and were not even aware that they were the subject of a criminal investigation.
And here’s the kicker, Amy. This list that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is relying on was given to them back in July of 2021. And so, if the state was given a list of people who may not have been eligible to vote or to register to vote over a year ago, why would they wait until the middle of a primary to start making arrests?
AMY GOODMAN: Desmond Meade, we want to thank you for being with us, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition — congratulations on your 10th anniversary — and chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy.