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. Nearly all of those arrested were former inmates who mistakenly believed 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.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Now, we’ll turn our attention to Florida. The newly created Office of Election Crimes and Security arrested its first suspects in voter fraud related to the 2020 elections. The arrests come just as voters are set to go to the polls Tuesday in the state’s primary. The office was Ron DeSantis’ pet project. He announced the arrests Thursday.
GOV. RON DESANTIS: Florida has arrested and is currently processing 20 people in connection with voter fraud.
AMY GOODMAN: Many of the people arrested were former inmates. They were not eligible to vote because they had not had their voting rights restored or were no longer eligible due to their convictions, according the state.
We travel to Orlando, Florida to talk to Desmond Meade (president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition), who works with returning citizens to restore 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 most recent book is entitled Let My People Vote: My Struggle to Restore Civil Rights for Returning Citizens.
Welcome back Democracy Now!, Desmond. It would be great if you could explain what is happening. Who were these people? What message was being sent to these people? Go back to when you were the one who spearheaded this movement. Florida overwhelmingly approved it. This means that returning citizens can vote again, just as you said.
DESMOND MEADE: First of all, Amy, thank you for having me back. 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.
The state assured these individuals that they could vote and could register to vote. It is up to the state to decide if an individual is eligible. 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 for the person who wanted Donald Trump to vote as hard as we did for the one who wished they could vote 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 just want to be very clear for everyone. You were the one who introduced Amendment 4, a historic ballot initiative that restored voting rights to most residents of states 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. The Republican-dominated Legislature overturned this and stated that all owed money must be repaid, just like Desmond Meade. 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 are you responsible for it?
DESMOND MEADE: For outstanding fines and fees, such a court costs, restitution, or any other fees that the Florida Legislature has allowed the courts to use in order to collect revenue to keep their doors open. Amy, this really speaks to a deeper problem. The deeper issue is that if a citizen can’t rely upon the state to determine eligibility, or if a state cannot determine how much they owe them, then the citizen should not be 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. If there are people who are concerned about Mar-a-Lago’s raid two years before a presidential election, they should be appalled by what is happening in the middle a Florida election.
AMY GOODMAN: So why did they believe they could vote? You could help me to understand why. What role did the state have, as you mentioned?
DESMOND MEADE: They played an 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 I am eligible, I would visit the supervisor of elections and fill out a form to register. 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.
The burden rests on the state. We go to the state and fill out an application. The state must make these determinations before issuing a voter ID 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 unheard of. 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 completely 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. It can happen anywhere in the country, even if it happens in Florida. Every citizen, regardless of political affiliation, should be concerned.
There’s also a criminal justice element here. Right? Right? This is the preponderance. 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 evidence, the standard for proof, is at its highest and it is beyond reasonable doubt. Right? This is because the person was knowingly and willingly registered to vote. 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. These individuals are still being drugged from their homes. The majority of these people were interviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and they didn’t know that they were being investigated for criminal charges.
And here’s the kicker, Amy. The list that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement relies on was provided in July 2021. So, if the state was given this list of people who may not be eligible to vote or register to vote more than one year ago, then why would they wait for the middle of a primary in order to make 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.