TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's agriculture commissioner wants a state investigation of the recent arrests of up to 20 felons for illegal voting in the 2020 election.
Nikki Fried, a Democrat and former candidate for governor, is questioning the motives of Florida's new Election Crimes Office as many charged have said they thought they were following the law.
"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."
Fried's letter comes about three weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis first announced the arrests. During a press conference in Broward County, the Republican said the 20 could face a $5,000 fine and up to three years in prison.
"Our new election crimes office has sprung into action to hold individuals accountable for voter fraud," DeSantis said in the news release that followed his announcement. "Today's actions send a clear signal to those who are thinking about ballot harvesting or fraudulently voting. If you commit an elections crime, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Though disqualified under Florida law for a sex crime or homicide conviction, those charged have said they didn't know they were forbidden from voting in 2020. Election supervisors even sent some voter registration cards.
"These people could be facing a serious, serious prison sentence for something they believed they had the right to do," Fried said Tuesday afternoon.
Fried was far from confident the inspector general's office would fulfill her proposition.
During her time as Florida's agriculture commissioner, the politician has frequently called on the office to investigate state actions with little success. She rejected criticism that her motives were political following this most recent request.
"This has nothing to do with politics," Fried said. "This is me doing my job, and I've been doing that for three and a half years, holding the governor accountable, and I'm going to continue doing that for as long as he is in office. And so this was not political. This was a response to a political decision that he made."
The governor’s office deferred to the state department for comment. Officials there didn't immediately offer a statement. The secretary of state, meanwhile, has maintained the felons charged bear fault for the alleged crimes.
"The ultimate responsibility lies with the person registering to vote," Secretary of State Cord Byrd said last week.
Byrd told us during a press gathering that election supervisors and state officials are tasked with keeping electoral rolls clean, but voters have to attest on registration forms whether they're qualified to cast a ballot.
"Let's make no mistake, those 20 people who were arrested, they perjured themselves on the form," said the former Republican lawmaker. "They lied, and when you lie, bad things happen."
Prosecutors will likely need to prove the ex-convicts had willful intent to make the voter fraud charges stick. That's something even fellow Republicans have told us will be difficult given the alleged confusion of those facing penalties.