The fallout came fast when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s election police unit charged Peter Washington with voter fraud last summer as part of a crackdown against felons who’d allegedly broken the law by casting a ballot. The Orlando resident lost his job supervising irrigation projects and his family’s health insurance. His wife dropped her virtual classes at Florida International University to help pay rent. Not long after, the case against Washington began falling apart. A judge ruled the statewide prosecutor who filed the charges didn’t have jurisdiction to do so. Washington’s attorney noted that he had received an official voter identification card in the mail after registering. The case was dismissed in February, reports the Washington Post. Many of the initial 20 arrests by the Office of Election Crimes and Security have stumbled in court. Six cases have been dismissed. Five other defendants accepted plea deals that resulted in no jail time. Only one case has gone to trial, resulting in a split verdict.
In its first nine months, the new unit made just four other arrests. Critics say the low numbers point to the overall strength of Florida’s electoral system and a lack of sufficient evidence to pursue more charges. Still, as he gears up for a presidential run, DeSantis is moving to give the office more teeth, asking the legislature to nearly triple the division’s annual budget from $1.2 million to $3.1 million. The Republican governor also pushed through a bill ensuring the statewide prosecutor has jurisdiction over election crime cases, to resolve an issue several judges have raised in dismissing cases. Voting rights advocates and defense attorneys say the expansion of the statewide prosecutor’s role is alarming. The office was created in 1986, and its portfolio typically includes offenses like extortion, racketeering and computer pornography involving two or more judicial circuits. The statewide prosecutor is appointed by the attorney general, Ashley Moody, a political ally of DeSantis. Defense attorneys say DeSantis is using the statewide prosecutor’s office to circumvent the role of local prosecutors, who have declined to pursue such cases. DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said that investigators won’t go after voters who are simply confused about Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for most felons.