Opinion: Florida told them they could vote. DeSantis had them arrested for it

Editor’s note: Van Jones is a CNN host and political commentator and the founder of Dream.org. Janos Marton, an organizer and civil rights attorney, is the National Director of Dream.org. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors. See more reviews on CNN.


The arresting officers almost apologized as they arrested the suspect in front of his home in Tampa, Florida.

Janos Marton

The arrested man, Tony Patterson, was handcuffed and placed in a pickup truck in recently released body cam footage seen around the country.

“Why would you all let me vote if I couldn’t vote?” Patterson asked an officer in disbelief.

Such arrests are the latest act of political theater orchestrated by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and one in which law enforcement officers are used as props and unsuspecting Florida residents discover that voting has been done in the most embarrassing way possible. he denied them.

The Republican claims are part of a desperate effort to prove voter fraud. But even if the claims of widespread voter fraud in Florida are false, the impact of these arrests on the lives of these citizens is real, tragic and profound.

In 2018, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to amend the state constitution and restore voting rights to those who have already served sentences. The so-called 4th Amendment was supposed to be the largest expansion of voting rights since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The thinking behind the measure by the Florida Coalition for Restoring Rights (which is also supporting the legal defense of people in custody) is that the best way for someone to succeed after being incarcerated is to allow them to reenter. participate in society and one of the most valued activities of US citizenship.

But shortly after Florida’s 4th Amendment measure passed, DeSantis and state Republican lawmakers worked hard to undermine the will of voters. It passed the Legislature and was signed by the governor, a measure barring Floridians from voting with significant fines associated with a felony conviction.

The bill disqualified some people from voting after serving their time, but the state did not tell those people about their ineligibility.

The new law made it nearly impossible for those with felony convictions to vote and placed them behind a tedious bureaucratic maze. Why? Perpetuating one of the most powerful forms of racist voter suppression in the United States. According to The Sentencing Project, one in 16 black adults nationwide is disenfranchised. In Florida, that number is one in seven black adults. This bill would ensure it stays that way.

Body camera footage of police officers showing confusion and dismay over the arrests was released earlier this week by the Tampa Bay Times, which was obtained through public records requests.

Non-Union Michelle Stribling, a 52-year-old black woman, believed her rights had been restored because she was given a voter registration card. He voted by mail in Orange County in the 2020 election and now faces two felony counts of voting, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Leo Grant Jr., a 55-year-old black man, told officials he voted by mail after election administrators sent him a voter ID card. He was also amazed at how he could be accused of fraud when the government told him he could vote.

Stribling and Grant DeSantis were among 20 people arrested in a Florida crackdown on voter fraud charges. Now they face new crimes, fines of up to $5,000 and the possibility of going back to prison if convicted. (One man, among the 20 arrested, dropped his charges on Friday, saying he did not have the authority to bring the prosecutors.) They are being denied a second chance simply because they participated in our democracy.

DeSantis announced the arrests at a news conference in August, but they became national news after the release of body camera footage showing the disbelieving faces and plaintive voices of the Floridians being stripped of their freedom.

“They don’t have the right to vote,” DeSantis said at the event. “And now they will have to pay the price.”

It’s clear that people arrested for voter fraud probably didn’t know they weren’t eligible to vote; The DeSantis administration appears to have approved voter registration requests. It was the responsibility of the state to inform them that they were legally prohibited from voting. Instead, they used their desire to participate in democracy as an excuse for the state to put them back behind bars.

It’s worth noting that these cases are being handled very differently than in Florida where similar charges have been filed in the past.

In 2021, four residents of The Villages, a predominantly white, Republican community, were arrested for double voting in the 2020 election. They voted in Florida and one other state. Two of the accused gave permission to surrender themselves. All three accepted pretrial intervention agreements, must perform community service and earn at least a C in a civics class.

The governor of Florida showed his desperation for attention and headlines, but this is bigger than an election, a campaign or a political party. The United States was founded on the principles of freedom and democracy. The right to vote is one of those principles. Voting is the foundation of American values ​​and cherished ways of life. We dream of a country where democracy works for everyone.

Arrests of people with prior convictions do not strengthen our democracy or protect our communities. These are political mistakes with real-world consequences.

America should be more than the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Ours should be a country of second chances. Achieving this goal requires leaders who see formerly incarcerated people as people, not props.