Florida lawmakers have signed off on a budget that includes more money for an election investigations office championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that has garnered controversy and outrage but few results.
Most notably, in August, it arrested 20 people on charges of being ineligible to vote when they cast ballots in the 2020 election — but who were also told by the DeSantis administration that they could legally vote.
The $116 billion proposed spending plan passed unanimously in both chambers Friday includes $1.4 million for the Office of Election Crimes and Security, which was created in 2022 as part of what DeSantis described as the state’s ongoing “election integrity” efforts. It’s a roughly 20 percent increase from the 15-person office’s current $1.1 million budget.
In his proposed budget released in January, DeSantis asked lawmakers to boost the office’s budget to $3.1 million.
"Election integrity is a foundational component of our system of government," Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade, who oversaw the portion of the House budget that includes the election investigation office, told NBC News. "Guaranteeing we commit the necessary resources to maintain our election integrity was a no brainer."
Democrats and voting rights groups have opposed the office’s creation from the start, but that criticism intensified in August when state law enforcement used early morning raids to arrest 20 people who had been incarcerated on felonies and voted in the 2020 election after their release.
Each of those arrested had filed voter registration forms that were approved by both county and state elections officials, and they were sent voter identification cards. Most later said they did not know they were ineligible to vote. It is the responsibility of the Florida Department of State, which is part of the DeSantis administration, to vet voter registration applications for eligibility standards.
At least six of those initial 20 arrests were dismissed. Five took plea deals that resulted in no jail time, and just one went to trial. The office said in a report that it made just four other arrests during its first nine months.
Attorney Robert Barrar, who represents Ronald Miller, one of the 20 people arrested, called the expanded funding for the unit “a colossal waste of taxpayers' dollars.”
“The Florida Legislature and the governor like to call this a free state. Well, what’s free about a state that discourages people from voting and wastes money of the taxpayers to further their own political agenda?" he said.
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It’s the second time in recent months that Republican lawmakers have moved to strengthen the program. During a special legislative session in February, they passed a law clarifying that Florida’s statewide prosecutor had jurisdiction over the cases. That came after an initial round of charges were dropped because judges across the state said that office, which is in charge of enforcement, did not have jurisdiction.
Those arrested were mostly low-income minorities, who are now thrown back into the criminal justice system after doing their time for previous offenses.
In interviews with NBC News, the attorneys for many of those arrested by the election police unit eviscerated the program — and blasted state Republicans’ effort to expand it as a huge waste of money.
“We are squandering millions to protect election integrity from a nonexistent threat,” said Larry Davis, whose client Robert Lee Wood faced two counts of voter fraud.
A judge initially dismissed the charges against Wood, but the state filed an appeal, which remains in process.
“He is still mired in this mess,” Davis said.
Wood, decades earlier, was convicted of second-degree murder, which made him ineligible to vote in Florida. The Florida Department of State nevertheless approved his voter identification card after he submitted an application after being encouraged to do so during a Miami voter drive.
Several of those arrested told law enforcement they thought they could vote because of confusion over a 2020 ballot measure passed by Florida voters that set up a pathway for people who had been incarcerated for felonies to regain their voting rights. Under that constitutional provision, those convicted of murder or felony sexual assault are not eligible.
Davis described the day of Wood’s arrest last August in harrowing detail. Wood was awoken in the early morning hours by law enforcement officers “pointing automatic weapons” at him.
He ended up spending two days in jail following his arrest — a stretch that made his heart issues worse and put him in the hospital for several days, Davis said.
“He had no idea he even did anything that was illegal,” Davis said.
Barrar, the attorney representing Ronald Miller, said his client was also hauled out of his house at dawn with guns pointed at him and charged with illegally voting and registering to vote.
Miller, who was also convicted of second-degree murder decades earlier, said he, too, had been encouraged to register to vote by a canvasser and then received his approved voter identification card in the mail from state officials.
“Pulled out of his house, with guns pointed at him, in his boxers, for doing nothing wrong,” Barrar said. “It disrupted his entire life. He had to go to jail, a friend had to bond him out.”
While the charges against Miller were ultimately dropped, the state appealed, meaning the saga “is all still hanging over his head,” Barrar said.
Mark Rankin, the attorney for Romona Oliver, who’d initially faced felony charges from the unit, called the force “nothing but a waste of taxpayer funds” and an example of “political theater.”
“There’s no evidence of a voter fraud problem in Florida. There’s no evidence to suggest that the election police force was needed to begin with,” Rankin said.
Oliver, his client, ended up taking a plea deal on one of the election police force charges she’d faced, allowing her to avoid punishment. Oliver, of Tampa, pleaded no contest to voting illegally in the 2020 election; prosecutors dropped another felony charge related to her voter registration.
She was convicted decades earlier of second-degree murder, making her ineligible to vote.
Oliver’s voter registration was nevertheless approved in 2020 by the Florida Department of State, which sent her a vote identification card.
“What they’ve done so far shows that it should be disbanded rather than be expanded and have public funds be spent on it,” Rankin said.