Body camera footage shows people arrested for voting under DeSantis' voter fraud law


The arrests are part of a larger effort by Florida Republicans to disenfranchise Black voters, civil rights advocates say.

When Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in April to create a special election police force tasked with investigating alleged voter fraud, civil rights advocates feared the law would be weaponized to harass voters.

Those fears seemed to be confirmed on Tuesday when the Tampa Bay Times released body-worn police camera footage showing Florida residents being arrested on felony charges of illegally casting ballots in the 2020 election.

Florida police arrested six Hillsborough County residents on Aug. 18. The arrests took place mere hours before DeSantis held a news conference announcing the newly created task force's first actions, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The people shown being arrested in the videos, which the outlet obtained through a public records request, all had prior felony convictions and had served their sentences. They were charged with voter fraud, a third-degree felony, and face up to five years in prison. According to the Times in August, 20 Florida residents had at that point been arrested and charged with voting illegally.

The three people shown in the video seemed unaware they might have committed voter fraud.

A man identified by the Tampa Bay Times as 49-year-old Nathan Hart told the officers arresting him that he had identified himself at "the driver's license place" to a person who encouraged him to register to vote as "a convicted felon. I'm pretty sure I can't." He said he told him that he'd just gotten off probation a month earlier.

"He goes: 'Well, then, you can probably vote. Hey, just fill out the form, and if you can vote, then they'll let — give you a card, if you can't then they won't.' I'm like, Alright. He said: 'Well, just sign the form. You know, if they let you vote, then you can. If they don't, then you can't.'"

"Well, there's your defense," one of the officers says.

Romona Oliver is shown being arrested after she too was previously told she was allowed to register to vote. She said she had registered to vote at a DMV in 2020 and was given a voter ID card after the Florida Department of State checked her eligibility.

The third person shown being arrested, Tony Patterson, asks the officers what voter fraud is. When he then asks why they're doing this now, an officer responds, "I have no idea, man."

"This is absolutely nothing but political theater," Mark P. Rankin, a lawyer who is representing Oliver, told the New York Times. "It's sad because these are people who were put in handcuffs, taken to jail, charged with felonies and are facing prison sentences."

Florida's voting laws can be confusing as a result of how they have been created. In 2018, voters approved a state constitutional amendment that restored the right to vote for people with past felony convictions who had completed their prison terms. But the law was later amended to exclude people convicted of murder or felony sex offenses.

Subsequent amendments to the bill made by DeSantis and Republican state lawmakers have created a situation in which people may not know if they're legally allowed to vote. In 2019, for example, DeSantis signed a bill into law that prohibits formerly incarcerated citizens from voting until they have paid off all of their legal fees and fines. Voting rights advocates have criticized the law as "fundamentally undemocratic."

The arrests are part of a larger effort by DeSantis and Florida Republicans to disenfranchise Black voters, civil rights advocates say. Before the 2018 ballot initiative passed, the state's lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions disenfranchised an estimated one out of every four Black men in the state, according to data from the Sentencing Project.

Neil Volz, the deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told reporters in a press conference on Wednesday that the actions taken by DeSantis' voter fraud task force were "outrageous" and a demonstration of a broken system.

"If we had a voter verification system that worked on the front end, we wouldn't have anyone arrested," he said.

The group has been advocating for the full restoration of voting rights for incarcerated felons and those formerly incarcerated on felony charges for years. Since DeSantis' voter fraud task force was launched in April, the FRRC has organized to help those impacted by the arrests. The organization has a bail fund, and its legal team is offering pro bono representation to assist those arrested.

"We believe that anyone who wants to participate in democracy and genuinely believes that they are eligible should not be punished because of the state's confusing voter system," Volz said in a statement in August.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.