It was a splashy August press conference from a courtroom in Broward County.
Flanked by local law enforcement and state VIP’s, including the Attorney General and newly appointed Secretary of State, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced his new elections crime and security office had made its first catch.
20 former felons, caught illegally voting during the 2020 Presidential election.
Almost immediately, DeSantis found himself on the defense.
“It’s not just going to be 20 arrests, this is the opening salvo of an office that was just set up July 1st,” DeSantis responded to a reporter’s question about the seemingly unimpressive announcement.
In a state where more than 11 million people voted during the 2020 election, 20 illegal voters seemed hardly worth all the fuss.
Who’s excluded from voting
Though a new Florida amendment now lets many former felons vote, people convicted of murder or certain sex offenses are still excluded from voting in Florida.
The exclusion is how 64-year old Robert Simpson of Palm Beach County made the list.
“No kind of way it's fair,” he said recently. “It’s got to be some kind of set up,” said the ex-felon who was convicted and served time for murder three decades ago.
Like many of the newly charged ex- felons Simpson says he thought his voting rights had been restored, especially after filling out voter applications then being sent voter registration cards from his local Supervisor of Elections.
“I didn't walk up somewhere and just tried to vote without the right procedures. I had everything in my possession to do it legal,” he told Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone recently.
Voting rights experts call the arrests outrageous.
“We have a system that’s designed to entrap people effectively,” said UF political science professor Dan Smith who has also testified in voting rights cases against the DeSantis Administration. “The onus is really on the state and the state failed,” he said.
Most, if not all the defendants, reported believing their voting right had been restored since neither local or state election offices ever flagged them for not being able to vote nor were they ever denied voter registration cards.
In addition, Florida election officials admit there is no statewide database that adequately flags someone who is ineligible to vote. Many of these ex-felons had committed their crimes and did their time decades ago and were unaware of the caveats in the state’s new amendment restoring the voting rights of former criminals.
The recent arrests spearheaded by the state’s new election crimes office are also fueling a growing number of legal questions over intent and blame since any criminal conviction would have to prove these ex-felons knew they weren’t allowed to vote but did so anyway. Governor DeSantis has been quick point part of the blame on local Supervisors of Elections but Supervisors are fighting back.
Mark Earley is the Supervisor of Elections in Leon County. He’s also President of the state association for Supervisors of Elections in Florida.
“None of this voting was the fault of the Supervisors,” he said recently. “It's the Division
of Elections’ responsibility. Once these roles are up and running, they make those checks for matches between felons and voters and that has not been done very properly,” Earley explained.
But while the blame game plays out, we’re also learning more about the state office that catapulted these former felons into the election spotlight.
Pete Antonacci leads the unit.
A former state prosecutor, Antonacci most recently served as the Supervisor of Elections in Broward county during 2020 when a few of these ex-felons are accused of illegally voting.
When the Governor announced these arrests, Antonacci spoke few words but gave a prelude of more arrests to come.
“This is the first of it, you’ll see more of these actions,” Antonacci said at the time.
But beyond Antonacci, we’ve discovered the new unit which has a total budget of $3.5 million, currently has just two additional employees.
It’s a significant worker shortage for an office earmarked for thirty-one positions, 10 of them from Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). According to a spokesperson from FDLE, they hope to have its 10 positions filled by the end of the month. Meantime, FDLE agents were temporarily assigned to help the office and worked the cases involving the nearly 20 ex-felons recently charged and arrested.
Despite repeated requests to speak with Mr. Antonacci about his new unit, a spokesperson for Florida’s Department State which oversees the office, refused. The department also has yet to provide details about the credentials of the two other employees in the office, but a spokesperson said the unit is currently hiring.
“We know nothing,” said UF’s Professor Smith. “We don't know who their staff is, we don't know who their database managers are. We don't know what kind of algorithms they're using to match people to various databases. Nothing is transparent,” Smith said.