BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. — It was a splashy August press conference from a courtroom in Broward County.
Flanked by local law enforcement and state VIPs, including the Attorney General and newly appointed Secretary of State, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that his new Elections Crime and Security Office had made its first catch.
20 former felons were 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 1," 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 allows many former felons to 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. An ex-felon, Simpson was convicted and served time for murder three decades ago.
“No kind of way it's fair,” he said. “It’s got to be some kind of setup."
Like many of the newly charged ex-felons, Simpson said he thought his voting rights had been restored, especially after filling out voter applications and then being sent voter registration cards from his local Supervisor of Elections.
“I didn't walk up somewhere and just try to vote without the right procedures," he stated. "I had everything in my possession to do it legal."
Voting rights experts call the arrests outrageous.
“We have a system that’s designed to entrap people effectively,” UF political science professor Dan Smith said, who has also testified in voting rights cases against the DeSantis Administration. “The onus is really on the state, and the state failed."
Most, if not all, defendants reported believing their voting right had been restored since neither local nor state election offices ever flagged them or denied voter registration cards.
Florida election officials also admitted that there is no statewide database that adequately flags someone who is ineligible to vote. Many of these ex-felons 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. Any criminal conviction would have to prove that these ex-felons knew they weren’t allowed to vote but did so anyway.
Gov. DeSantis has been quick to 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,” Earley said. “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."
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, which was when a few of these ex-felons were accused of illegally voting.
When Gov. DeSantis 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.
But beyond Antonacci, we’ve discovered that 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 an FDLE spokesperson, they hope to have its 10 positions filled by the end of the month.
In the 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 of 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," Professor Smith said. “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."