Ron DeSantis’s Voting Crackdown Is Grotesque

Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s new election cops are locking up the state’s citizens for trying to exercise their most basic political right, the right to vote — all to impress the Extremely Online right.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at the 2021 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida, on July 18, 2021. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

One man in Miami-Dade County was in his underwear when a SWAT Team burst into his home and arrested him. They didn’t even let him put on his clothes before they took him to jail.

The anonymous Miami-Dade resident and nineteen other men and women around the state were arrested by the new election police created in late April by Florida’s ultrareactionary governor Ron DeSantis. Their crime was voting.

That’s it. They voted in the last election even though they were barred from doing so by Florida’s antidemocratic laws. An armed SWAT team arrived with a helicopter at 6 AM to drag this man to jail in his underwear because he voted.

This particularly grotesque spectacle was a product of Governor DeSantis’s presidential ambitions. And the good news is that it looks like the case against the twenty voters may collapse in the light of a recent revelation that DeSantis’s own appointees failed in their legal duty to inform them that they were ineligible to vote.

But the deeper obscenity is that Florida or any other state denies anyone who lives within its borders the right to vote in its elections. There is no more basic political right than the right to vote in elections to determine the representatives who will make the laws you’ll have to obey. There’s never any good reason to deny it to anyone.

The Most Online Governor in America

The nominal purpose of DeSantis’s new “Office of Election Crimes and Security” was to prevent “fraud” and other “election crimes.” Its actual purpose is to pander to a conservative base that’s spent the last two years being fed the absurd lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

DeSantis makes a lot of gestures like that. A couple months ago, his fellow conservative David French called him the “most online governor in America.” The online right was having a collective meltdown about parents taking their kids to attend to drag shows, and DeSantis rushed to get his name in the news announcing that he was “considering” directing Florida’s child protective services to investigate any such parents. No one had any data about how often this actually happened — and hardly anyone freaking out about it even bothered to distinguish between burlesque shows and other kinds of performances by people in drag that might involve zero remotely sexual content — but it was the Issue of the Week, and DeSantis wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to prove his credentials as the most zealous culture warrior in the 2024 Republican field.

Sitting out that meltdown would have been as unthinkable not making a big show of fighting against the alleged plague of critical race theory in Florida’s public schools. Or the alleged plague of Marxist professors in Florida universities. This is a governor who brought us a law whose real official name was the “Stop WOKE Act.”

Existing Florida law already lets the governor “appoint officers to investigate violations of election law” if he cho0ses to do so. But just doing that wouldn’t have made as big a splash as creating a whole new force — one whose existence is premised on the entirely evidence-free assertion that fraud was a big problem in the 2020 election.

And the twenty people who were terrorized by these election cops so DeSantis could keep the “Office of Election Crimes and Security” in the headlines aren’t even being accused of fraud. They were real people who registered to vote using their own names and only voted once. Their crime was trying to exercise a basic right denied to them under Florida’s antidemocratic laws.

Let Them All Vote

Most or all of the twenty may have believed Florida’s laws allowed them to vote. In 2018, a large majority of Floridians voted for Amendment 4, which was supposed to automatically reenfranchise 1.4 million ex-convicts who’d lost their voting rights under a law left over from the Jim Crow era. Then the Republican state legislature rushed to seminullify the decision that had just been made by a supermajority of voters by passing a new law requiring everyone who would have been reenfranchised by Amendment 4 to first pay any fines or fees associated with their past convictions — if they somehow got through the cartoonishly byzantine process to figure out what they still owed. Adding to the confusion, Amendment 4 even in its original form exempted certain particularly serious crimes.

It’s not hard to see how a would-be voter could end up sincerely believing that Florida law protected their right to vote when it didn’t. Or how a well-meaning and reasonably well-informed volunteer standing in a Walmart parking lot registering people to vote could mistakenly reassure someone that they had this right — which is apparently what happened to the Miami-Dade man who ended up being dragged to jail in his underwear.

But there’s a deeper issue here. Who cares whether they knew that Florida’s laws denied them their civil rights or not? Why should anyone be prevented from voting for the officials who will make and enforce the laws they have the live under?

If the twenty people arrested in Florida had lived in Maine or Vermont, they wouldn’t have even had to wait to finish serving their time. Prisoners in those states have always been allowed to vote, and nothing bad or even politically unusual has happened as a result. Prisoners in Canada can vote. The same is true in fifteen other countries. Why shouldn’t the United States be on that list?

If I had my way, undocumented immigrants and for that matter foreign students attending US universities would be able to vote too. It should be about as easy to get voting rights when you move to a new jurisdiction as it to get a borrowing card at the local library. In fact, as much as I love and value public libraries as an institution, the denial of book-borrowing rights to someone who lives near a library should objectively be much less disturbing than denying someone who has to spend their whole lives obeying the laws of some jurisdiction the right to vote in elections to decide who gets to make those laws.

The twenty people arrested in Florida did nothing wrong — and wouldn’t have even if they were knowingly engaged in civil disobedience against the state’s hideously unjust election laws. Let them all vote.