The Florida legislature last week created a law enforcement agency — informally called the Electoral Police — to deal with what Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republicans have declared an urgent problem: the roughly 0.000677 percent of voters suspected of committing crimes. voter fraud.
In Georgia, Republicans in the House on Tuesday passed a law that gives new powers to police officers investigating allegations of election-related crimes.
And in Texas, the Republican Attorney General has already established an “election integrity unit” charged solely with investigating illegal voting.
Voter fraud is extremely rare – and often by accident. Still, ambitious Republicans across the country are making a show of cracking down on voter crime this election year. Lawmakers in several states have reorganized and rebranded law enforcement agencies, while tightening penalties for vote-related crimes. Republican prosecutors and attorneys general promote their aggressive prosecution, in some cases making felony cases out of situations that in the past could have been classified as honest mistakes.
It is a new phase of the Republican campaign to tighten voting laws that began after former President Donald J. Trump began making false claims of fraud after the 2020 election. The effort, which resulted in a wave of new state laws last year , has now shifted to courthouses, raising concerns from voting rights activists that fear of prosecution could deter some voters from voting.
“As myths about widespread voter fraud become central to political campaigning and discourse, we’re seeing more of the high-profile attempts to make examples of individuals,” said Wendy Weiser, the vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center.
It’s nearly impossible to judge whether the talk of cracking down on voter crime is leading to an increase in prosecutions. There is no national data on how many people have been accused of voter fraud in 2020 or in previous elections, and state data is often incomplete. Available state figures show that in 2020 there were very few examples of possible cases and few prosecutions.
Florida election officials have made only 75 referrals to law enforcement regarding possible fraud during the 2020 election, of the more than 11 million votes cast, according to data from the Florida Secretary of State’s Office. Of those investigations, only four cases have been prosecuted as voter fraud in the state as of the 2020 election.
In Texas, where Attorney General Ken Paxton announced his new “election integrity unit” in October to investigate election crimes, The Houston Chronicle reported that the six prosecutors spent $2.2 million and closed three cases.
And in Wisconsin, where a large number of Republicans, including a candidate for governor, are trying to disprove the results of the 2020 presidential election on false claims of fraud, a report released last week by the Wisconsin Election Commission said the state had referred to local prosecutors 95 cases of felons voting in 2020 when they were not allowed to. Of those cases, prosecutors have brought charges against 16 people.
“The underlying level of actual crime, I don’t think that has changed at all,” said Lorraine Minnite, a political science professor at Rutgers University who has spent years collecting data on voter fraud in America. “In an election of 130 million or 140 million people, that’s almost zero. The truth is not a priority; what is a priority is the political use of this issue.”
The political incentives to draw attention to the enforcement of voting laws are clear. A Monmouth University poll in January found that 62 percent of Republicans and just 19 percent of Democrats believed voter fraud was a major problem.
That could mean that the likelihood of being accused of voter fraud could be linked to the local prosecutor’s political leanings.
In Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, District Attorney Eric Toney served nine years without prosecuting a voter fraud case. But after starting his campaign for attorney general in 2021, Mr. Toney, a Republican, received a letter from a Wisconsin man who had obtained copies of millions of ballots in an attempt to make his own assessment of the 2020 election. The letter quoted five Fond du Lac County voters whose registrations listed their home addresses at a UPS Store, a violation of a state law requiring voters to register where they live.
mr. Toney accused all five of voter fraud.
“We get tips from the community of people who break the law all year round, and we take them seriously, especially if it’s an electoral law violation,” said Mr. Tony in an interview. “The police are taking it seriously. I take it seriously as a prosecutor.”
One of the indicted voters, Jamie Wells, told investigators that the UPS Store was her “home base.” She said she lived in a mobile home and split time between a nearby campground and Louisiana. Ms. Wells did not respond to phone or email messages. If convicted, she could face up to three and a half years in prison, although she would most likely receive a much shorter sentence.
In La Crosse County, Wisconsin, District Attorney Tim Gruenke, a Democrat, received a similar referral: 23 people registered to vote with addresses of a local UPS store, and 16 of them voted in 2020. But Mr. Gruenke said. that he had decided that there was no attempted fraud. In lieu of felony charges, the local clerk sent voters a letter giving them 30 days to change their registrations to an address where they lived.
“It didn’t seem to me that there was any attempt at fraud,” said Mr. Gruenke. “It would be a felony, and I thought that would be too serious for what amounted to a typo or typo.”
Mr. Toney linked his decision to his views on the 2020 Wisconsin election, which Democratic candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. won by more than 20,682 of the 3.3 million votes cast.
While he never contested Mr Biden’s victory, he said he believed that “there is no doubt that Wisconsin electoral laws were not complied with and fraud had occurred.”
“I support identifying fraud or electoral laws not being followed to ensure it never happens again because elections are the cornerstone of our democracy,” said Mr Toney.
(Mrs. Wells, one of the voters who sued Mr. Toney, also said she believed something was wrong in the 2020 election. “They took it from Trump,” she told investigators.)
Florida’s Mr. DeSantis is arguably the best-known politician promoting efforts to strengthen criminal law enforcement of voting-related laws. The governor, who is up for re-election in November, has made the new police station a top priority. †
The unit, called the Office of Election Crimes and Security, takes on the work already done by the secretary of state’s office, but reports directly to the governor.
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“Florida will be at the forefront of this,” said Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group that supports the bill.
Mr. DeSantis is not alone. In Arizona, state senator Wendy Rodgers, a Republican seeking to undo the 2020 election, is sponsoring a bill that would create an “election bureau” to investigate fraud involving sweeping authority, including the ability to seize election equipment and records.
In Georgia, Republicans in the House on Tuesday passed a voting bill that, among other amendments, would expand the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s powers to identify and investigate election violations, including the ability to conduct election audits of subpoenaed documents.
Republican efforts also extend to election administrators. Republicans in Texas last year increased penalties for election workers accused of influencing a voter’s decision while offering assistance, such as translations.
But Florida’s legislation would be the first in the nation to restrict how election officials can defend themselves in court. The bill prohibits them from accepting legal defenses offered or funded by a non-governmental agency.
That provision has led to twofold criticism. “The principle that a state would deny legal representation of an election official’s choice when facing criminal charges is deeply against the rule of law,” said Ben Ginsberg, an attorney for Republican presidential campaigns and national committees before breaking with the law. the party during the Trump era.
Mr. Ginsberg and Bob Bauer, a prominent Democratic attorney, founded the Election Official Legal Defense Network, an organization of attorneys that provides free legal advice and representation to election administrators.
The sentences for those convicted of electoral fraud vary widely. A Minnesota man on probation for a felony was sentenced this week to pay a $214 fine after pleading guilty to lying about his eligibility to vote on an absentee ballot. He never returned the ballot.
But in Memphis, Pamela Moses was sentenced to six years in prison in January after registering to vote when she had a felony conviction. The election fraud conviction was dropped last month and a new trial was ordered when a judge ruled that the Tennessee Department of Corrections had improperly withheld evidence later discovered by The Guardian.
In a statement, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, a Republican facing reelection this year, blamed Ms. Moses for the long sentence. “I gave her a chance to plead for a crime without jail time,” Ms Weirich said. A spokesperson said Ms. Weirich had not yet decided whether to start a new trial.
Ms Moses, a musician and Black Lives Matter activist, said she hadn’t known she was not allowed to vote.
“They did make an example of me,” she said in an interview. “They showed every black person in Tennessee and whoever saw this case, you better not vote, they’re going to put you in jail.”
Kitty Bennett contributed to research.