Tampa Bay Times. October 25, 2022.
Editorial: Early rebuke for DeSantis’ elections police
It highlighted the state’s own culpability in registering felons to vote.
A Miami judge dealt a victory Friday for the law, decency and common sense by dismissing a fraud case brought by Gov. Ron DeSantis and his new elections police force. The ruling was a high-profile rebuke as early voting began Monday for the November general election, and it should send the governor a strong message about playing politics with the voting booth.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch tossed out the criminal case against Robert Lee Wood, one of 19 people the governor accused in August of voting illegally in the 2020 election. In the first legal challenge to DeSantis’ arrests, the judge rejected the idea that Florida’s Office of Statewide Prosecution could charge Wood, 56, with registering to vote and casting a ballot, ruling that it was the government — not Wood — who took the extra steps to get him registered.
Hirsch did not consider the substance of the charge, instead ruling narrowly on whether the statewide prosecutor had the authority to bring a case. The statewide prosecutor is restricted by law to prosecuting crimes involving two or more judicial circuits. In the case of Wood and at least 18 other people DeSantis has accused of voting illegally, the statewide prosecutor said they committed crimes in multiple jurisdictions when they registered and cast a ballot, each third-degree felonies carrying up to five years in prison.
But the judge ruled that Wood acted in Miami-Dade County alone. He registered to vote in Miami-Dade on Sept. 30, 2020, and his application, like all others, was forwarded to the Secretary of State’s office in Tallahassee. The secretary’s office notified Miami-Dade officials that it had verified Wood’s application, and he was issued a voter ID card. Wood voted at his local polling place in Miami in the November 2020 general election, and as with all ballots cast, his was forwarded to the Division of Elections in Tallahassee to be certified. But while these materials changed hands across the state, that was the government’s doing — not Wood’s. He never left Miami and hence, the judge found, could not be prosecuted by an office tasked with handling multijurisdictional crimes.
The statewide prosecutor’s office said that the judge applied an “incorrect analysis” and that the ruling would be appealed. But the ruling exposed the state’s own culpability in registering felons it now accuses of breaking the law. Wood was convicted of second-degree murder in 1991, making him ineligible to vote. So why was he cleared to register? And while the judge ruled on a jurisdictional issue, how could the state expect to prove at trial that Wood “willfully” registered with fraudulent intent when he went through established, government channels?
Hirsch’s ruling does not apply to the 18 other defendants facing voter fraud charges. But judges in other jurisdictions could reach the same conclusion. That would present a big problem for DeSantis’ new election crimes office, which the Legislature created this year. Lawmakers empowered the office to initiate inquiries and conduct “preliminary investigations.” A central idea was to bypass local prosecutors so the state could make examples in these cases. Removing the statewide prosecutor from the picture would limit a governor’s ability to make headlines.
DeSantis made a splash in announcing these arrests just days before the Aug. 23 primary, and in his ruling Friday dismissing one case, Hirsch has done the same.
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