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Civil rights groups demand voter verification system as 'fraud' arrest footage stokes outrage

 Tampa Bay police carrying out the arrest of a Tony Patterson, one of 20 people arrested for alleged voter fraud during the 2020 election.
Screenshot of Tampa Bay Times video
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Tampa Bay police carrying out the arrest of a Tony Patterson, one of 20 people arrested for alleged voter fraud during the 2020 election.

The first video opens up with a frustrated Tampa man being arrested over a crime he didn't know he committed. The police officers appeared just as perplexed: "Apparently, I guess you have a warrant."

The man: "For what?" The officer: "I'm not sure." Another officer steps in and says, "For voter stuff."

Tony Patterson's exchange with officers was one of several recorded by police cameras that show confused men and women — mostly Black — as they were arrested across Florida in August, over voter fraud charges bombastically announced by Governor Ron DeSantis just hours later.

As the Tampa Bay Times published the impactful footage earlier this week, it underlined the contentious nature of the charges and reignited the debate over Florida’s troubled implementation of Amendment 4.

Now civil rights organizations have launched a bail bond fund, a legal defense fund and a drive to establish a statewide voter verification system, calling out officials’ “outrageous negligence” on the matter.

Neil Voz is the Deputy Director of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Voz said the non-partisan petition for a statewide verification system will be sent to multiple jurisdictions, "challenging the government to implement the changes through the legislative process."

"If we had a voter verification system that worked on the front end, we wouldn’t see anybody being arrested," Voz said. "And we know that would help save so much money as it relates to all of the costs in law enforcement and the court system and the human heartache we’re seeing in these videos." 

The citizens who were videotaped, mostly at their homes, said they were misled into thinking they could vote when they didn't meet the requirements. The 20 people arrested — including eight in South Florida — now face "a third-degree felony punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and up to 5 years in prison," according to the state.

The arrests were ordered by Gov. DeSantis' Office of Election Crimes and Security and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on August 18. The Republican governor, who is running for reelection, held a press conference that same day, praising law enforcement for their investigation and arrests.

But he also acknowledged an "efficient, transparent election" in 2020. Despite this view, which is broadly shared across the political spectrum, Secretary of State Cord Byrd told WLRN “additional security” was a priority of the administration.

In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to individuals who have past felony convictions, regardless of outstanding fees, fines, and restitution payments. But the Florida Legislature essentially rolled back that reform in 2020, creating a nebulous system with unclear obstacles.

Amendment 4 also excludes those convicted of murder or a sexual offense, but there is no mention of this on voter registration applications and it appears those arrested were not aware of it.

Nicole Porter, senior director of advocacy for the The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based crime and punishment research firm, called the arrests "an outrageous negligence on behalf of Florida officials" for not "aligning that rollback with the level of infrastructure necessary to confirm eligibility for voter eligibility and ballot access."

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and The Sentencing Project say the petition aims to gather widespread support from people across the state for their statewide verification system proposal.
Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Wilkine Brutus