Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that law enforcement has been dispatched to arrest 20 former convicts who have been charged with voting illegally in the 2020 election, attracting criticism from voting rights groups who accuse him of cloaking voter suppression as securing election integrity.

The Republican governor, a potential presidential candidate in 2024, announced the charges during a press conference while surrounded by law enforcement at the Broward County Courthouse, stating the charges represent the “opening salvo” of his newly created election crimes office with further charges concerning election fraud to come.

He said those charged were from Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach and had either been convicted of murder or sexual assault and whose voter rights had not been restored by Amendment 4, legislation that passed in 2018 to restore voting rights to former convicts unless they had committed the crime of murder or a sexual offense.

“They are disqualified from voting because they have been convicted of either murder or sexual assault, and they do not have the right to vote. They have been disenfranchised under Florida law,” he said. “They did not go through any process, they did not get their rights restored and yet they went ahead and voted anyway.

“That is against the law, and now they are going to pay the price for it.”

If convicted on the third-degree felony charge, each defendant could be sentenced to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The charges were brought following investigations conducted by DeSantis’ controversial Office of Election Crimes and Security which some say is an effort to prevent minorities from voting and is an attack on free and fair elections.

The office opened July 1, and DeSantis said without giving specifics that it has investigations ongoing into people who voted in two different counties as well as ballots cast by non-citizens and “other types of fraudulent activities.”

“I imagine you will see prosecutions on that,” he said.

DeSantis described the office as a way to improve election integrity in a state that he said was a model of election security and integrity in the 2020 election while Attorney General Ashely Moody said its actions are necessary to improve voter confidence in elections.

“In order for a democracy to preserver, in order for us to remain a country and a state under a rule of law, we must have men and women who are willing to enforce those laws and today is a recognition of that,” she said. “We must have elected leaders that are ensuring free and fair elections and also ensuring our public and the citizens that they can have confidence in the election process.”

Secretary of State Cord Byrd acknowledged the criticism that has been directed at the office, including that it is unnecessary, and defended it by saying that even minor irregularities and corruption in the elections process threaten representative government.

“These arrests send a clear message to those who are actively engaging in election crimes or irregularities that our team of highly skilled investigators will undertake a thorough examination and if evidence is found of a crime you will be held accountable,” he said.

The announcement of the arrests attracted staunch opposition to the newly created office and strong criticism toward DeSantis who they accuse of claiming voter suppression as securing election integrity.

“No one has done more to violate the integrity of Florida’s elections and make it harder for Floridians to be part of our democracy than Ron DeSantis,” Andrea Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising, a voting advocacy organization, said in a statement.

“DeSantis showed in his new political stunt staged in the Broward County Court House a desperate effort to demonstrate the need for his private police force,” she said. “The real crime, though, is DeSantis’ attack on free and fair elections. He will try to create hysteria around fraud in order to further disenfranchise Black and Brown voters.”

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition also condemned the charges brought against the 20 people, stating Amendment 4 is clear on who can and cannot vote and it’s the state’s fault for issuing them a voter identification card in the first place.

“We hope the state starts to invest as much energy, if not more, on the front end of the election process as the back end of the process,” FRRC Executive Director Desmond Meade and Deputy Director Neil Volz said in a joint statement. “That means fixing the system to prevent situations like this and spending tax dollars to investigate and prosecute Florida citizens.

“It is less costly and easier to prevent these situations from happening in the first place.”

During the press conference, DeSantis also announced that he has directed county Supervisors of Elections that they must preserve all records of the 2020 election until additional reviews and investigations are complete.

Nearly 11 million Floridians voted in the 2020 election.

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