When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis first announced a new unit to investigate alleged voter fraud in the state, he painted a picture of a sweeping police agency with more than 50 positions and unprecedented authority. Over one year later, the Office of Election Crimes and Security has struggled to staff up — even as the legislature recently increased its budget. Seven of the office’s 18 positions remain vacant according to a July organizational chart provided to The Intercept through a public records request.
DeSantis created the unit in April 2022 amid a broader Republican push to sow distrust in the electoral system by spreading false claims of voter fraud. But since its inception, the office has consistently fallen short of its staffing goals. An ABC affiliate reported that only three of 15 positions had been filled by January.
The current vacant roles include a senior attorney, assistant director, and four government operations consultants. The office is also hiring for a program director, after Republican political operative Brooke Renney vacated the position less than a year after she was hired. Florida Department of State spokesperson Natalie Meiner said Renney completed her assignments and took a job in the Department of State’s information technology division. She added that the office is currently advertising positions but did not clarify if the department still hopes to achieve its previously stated personnel numbers.
People are reluctant to join the office because there’s a public sense that it’s unnecessary, said Cecile M. Scoon, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. State attorneys and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement previously handled cases of alleged voter fraud, which remain exceedingly rare. “The way it was presented would make most reasonable and rational people hesitate to be a part of that,” Scoon said.
“Qualified people — regardless of political affiliation — do not want to be affiliated with fringe conspiracies about our elections.”
The unit has also drawn criticism from voting rights advocates, who say it is an attempt to discourage people of color from casting their ballots.
“This office was created in a partisan attempt to further unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud, a claim often used to attack ballot access of Black and brown voters,” said Estee Konor, associate director of litigation at Demos, a think tank that works on issues related to racial justice. “Qualified people — regardless of political affiliation — do not want to be affiliated with fringe conspiracies about our elections.”
The Office of Election Crimes and Security announced its first major set of arrests last August, when 20 people were charged with third-degree felonies for voting in the 2020 election, despite having disqualifying felony convictions. Many of those arrested said they had received their voter registration cards and thought they were eligible to vote.
The defendants — more than half of whom were Black — faced up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. At least seven cases have resulted in convictions, and four were dismissed because of jurisdictional issues, though the state has appealed several of the court orders. In February, lawmakers passed a law attempting to circumvent those jurisdictional issues. At least 11 of the cases remain open, pending, or in appeal.
Some of voters’ confusion stemmed from the legislative battle over a 2018 Florida ballot referendum, which had restored voting rights to people with felony convictions after they completed parole or probation. The measure would not have applied to those arrested last August, as it excluded people convicted of murder or a felony sex offense and was largely gutted by Republicans in 2019. Nevertheless, an attorney for one woman said she thought the law included her.
“You put SWAT teams out with helicopters to arrest grandfathers? Pull them out with their pajamas, don’t even let them get dressed?” Scoon said. “That was ugly. That was harsh and totally unnecessary. And then you find out many of these people were told by state authorities that they could vote. That doesn’t put a very good taste in your mouth.”
The state hasn’t shown the same aggression toward everyone it’s charged with voting-related crimes.
The state hasn’t shown the same aggression toward everyone it’s charged with voting-related crimes, Scoon said. At least four residents in The Villages, a retirement community in central Florida that is a Republican stronghold, were also arrested and charged with voter fraud in 2021. The cases were resolved in pretrial intervention deals. One defendant took a civics class and did community service to avoid a public record of the arrest or charges. All of the Villages residents arrested for voter fraud are white.
“These same prosecutors went to the heavily-Republican villages and made plea deals with several more conservative citizens,” Scoon said. “Nobody was dragged out in their pajamas and humiliated. Those that are aware of these discrepancies, honestly, who wants to be a part of that?”
A total of at least 26 people have been arrested for voting offenses as of January, according to a report from the election crimes office. The office received more than 2,000 complaints and shared information with law enforcement for the criminal investigation of roughly 1,100 people — a mere fraction of the 11.1 million Floridians who voted in the 2020 election alone.
In May, Florida lawmakers increased the Office of Election Crimes and Security’s budget from $1.1 million to $1.4 million. That money could be spent on other critical issues in Florida, Scoon noted. “We know that schools don’t have nurses, we know that places are dilapidated, state hospitals are missing staff,” she said. “There are real needs in our state.”
Scoon added that’s part of why the office hasn’t filled its roster. “You want to be useful in life, and life’s short.”