March 23, 2023

A GOP-led bill expanding statewide prosecutors’ jurisdiction in Florida just made it to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s desk. The proposal aims to make it easier to prosecute those arrested by DeSantis’s sham election crimes police force, and critics worry it could dissuade some residents from voting.

On Friday, the Florida Senate approved Senate Bill 4B which, among other things, authorizes the Office of Statewide Prosecution (OSP) to “investigate and prosecute crimes involving voting in an election for a federal or state office” across multiple counties.

The bill was proposed after three cases against formerly incarcerated citizens arrested by the task force and accused of voting illegally were dismissed on the grounds that the OSP didn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute them.

While the sponsor of the Florida House version of the bill outright admitted that it was being proposed to help DeSantis act on his political stunt, the sponsor of the Senate proposal, state Sen. Jonathan Martin (R-Fort Myers), argued last week that allowing the OSP to step into cases in multiple jurisdictions would encourage local state prosecutors to make apolitical decisions. 

Senate Democrats were quick to identify what they considered the real reason for the proposal: to make it easier to prosecute formerly incarcerated citizens for voting.

On the debate floor, Democratic state Sen. Geraldine Thompson pointed out that the DeSantis administration arrested 20 formerly incarcerated Floridians back in August, but so far hasn’t been able to net a full conviction due in part to the OSP’s limited jurisdiction.

“They voted and they were arrested, were the subject of a press conference, had their faces splattered across front pages in the state of Florida,” the Orange County Democrat said. “Those cases in many instances have been dismissed by judges who said a statewide prosecutor didn’t have jurisdiction. That’s the reason we are hearing this particular bill.”

She also pointed out that the arrestees in question believed they had a right to vote because the Florida Department of Elections issued them voter registration cards without a fuss, and that many state prosecutors wouldn’t bring charges against them.

Sen. Martin denied these allegations and claimed that he didn’t know the details of the arrests, but the identical House bill explicitly points to these cases in its staff analysis.

As of Friday the bill is sitting on Governor Ron DeSantis’s desk. Civil rights groups including the NAACP, ACLU and League of Women Voters have since released a joint statement denouncing the proposal for its potential impact on voting rights.

“We have grave concerns about the potential for this office targeting returning citizens for honest mistakes about their eligibility to vote in an effort to intimidate communities of color,” they said.

The groups accused the state legislature of fast-tracking the bill for political gain. “The bill is being heard and swiftly passed only because the Governor desires to expand his prosecutorial authority over Floridians who are lawfully trying to exercise their right to vote,” the statement said. 

Overall, they argue that the bill is simply arbitrary: “This proposal is a solution in search of a problem.”

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