Seven weeks after Florida’s state government opened a new office of election crimes and security, Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Thursday that 17 people had been charged with casting illegal ballots in the 2020 election, in which 11.1 million Floridians voted.
The governor called the arrests “a first salvo” in a long-overdue crackdown on voting crimes. Critics called the announcement a publicity stunt that said less about voter fraud than about holes in the state’s election security apparatus that had allowed the violations to occur in the first place.
Mr. DeSantis, who is seeking re-election this year and is widely considered to be running an unannounced campaign for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has made action against voter fraud a centerpiece of his tenure as governor. He offered crucial backing last year to legislation tightening the rules for registering to vote and casting ballots. The State Legislature allotted $1.1 million for his 15-person election crimes office after he proposed its creation late last year.
But while the specter of widespread fraud has become a staple of Republican political rhetoric, there is no evidence that election crimes are a serious problem in Florida or anywhere else in the nation. There and elsewhere, most violations appear to involve people who ran afoul of laws that restrict voting by former felons, or people who cast two ballots, usually in separate states where they spend different parts of the year.
Experts say that many of those violations appear to be inadvertent. The 17 people charged on Thursday were all felons, convicted of murder or sex offenses, who were barred by law from casting ballots. All but one were men, and all but two were in their 50s or older.
Casting an ineligible ballot is a felony punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and up to $5,000 in fines. “That was against the law, and now they’re going to pay for it,” Mr. DeSantis said.
The governor said more arrests were forthcoming, and suggested that they would include so-called double voters and noncitizens who cast illegal ballots — another offense that experts say is frequently the result of confusion about voting rules.
He added that a paucity of voting fraud prosecutions in recent years reflects a lack of enforcement, not a lack of fraud.
“Now we have the ability with the attorney general and statewide prosecutors to bring these cases on behalf of the state,” he said. He said that if anyone is thinking of committing electoral crimes: “Don’t do it, because we’re coming for you.”
Local law enforcement officials made a flurry of voting-related arrests this spring after a researcher who scanned voting rolls claimed to have found scores of convicted sex offenders who cast ballots in 2020, although a constitutional amendment bars them from voting.
A group that advocates restoring voting rights to former felons said on Thursday that none of the 17 people arrested would have faced charges had the state not allowed them to register and vote, despite their ineligibility.
“When someone registers to vote, it is the responsibility of the state to utilize its vast resources to determine a person’s eligibility,” Desmond Meade, the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said at a news conference. “And once that person is eligible to vote, that person is issued a voter identification card.”
Mr. Meade said state money would be better spent on improving voter registration systems to screen out potentially ineligible voters than on finding and prosecuting them.
“What we’ve seen today is an indication that the system is broken,” he said. “These individuals should never have gotten to this point.”
Mr. DeSantis’s announcement drew quick rebuttals from two Democrats who are vying to oppose him in the November election for governor.
“Everybody wants elections to be secure, but Ron DeSantis — who has never refuted Donald Trump’s Big Lie — is the last person we can trust with ‘election police,’” Nikki Fried, the state agriculture commissioner and Florida’s highest-ranking Democrat, said in a statement. “As governor, I will disband this force and return jurisdiction back to local authorities.”
Representative Charlie Crist, a former Florida governor, who is running against Ms. Fried in next week’s primary election, said in a statement that Mr. DeSantis’s news conference was “about playing politics, intimidating Democratic voters and his desire to run for president, not securing elections.”