Florida voter has election fraud charges touted by DeSantis dismissed
The accused was facing up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines and fees.
A Florida man had his election fraud charges dismissed on Friday, making him the first of 20 people who Gov. Ron DeSantis announced had been charged with voter fraud in August, to beat his case.
The ruling by a Miami judge may now pave the way for similar motions and rulings in the other 19 election fraud cases, which garnered national attention and controversy when they were announced on Aug. 18. DeSantis said at the time that they were the "opening salvo" by Florida's newly funded Office of Election Crimes and Security to crack down on voter fraud.
Robert Lee Wood, who faced one count of making a false affirmation on a voter application, and one count of voting as an unqualified elector, had his charges dismissed on the grounds that the prosecutor lacked appropriate jurisdiction.
Wood was facing up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines and fees, for allegedly illegally voting in the 2020 election.
When the charges were announced on Aug. 18, DeSantis said at a press conference that local prosecutors had been "loath" to take up election fraud cases.
"Now we have the ability with the attorney general and statewide prosecutor to bring those [cases] on behalf of the state of Florida," he said.
But a judge found on Friday that the statewide prosecutor did not have jurisdiction over one case in Miami. Statewide prosecutors, which are an extension of the Attorney General's office, are prosecuting all of the election fraud cases that were brought in August.
In order for the statewide prosecutor to have jurisdiction, the crimes alleged must have occurred in at least two judicial circuits.
The judge agreed with the defense's argument that the alleged violations, applying to vote and voting while ineligible, only occurred in Miami-Dade County. Thus, the statewide prosecutor was found to not have jurisdiction.
Statewide prosecutors argued that the alleged crimes were committed in Leon County in addition to Miami-Dade County, because the defendants' applications and votes were later transmitted to the Department of State in Tallahassee.
The defense argued the alleged offenses only happened in Miami-Dade.
The judge sided with the defense, even citing Shakespeare's "Henry VI" in his order granting the motion to dismiss.
"His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings," the judge wrote in his order, in reference to the statewide prosecutor.
"How much wider even than that does [the statewide prosecutor] seek to extend its reach?"
"It is an old truth that all politics is local," the judge added. "[The statewide prosecutor] seeks to stand that old truth on its head"
Larry Davis, the attorney for Wood, said that his motion to dismiss on grounds of jurisdiction has been circulated to attorneys representing the other election fraud defendants.
The statewide prosecutor can now appeal the case. If unsuccessful, the Democratic Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle will also have the option to file charges.
Just days before Florida's primary in August, DeSantis said at a press conference that 20 people who had cast their ballots in 2020 had been charged with voter fraud. They had all been convicted of murder or felony sex offenses, DeSantis added, which by Florida law stripped them of their right to vote.
"Yet they went ahead and voted anyways. That is against the law, and now they're going to pay the price for it," the governor said.
Those charged with illegally voting were sent voting cards by the state, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Many of them told agents that they believed they were eligible, according to court records.
That includes Wood, who was charged with second-degree murder in 1991. Wood registered to vote in 2020 after being approached by a voter rights advocate at a grocery store. Wood claimed he did not fill out the form, rather he just signed it, according to the affidavit of arrest filled out by an FDLE agent.
The form includes a section which asks the applicant to either verify that they are not a felon, or if so, to declare that their right to vote had been restored.
Voter rights advocates say that provision is especially confusing because of the passage of Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution in 2018, which restored all felons their rights to vote except for those convicted of sex felonies or murder charges.
Later, another condition was added requiring voters with felonies to pay off their fines and fees before having their rights restored.
Republican Florida state legislator Jeff Brandes, who authored Amendment 4, criticized the 20 arrests in a tweet during DeSantis' press conference, urging the state to look at the intent of the voters.
"It was our intent that those ineligible would be granted some grace by the state if they registered without intent to commit voter fraud," he tweeted on Aug. 18.
Intent is core to these cases. A prosecutor must prove that a defendant knowingly and willingly registered to vote or knowingly and willingly voted while ineligible. It is not enough for a conviction to show solely that the voter cast their ballot while ineligible, according to Robert Barrar, a criminal defense attorney representing another defendant charged with election fraud.
In many of these cases, the accused have told officers they believed they were eligible to vote, according to their affidavits of arrest.
Mark Earley, president of Florida's election supervisor association, told ABC News that the local supervisors do not have the resources to check a prospective voter's criminal record. That is the Department of State's obligation, he said.
Election supervisors check the applications and then transmit them to Tallahassee, where Division of Elections' staff can check convictions against voter rolls.
Unless an election supervisor receives a packet from the Department of State which contains information that says a voter is ineligible, the voter is sent a voting card, Earley said.
But due to a backlog, as described by a Divisions of Elections official in a 2020 federal case, Florida was "struggling" to come up with a process to identify ineligible felons, The Tampa Bay Times reported.
It's unclear if the Department of State ever sent those packets to local election officials. But local election officials sent all 20 voter cards to the arrested voters, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The former head of the Office of Election Crimes and Security, Pete Antonacci, sent a letter reviewed by ABC News to local elections supervisors on the day of the governor's announcement, telling them "through no fault of your own" convicted felons voted in their counties.
Neil Volz, the deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who helped Brandes with Amendment 4, said in a statement that Friday's ruling, "strengthens our resolve to continue to place people over politics."
The ruling in Wood's case is the first disposition of the 18 cases that were announced by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, following the DeSantis announcement.