New voter fraud units in the state are finding few cases of midterms

WASHINGTON — State-level law enforcement units established after the 2020 presidential election to investigate voter fraud are investigating scattered complaints more than two weeks after the midterm elections, but have yielded no indication of systemic problems.

That’s exactly what election experts had expected, leading critics to suggest the new units were more about politics than stamping out widespread abuses. Most cases of electoral fraud are already being investigated and prosecuted at the local level.

Florida, Georgia and Virginia created state-level special forces after the 2020 election, all pressured by Republican governors, attorneys general or legislators.

“I’m not aware of any significant fraud detections on Election Day, but that’s not surprising,” said Paul Smith, senior vice president of the Campaign Legal Center. “The whole concept of voter impersonation fraud is such a horribly overblown problem. It doesn’t change the outcome of the election, it’s a crime, you run the risk of going to jail and you have a high chance of getting caught. It is a rare phenomenon.”

The absence of widespread fraud is important because the lies surrounding the 2020 presidential election, spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies, have run deep into the Republican Party and eroded confidence in elections. Leading up to this year’s election, 45% of Republicans had little to no confidence that votes would be counted accurately.

An Associated Press investigation found that there was no widespread fraud in Georgia or the five other battlefield states where Trump contested his 2020 loss, and so far there is no evidence of that in this year’s election. Certification of the results is going smoothly in most states, with few complaints.

In Georgia, where Trump tried to pressure state officials to “find” enough votes to reverse his loss, a new law gives the state’s top law enforcement agency, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the power to launch investigations into alleged election fraud without a request from election officials. The alleged violation should be significant enough to change the outcome of an election or cast doubt.

GBI spokesperson Nelly Miles said the agency has not launched an investigation under the statute. The agency is assisting the office of the secretary of state in an investigation into a 2021 voting device breach in Coffee County, but that is the only recent election fraud investigation, she said in an email.

That breach, which came to light earlier this year, involved local officials in a county that voted for Trump by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020, and some high-profile supporters of the former president.

State Representative Jasmine Clark, a Democrat who opposed the extra authority for the agency, said the lack of investigations confirms criticism that the law was unnecessary. But she said the mere prospect of a GBI investigation could intimidate people who want to serve as pollsters or take on another role in the voting process.

“In this situation, there was no real problem to solve,” Clark said. “This was a solution in search of a problem, and that’s never the way we should legislate.”

Florida has been the most visible state, setting up its Office of Election Crimes and Security to much fanfare this year and keeping a promise made by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2021 to fight unspecified election fraud.

The office falls under the Florida Department of State. It reviews allegations and then charges state law enforcement with pursuing violations.

DeSantis announced this summer that the election unit had arrested 20 people for illegal voting in the 2020 election, when the state had 14.4 million registered voters. That was the first major election since a state constitutional amendment restored voting rights to felons, except those convicted of murder or sex crimes or those who still owe fines, fees or restitution.

Court records show that the 20 people were able to register to vote despite previous felony convictions, apparently leading them to believe they could legally vote. At least part of the confusion stems from language in voter registration forms that requires applicants to swear they are not a felon — or, if they are, that their rights have been restored. The forms don’t specifically ask about prior convictions for murder and felony assault.

One of the accused, 56-year-old Robert Lee Wood, had his home surrounded early one morning by law enforcement officers who knocked on his door and arrested him. He spent two days in jail. Wood’s attorney, Larry Davis, said his client didn’t think he was breaking the law because he was able to register to vote without any problems. Davis called the law enforcement response “exaggerated” in this case.

Wood’s case was dismissed by a Miami judge in late October on jurisdictional grounds, because the case was brought by the Office of the Statewide Prosecutor rather than local Miami prosecutors. The state is appealing the ruling.

Andrea Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising, an independent political activist organization focused on economic and racial justice in the state, said the disproportionate targeting of such would-be voters sent a “chilling message to all returning citizens who wish to register to vote.” to vote”. .” She said her group found many of them confused about the requirements.

“You have to go to the websites of 67 counties and find their individual county processes to see if you have a fine or charge,” she said. “It’s a labyrinthine ordeal.”

Weeks before the November 8 election, the Office of Election Crimes and Security began notifying Florida counties of hundreds of registered voters who may be ineligible to vote due to previous convictions. In letters to the counties, state officials asked election officials to verify the information and then take action to prevent ineligible voters from voting.

“We’ve heard stories about voters who are eligible to vote but have had criminal convictions in the past, and they’re now afraid to register and vote,” said Michael Pernick, a voting rights attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He called it “deeply concerning.”

A spokesperson for the new agency did not provide information about any other actions it has taken or investigations it may have conducted regarding this year’s primaries and general elections.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares announced he was establishing his own Electoral Integrity Unit in September, saying it would “help restore confidence in our democratic process in the Commonwealth.”

The formation of the unit came in a state where Republicans won the three offices statewide in the 2021 election, including Miyares’ defeat of an incumbent Democratic party.

His spokeswoman, Victoria LaCivita, said in a written response to questions from The Associated Press that the office had received complaints related to this month’s election, but she could not say whether there were any investigations.

In addition, the EIU “successfully obtained an objection and a motion to reject” an attempt to force the state to refrain from using electronic voting machines to count ballots and institute a statewide hand count.

Miyares’ office said he was not available for an interview, but in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post in October, he stated that there was no widespread fraud in Virginia or anywhere during the 2020 election. He said his office already had jurisdiction in election-related issues, but he was restructuring it into a unit to work more closely with the election community to dispel any doubts about the fairness of elections.

Smith, of the Campaign Legal Center, said there are real issues related to election security, including protecting voters, pollsters and election personnel, and securing voting equipment. But he said Republican moves for what they often call “election integrity” to fight voter fraud are often about something else.

“It’s a myth created so they can justify making it harder for people to vote,” he said.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections

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Izaguirre reported from Tallahassee, Florida, and Thanawala from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Jake Bleiberg in Dallas; Bob Christie and Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix; Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia; and Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, and contributed to this report.

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