New state units for voter fraud that find few cases of midterms

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

That’s exactly what election experts expected, leading critics to believe the new entities were more about politics than rooting out widespread abuses. Most voter fraud cases are already being investigated and prosecuted at the local level.

Florida, Georgia and Virginia created special state-level entities after the 2020 election, all pushed by Republican governors, attorneys general or legislatures.

“I’m not aware of any significant election day fraud, but that’s not surprising,” said Paul Smith, senior vice president of the Campaign Legal Center. “The whole concept of voter fraud is such a terribly exaggerated problem. It doesn’t change the outcome of the election, it’s a crime, you risk being put in jail and you have a high chance of getting caught. It’s a rare phenomenon.”

FILE - Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a rally in support of President Donald Trump "Save the America Rally" in Washington on January 6, 2021. Florida, Georgia, Texas and Virginia all set up new law enforcement units to investigate voter fraud in this year's election based on former President Donald Trump's lies about the 2020 presidential campaign.  So far, these entities appear to have garnered more headlines than actual cases.

FILE – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a rally in support of President Donald Trump called the “Save America Rally” in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. Florida, Georgia, Texas and Virginia have all formed new law enforcement units to investigate voter fraud in this year’s election based on former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 presidential campaign. So far, these units appear to have garnered more headlines than actual cases.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The lack of widespread fraud is important, as the lies perpetrated by former President Donald Trump and his allies surrounding the 2020 presidential election have penetrated deeply into the Republican Party and eroded confidence in the election. Ahead of this year’s election, 45% of Republicans had little to no confidence in the accurate counting of votes.

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

In Georgia, where Trump tried to pressure state officials to “find” enough votes to make up for his loss, a new law gives the state’s top law enforcement agency, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the power to investigate suspected voter fraud without solicitation initiate electoral officials. The alleged violation would have to be significant enough to change or cast doubt on the outcome of an election.

GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said the agency had not launched any investigations under the law. The agency is assisting the secretary of state’s office in an investigation into a 2021 voting equipment violation in Coffee County, but this is its only current voter fraud investigation, it said in an email.

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

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat who opposed the additional authority for the office, said the lack of investigation reinforced criticism that the law was unnecessary. But she said the mere prospect of a GBI probe could intimidate people who want to serve as poll workers or take on any other role in the election process.

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

Florida was the most visible state to create its office on ballot crimes and security with a fuss this year and live up to a promise Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis made in 2021 to fight unspecified voter fraud.

The office reports to the Florida Department of State. It reviews allegations and then assigns state law enforcement agencies to pursue violators.

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

Court records show the 20 people were able to register despite previous felony convictions, apparently leading them to believe they could legally cast ballots. At least some of the confusion stems from the language on the voter registration forms, which require applicants to swear they are not a criminal — or if they are, that their rights have been restored. The forms do not specifically ask about previous convictions for murder and sexual assault.

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

Wood’s case was dismissed by a Miami judge on legal grounds in late October because it was brought by prosecutors rather than local Miami prosecutors. The country is appealing the verdict.

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 prospective voters is a “canceling message to all returning citizens seeking to register to vote.” She said her group found many of them confused about the requirements.

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

Weeks before the Nov. 8 election, the Office of Voting Crimes and Security began reporting to Florida counties about hundreds of registered voters who may have been ineligible to vote because of previous convictions. In letters to counties, state officials urged 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 a history of criminal convictions and now they’re afraid to register and vote,” said Michael Pernick, a voting rights attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He called it “deeply concerning”.

A spokesman for the new bureau gave no information on other actions that may be taken or ongoing investigations related to this year’s primary and general election.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares announced he would establish his own electoral integrity unit in September, saying it will “help restore confidence in our democratic process in the Commonwealth.”

The formation of unity came in a state where Republicans captured the three statewide offices in the 2021 election, including losing Miyares to a Democratic incumbent.

Its spokeswoman, Victoria LaCivita, said in a written response to questions from The Associated Press that the bureau had received complaints related to this month’s election, but could not say whether an investigation had taken place.

In addition, the EIU “successfully received an objection and a motion to dismiss,” an attempt to force the state to stop using electronic voting machines to count ballots and introduce a nationwide manual 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 had been no widespread fraud during the 2020 election in Virginia or elsewhere. He said his office already handles election-related issues, but he would reorganize it into a single entity to work more collaboratively with the electoral community and assuage doubts about the fairness of the elections.

Smith of the Campaign Legal Center said there are real issues related to election security, including protecting voters, poll workers and poll officials, and securing voting equipment. But he said Republican moves to bolster what they often refer to as “electoral integrity” to combat 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 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 writer Jake Bleiberg in Dallas; Bob Christie and Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix; Sarah Rankin of Richmond, Virginia; and Paul Weber of Austin, Texas, and contributed to this report.

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