50.50: Opinion

How DeSantis’s voter suppression model could go national

No state can match Florida’s authoritarianism – its election police should worry us all ahead of the 2024 election

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
10 May 2023, 10.21am

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a fundraising event for the Republican Party on 6 May, 2023 in Rothschild, Wisconsin

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

In an increasingly unsafe and, frankly, unhinged America, one of the things that keeps me up at night is the question of whether governor Ron DeSantis’s far-right Florida will ultimately serve as a model for a national Republican Party in charge of the entire federal government. (Legislative and executive branches aside, of course no political party is technically supposed to control the ostensibly nonpartisan judicial branch. But we all know how that’s going.)

The competition is stiff this year, with Idaho, Tennessee, and more recently (and somewhat surprisingly) Montana all making strong bids for the title. But how can anyone compete with a state governed by a man so rabidly “anti-woke” that he has declared war on Mickey Mouse, a major source of tourism dollars?

I think it’s safe to say no state has surpassed Florida in the practical implementation of authoritarian governance, which DeSantis has pulled off with the help of both a rubber-stamp GOP supermajority in the state legislature and a peculiar knack for stacking the bureaucracy with right-wing Christian ideologues who have no qualms about imposing their hyper-partisan will in areas like healthcare and education.

In his “war on woke,” DeSantis has shattered pre-existing norms, brazenly politicising the Florida Board of Medicine as he attacked transgender Floridians and appointing Christopher Rufo – the right-wing activist who started the “critical race theory” panic – to the board of trustees of New College of Florida, a sometime quirky state liberal arts college known as a haven for queer Florida youth that is now being transformed into an ideologically driven indoctrination centre.

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Just last week, Florida passed two new authoritarian laws. One is a bathroom bill affecting schools, government buildings, prisons, and detention centres that imposes criminal “trespassing” charges on those who use a bathroom that does not correspond to their sex according to “chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and internal and external genitalia present at birth”. The other is a medical “conscience” bill that began as a way to protect healthcare practitioners opposed to public health mandates set during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that will also allow providers to refuse to provide treatment based on their personal beliefs, i.e. to discriminate against queer and especially trans people. And on top of that, for good measure, the Florida state senate passed a downright asinine resolution urging the United States Congress to stop the military from pursuing diversity initiatives and being too “woke” in matters of personnel.

DeSantis touts his approach to Florida as a “blueprint” for remaking the United States, and there is no doubt the Republican base adores his penchant for political theatre and misusing government to “own the libs” and punish the marginalised.

But more sophisticated Republicans – including key members of the all-important donor class – have begun to hesitate about backing DeSantis, worried (correctly) that his hard right social policies are alienating to independent voters, who trended Democrat in 2022 over abortion, leading to the underperforming of Republican candidates relative to historical tendencies. Some also accuse DeSantis of a lack of “people skills,” failing to return phone calls to donors and state legislators, and there is clearly a severe charisma gap between DeSantis and Donald Trump.

Of course, DeSantis – still officially undeclared for the 2024 primaries but also Trump’s only serious competition for the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency – need not be elected for a Republican president and Republican-controlled congress to try and implement much of what he has done in Florida. And one of his policies is particularly worrisome in that regard: his mobilisation of an ‘Office of Election Crimes and Security’ – essentially a brand new sort of election police – to terrorise individuals whose votes were retroactively deemed illegal.

As I’ve belaboured before, America’s political system is broken in ways that favour Republicans, who have also shown in recent years they will always choose power over democracy. Republicans have often been able to win the presidency while losing the popular vote for president in recent election cycles, because, through a system known as the Electoral College, the American system counts states’ ‘votes’ for president rather than individuals’, meaning that in most states, the votes of those in the minority end up having no impact on the presidential race. Where Republicans control state governments, they also engage in voter suppression and gerrymandering in order to give themselves unfair advantages. Republicans also regularly push a false narrative that America is wracked with widespread “voter fraud,” and it was this narrative that fueled the 6 January insurrection, which was centred on the bald-faced lie that then president-elect Joe Biden had somehow “stolen” the election from Trump.

Oddly enough, the 2018 Florida gubernatorial election in which DeSantis beat Democratic challenger Andrew Gillum was affected by voter suppression, but it also saw the passage of a state constitutional amendment widely touted as a win for democracy: the re-enfranchisement of convicted felons who have completed their sentences, including parole or probation. Previously, Florida banned all convicted felons from voting. After 2018, those restrictions were lifted except for those convicted of murder or sexual crimes. And this is where things get messy.

Between their founding in April 2022 and January 2023, DeSantis’s election police made a total of 24 arrests of people who had voted illegally, but almost certainly without the intent to do so, in the 2020 election – an election in which over 11 million Floridians voted. In at least some cases these rehabilitated felons were issued voter cards by the state, which is an obvious indication that they voted in good faith, and that, if anyone is liable for the error, it should be the Florida state government. Nevertheless, out of the blue, DeSantis sent in his shiny new force to disrupt and destroy the lives they had rebuilt. Despite the fact that these election police clearly have almost nothing to do, DeSantis and the state legislature have moved to increase their budget.

Some of these arrests led to plea deals that resulted in no jail time, while six have been dismissed by the courts, according to reporting by Lori Rosza for The Washington Post. DeSantis and his supporters presumably want convictions, since gratuitous cruelty is a hallmark of fascist politics – and indeed, the state legislature has obligingly moved to give the statewide prosecutor jurisdiction over ‘voter fraud’ cases in order to stop courts from dismissing cases on jurisdictional grounds, as several have done to date. But the arrests need not result in convictions for the possibility of being arrested for voting to have a deterrent effect among e.g. African-American communities – precisely the kinds of communities whose voting Republicans seek to suppress.

Rosza’s reporting covers the case of Peter Washington, who was issued a voter ID card before he went to cast his vote for Biden. Per Rosza’s description, Washington “knows now he can’t vote – unless he applies for and receives clemency – but he’s telling others they should be wary of it, too, even if they don’t have a criminal record. One of his adult children has already decided he won’t be casting a ballot. A friend is doubting it, too.”

Thinking nationally again, with respect to 2024 and beyond, the possibility that a future Republican president might create a national voting police force is terrifying. The fiction of a ‘voter fraud’ crisis Republicans already use to mobilise voters and stir up fear and outrage is plenty damaging; 6 January amply illustrates that point. But imagine the creation of federal machinery to enforce that phoney narrative through state terror, and the impact that would have on voting throughout the United States. It may seem far-fetched, but DeSantis is already engaging in state terror in Florida. And if Republicans had to worry less about their base’s preferred culture wars policies alienating voters, the donor class would have little incentive to shy away from culture warriors like DeSantis. And that’s what really keeps me up at night.

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