GOP voter-fraud crackdown overwhelmingly targets minorities, Democrats
"Black and Hispanic people made up more than 75 percent of defendants and Democrats nearly 60 percent in a controversial push by Republicans to prosecute election cheating, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by The Washington Post
But the election integrity units established or expanded in six states after Trump’s loss obtained only 47 convictions during a period in which tens of millions of votes were cast, and the units overwhelmingly targeted minorities and Democrats for prosecution, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by The Washington Post of nearly every prosecution.
The analysis found that 76 percent of defendants whose race or ethnicity could be identified were Black or Hispanic, while White people constituted 24 percent of those prosecuted by the units.
Registered Democrats made up 58 percent of those charged whose party could be identified, while registered Republicans were 23 percent. In the rest of the cases, the defendant was not registered with a particular party.
The Post was able to determine a defendant’s race, ethnicity or political party in roughly 70 percent of cases.
The analysis also showed that election integrity units have not uncovered the type of wide-ranging schemes claimed by Trump and some Republican allies that might tilt an election. Instead, the vast majority of the convictions represent small-bore cheating — or, as some defendants argue, mistakes — by individual voters, such as casting two ballots, falsifying a registration or voting even if barred by a conviction.
The cases that the units pursued often collapsed.
Of the 115 cases that have been resolved as of mid-December, 42 ended in dismissal, acquittal or dropped charges — nearly the same as the number of guilty verdicts.
All of the convictions occurred in Florida, Texas and Ohio, while units in Virginia, Georgia and Arkansas failed to obtain a single guilty verdict, despite allocating dozens of staffers and millions of dollars to ferret out voter fraud.
The Post created the first comprehensive look at the work of election integrity units that were rolled out or ramped up after 2020 by compiling a database of nearly every prosecution — 136 in total — that the divisions pursued in Florida, Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Ohio and Arkansas. Individual prosecutors in those states and others can also mount their own cases and those were not counted as part of the project.
The quality of the data varied.
The Post was able to ascertain race, ethnicity and political party in all of the Florida cases, while it was only able to determine the race and political party of defendants in Texas in roughly 50 percent of cases because records provided fewer details. In Ohio, The Post found defendants’ races in about 50 percent of cases and party identifications in most.
Republicans defended the units’ work, but the analysis’s findings alarmed some experts on voting fraud and advocates for minority groups.
Heather Sawyer, executive director of the watchdog group American Oversight, which has tracked the work of the units, said in a statement that the results show the units have been a waste of money and have undermined democracy.
“At best, these ‘election integrity’ units are for show, designed to placate far-right election denialists in the conservative base,” Sawyer said. “At worst, they are used to justify new voting restrictions and to intimidate people — especially racial minorities — from exercising their right to vote.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement that The Post was “promoting a false narrative” because it was unable to determine the race or political affiliation for about half the prosecutions in his state. His office did not respond to a request to provide those details.
Republicans said the units help give voters confidence in election results, professionalize fraud investigations and put cheats on notice. They highlighted certain cases, including that of a woman in Florida who allegedly voted twice in four elections in Florida and Alaska and another of a woman in Texas who was convicted of a vote harvesting operation.
They also said the units have done work beyond prosecuting voter fraud to ensure free and fair elections, such as combating a text message campaign in Virginia that was spreading misinformation to voters.
They denied any racial or political animus in who was prosecuted, but they were unable to explain the disparities in who was charged.
“My office’s Election Integrity Unit has several open, active investigations,” Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said in a statement. “My establishment of our Election Integrity Unit — and the subsequent legislative codification — was intended to raise awareness of our office’s capabilities and role in ensuring election integrity, and the increased interest in our work is an indication it is working.”
Election integrity units existed in Arizona, Texas and other states before the 2020 election, but Trump’s conspiracy theories about a stolen contest and Republicans’ increasing fixation on voter fraud have provided fertile ground for their spread.
Paxton, who spoke at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, and has pushed baseless claims about voter fraud, expanded the existing election integrity unit in the Texas attorney general’s office in 2020 and launched a new unit for the 2021 elections.
Last year, Georgia legislators created a bureau within the state police to probe election crimes, and Virginia’s attorney general launched a 20-person unit in his office. Ohio’s secretary of state and Arkansas’s top litigator followed with their own efforts.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made one of the biggest moves, announcing the nation’s first stand-alone Office of Election Crimes and Security in April 2022. He soon touted the arrest of 20 felons for allegedly voting illegally.
“This is just the opening salvo,” DeSantis said at a news conference.
The Post was able to compile a nearly complete list of prosecutions in six states through filing public records requests with the units, interviewing officials, scouring news releases and media reports, and consulting a database of voter-fraud convictions maintained by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Lorraine Minnite, a Rutgers University professor who has written a book on voter fraud, said she was unsurprised there have been so few convictions, since studies, election audits and reporting have consistently shown that voter fraud is rare.
An Associated Press review found fewer than 475 cases of potential voter fraud in six battleground states during the 2020 election. A Loyola University law professor found just 31 credible reports of voter impersonation nationwide between 2000 and 2014, a period in which more than a billion votes were cast.
“They did not have a record of fraud that they needed to go and create these investigative units,” Minnite said. “The fact that they have not produced evidence of fraud is support for their lack of necessity.”
An uneven track record at trial
In Texas, Paxton’s office prosecuted or handed to local prosecutors 73 cases since 2020, according to records from his office, but as of mid-December, only 10 resulted in convictions and 35 were dismissed or ended in acquittal or not-guilty verdicts. Defendants in 22 cases were put in diversion programs. Other cases are pending, or their outcomes could not be determined.
Medina County Justice of the Peace Tomas Ramirez III, a Latino Republican, said he was stunned when he got a call in 2021 from an investigator in Paxton’s office saying he was being charged with 35 felony counts for an alleged scheme to harvest 17 votes from an assisted-living facility during his 2018 run for office.
Ramirez, who denied any wrongdoing, said what followed was an 18-month legal nightmare. He was suspended as a judge without pay and was looking at the possibility of the end of his legal career if he were to be convicted.
Ramirez said he was flummoxed by the charges. He had spent about 10 to 15 minutes at the assisted-living facility in question on one day, asking for residents’ support and handing out cards before early voting began in 2018. He said he didn’t collect any ballots.
When he reviewed the indictments and case documents, Ramirez was surprised by the scant details about how he allegedly carried out the scheme. He surmised he was charged because the Medina County election board filed a complaint about alleged irregularities in a group of votes for him from the assisted-living facility. He called the evidence against him “outrageously vague.”
Paxton did not respond to a request for comment on Ramirez’s case, but he said in a statement that generally “all citizens benefit when states protect the franchise by upholding fair and just elections.”
A judge dismissed the charges against Ramirez after a higher court ruled Paxton’s office did not have the authority to unilaterally prosecute such cases. State officials refiled the case twice more, but each time, Ramirez won another dismissal. He said he spent about $120,000 defending himself.
Ramirez believes his prosecution was political, he said. It came as Paxton was running for reelection, and he said the attorney general wanted to look tough on voting fraud to fire up his conservative base.
“I had a stellar reputation in this community, and that took a major hit,” Ramirez said.
Other cases in Texas have crumbled as well.
Last year, a jury acquitted former Edinburg mayor Richard Molina, who is a Latino Democrat, of a scheme to orchestrate voter fraud in 2017 in a case that originated with Paxton’s office. Afterward, a Hidalgo County prosecutor dismissed cases against more than a dozen others charged alongside Molina.
Florida and Ohio had better track records on convictions. Florida’s unit obtained 34 guilty verdicts vs. seven cases dismissed or dropped, according to state records. Ohio has obtained four convictions in the seven voter-fraud prosecutions that originated with its unit that The Post was able to identify.
“Voter fraud in Ohio is exceedingly rare because we pursue it aggressively,” said Rob Nichols, who at the time of the interview was a spokesman for Ohio’s Secretary of State. Only a handful of the 641 cases the office has referred to prosecutors have resulted in prosecutions.
Like those in Texas, Florida’s prosecutions have stirred anger.
The Post previously reported six of the initial batch of 20 voter-fraud cases DeSantis announced against felons were dismissed or charges were dropped because judges ruled statewide prosecutors didn’t have the jurisdiction to file charges. Six defendants accepted guilty pleas that called for no jail time. Two cases that went to trial ended in split verdicts, and the defendants were sentenced to probation. The remaining cases are pending.
But defendants, attorneys and advocates for the restoration of felon voting rights have sharply criticized the prosecutions of people with felony records.
Court records show defendants in a number of cases thought they were allowed to cast ballots because they had registered to vote with the state and were issued voter identification cards.
One was Nathan Hart. Hart, a White man and convicted sex offender from Tampa, said he was at the DMV in March 2020, when a worker hired by the local county asked him if he wanted to register to vote. He explained he had a felony conviction, Hart said, but the worker encouraged him to apply, saying that the state would let him know if he didn’t qualify.
Weeks later, Hart said, he was issued a voter identification card, and he cast a ballot in the 2020 election thinking he was eligible to vote. He said he was shocked when deputies showed up at his door last year as part of DeSantis’s initial sweep of 20 arrests.
“I couldn’t understand why I was being arrested,” Hart said, “because as far as I knew, I didn’t do anything wrong.”
In 2018, Florida voters approved a measure that allowed most disenfranchised felons to seek restoration of their voting rights, but it did not apply to sex offenders such as Hart. The state previously banned felons from voting for life.
Hart was found not guilty of voting fraud at trial, but guilty of falsely filling out his registration. He was sentenced to probation.
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said Florida has criminalized widespread confusion about who was eligible to have their voting rights restored and has not established an easy way for felons to check if they have paid off fines, penalties and any late fees related to restitution so they can ensure they are eligible to vote. Meade said the confusion and prosecutions have had a chilling effect on those with criminal records registering to vote.
“With these arrests, the state basically messed up,” Meade said. “They made a mistake, but they are trying to make regular citizens pay for that mistake. In reality, it was their responsibility to issue voter registration cards to people who were qualified.”
DeSantis’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but the governor has praised his unit’s work.
“We have taken bold steps to ensure Florida is the national leader in conducting fair and secure elections,” DeSantis said in a July statement.
The racial disparities in prosecutions carried over to sentences for jail and prison time. Nearly 80 percent of defendants who were given time behind bars were Black or Latino, while Whites made up only about 20 percent, according to the analysis. Nearly 75 percent sent to jail or prison were Black.
Former Virginia NAACP president Robert N. Barnette Jr. said he was alarmed when state Attorney General Jason Miyares rolled out an election integrity unit that would be staffed with 20 attorneys and investigators in September 2022
Barnette said he was concerned the unit would be used a tool to suppress the minority vote, so the NAACP filed an exhaustive public records request late last year seeking details on how the unit was organized and what it had been up to in its opening months.
Barnette said he was surprised by how little there was to know.
Despite the request, he said, they got no organizational chart, no approved process for conducting a voter-fraud investigation, no training guidelines and no indication of what work the unit had been doing.
The unit has maintained a low public profile since then. More than a year after it was created, it has yet to obtain a conviction, a striking contrast to the prosecutions mounted in Texas and Florida. Prosecutors recently dropped felony charges in the one active prosecution it was handling, which was filed shortly before the creation of the unit.
“It was just a show to the public,” Barnette said of Virginia’s unit. “We call it a paper tiger, a public relations ploy to pander to the election deniers.”
Miyares’s office pushed back on that characterization. A spokeswoman said the unit has investigated more than 50 complaints from the public and has about 10 open investigations, including reviews of potential double voting.
In an interview earlier this year, Miyares described the creation of the unit as a restructuring of the office’s election law activities to make them more efficient.
“The purpose of this has always been that everyone’s voting rights be protected,” Miyares said. “Not a single new lawyer was either hired or brought in to handle election law. Not a single new dime was spent on this.”
Units in Georgia and Arkansas also have obtained no convictions. The Arkansas unit, which was created in March, has three potential cases it is investigating, while Georgia has one pending investigation, according to officials in both states. Georgia state police declined to comment on the unit’s activities.
The lack of activity has led some critics to question whether the funding for these units could be better spent elsewhere. Georgia has laid out about $580,000 on its unit, while officials in Virginia, Ohio and Arkansas said they could not break out the costs of their units because the attorneys involved handle other duties as well.
Paxton’s office spent nearly $6.7 million on its unit over the last three years and resolved 33 cases — roughly $203,000 a case, according to an analysis of state figures by The Washington Post. Florida’s unit has a budget of $1.2 million in fiscal year 2022-2023 and made 52 arrests, a cost of about $23,000 an arrest. Florida lawmakers boosted the unit’s budget to $1.4 million earlier this year.
Lawmakers in Texas and Florida have pushed to expand prosecutors’ ability to go after election crimes, while lawmakers in other states also are looking at creating their own election integrity units. Eliza Sweren-Becker, senior counsel for the voting rights program at the Brennan Center, said that is a worrying trend.
“This is a hammer in search of a nail,” Sweren-Becker said.
Dan Keating, Alice Crites and Monika Mathur contributed to this report."