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New state voter-fraud units find few crimes

Critics say efforts are more about politics than justice

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FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Aug. 18, 2022. Florida, Georgia, Texas and Virginia all started new law enforcement units to investigate voter fraud in this year's elections based on former President Donald Trump's lies about the 2020 presidential contest. So far, those units seem to have produced more headlines than actual cases.
FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Aug. 18, 2022. Florida, Georgia, Texas and Virginia all started new law enforcement units to investigate voter fraud in this year's elections based on former President Donald Trump's lies about the 2020 presidential contest. So far, those units seem to have produced more headlines than actual cases. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON, D.C. — State-level law enforcement units created after the 2020 presidential election to investigate voter fraud are looking into scattered complaints more than two weeks after the midterms but have provided no indication of systemic problems.

That’s just what election experts had expected and led critics to suggest that the new units were more about politics than rooting out widespread abuses. Most election-related fraud cases already are investigated and prosecuted at the local level.

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

“I am not aware of any significant detection of fraud 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 exaggerated problem. It doesn’t change the outcome of the election, it’s a felony, you risk getting put in jail and you have a high possibility of getting caught. It’s 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 penetrated deeply into the Republican Party and eroded trust in elections. In the run-up to this year’s elections, 45 percent of Republicans had little to no confidence that votes would be counted accurately.

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

New law in Georgia

In Georgia, where Trump tried to pressure state officials to “find” enough votes to overturn his loss, a new law gives the state’s top law enforcement agency, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, authority to initiate investigations of alleged election fraud without a request from election officials. The alleged violation would have to be significant enough to change or create doubt about the outcome of an election.

GBI spokesperson Nelly Miles said the agency has not initiated any investigations under the statute. The agency is assisting the secretary of state’s office in an investigation of a breach of voting equipment in Coffee County in 2021, but that is its 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 involved some high-profile supporters of the former president.

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat who opposed the additional authority for the bureau, said the lack of investigations validates the criticism that the law was unnecessary. But she said just the prospect of a GBI investigation could intimidate people who want to serve as poll workers or take on some other role in the voting process.

“In this situation, there was no actual problem to be solved,” Clark said.

New office in Florida

Florida has been the most visible state, creating its Office of Election Crimes and Security amid much fanfare this year and keeping a pledge that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis made in 2021 to combat unspecified election fraud.

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

DeSantis this summer announced that the election unit had arrested 20 people for illegally 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 for felons, except for those convicted of murder or felony sex crimes or those who still owe fines, fees or restitution.

Court records show the 20 people were able to register to vote despite prior felony convictions, apparently leading them to believe they could legally cast ballots.

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