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New state voter fraud units find few midterm cases

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

This is exactly what election experts expected and led critics to suggest the new units were more focused on politics than rooting out widespread abuses. Most cases of voter fraud are already investigated and prosecuted at the local level.

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

“I’m not aware of any significant detections of Election Day fraud, 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 an overblown 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 is a rare phenomenon.

The absence of widespread fraud is important because the lies surrounding the 2020 presidential election propagated by former President Donald Trump and his allies have deeply penetrated the Republican Party and eroded confidence in the election. Heading into this year’s election, 45% 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 contested his 2020 defeat, and so far, nothing indicates this in this year’s election. Certification of results is going well in most states, with few complaints.

In Georgia, where Trump has 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 initiate investigations into alleged voter fraud without a request from election officials. The alleged violation should be significant enough to change or create doubt about the outcome of an election.

GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said the agency had not initiated any investigation under the law. The agency is assisting the secretary of state’s office with an investigation into a violation of voting materials in Coffee County in 2021, but this is its only recent investigation into voter fraud, 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 Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat who opposed the bureau’s additional authority, said the lack of investigations validates the criticism that the law was unnecessary. But she said the mere prospect of a GBI investigation could intimidate people who want to serve as poll workers or take on another role in the voting process.

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

Florida has been the most visible state, creating its Bureau of Election Crimes and Security to much fanfare this year and delivering on Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2021 pledge to tackle unspecified voter fraud.

The office reports to the Florida Department of State. He investigates the allegations and then instructs state law enforcement to prosecute the violations.

DeSantis announced this summer that the Elections Unit arrested 20 people for illegally voting in the 2020 election, when the state had 14.4 million registered voters. It was the first major election since a state constitutional amendment restored the right to vote for felons, except those who have been convicted of murder or sex crimes or those who must more fines, fees or restitution.

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

One of those charged, Robert Lee Wood, 56, saw 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 believe he was breaking the law because he was able to register to vote without issue. Davis called the law enforcement response “over the top” in the case.

The Wood case was dismissed by a Miami judge in late October on jurisdictional grounds because it was brought by the state attorney’s office rather than local prosecutors in Miami. The state is appealing the decision.

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 these potential voters sends a “chilling message to all returning citizens who want to s ‘register to vote’. .” She said her group found that many of them were 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 a fee,” she said. “It’s a labyrinthine ordeal.”

Weeks before the Nov. 8 election, the Bureau of Election Crimes and Security began notifying Florida counties of hundreds of registered voters who were potentially ineligible to vote due to prior convictions. In letters to counties, state officials asked election officials to verify the information and then take action to prevent ineligible voters from voting.

“We have heard stories of voters who are eligible to vote but have a criminal conviction in their past, and they are now afraid to register and vote,” said Michael Pernick, a human rights lawyer. vote at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He called it “deeply concerning”.

A spokesman for the new office did not provide any information regarding any further action it may have taken or any investigations it may have underway regarding this year’s primary and general elections.

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

The unit’s formation came in a state where Republicans swept all three statewide offices in the 2021 election, including Miyares’ loss to a Democratic incumbent.

Its 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 any investigations had been successful.

Additionally, “the EIU was successful in obtaining an objection and a motion to dismiss,” an attempt to force the state to abandon its use of electronic voting machines to count ballots and institute manual counting at statewide.

Miyares’ office said he was unavailable for an interview, but in a letter to the Washington Post editor in October, he said there had been no widespread fraud in Virginia or elsewhere in the 2020 elections. He said his office already had jurisdiction over election-related matters, but was restructuring it into a unit to work more cooperatively with the electoral community to dispel any doubts about the election fairness.

Smith of the Campaign Legal Center said there are real issues with election security, including protecting voters, poll workers and election workers, and securing voting materials. But he said Republican moves to bolster what they often call “voter integrity” to fight voter fraud are often about something else.

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

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Follow AP 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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