Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. August 31, 2022.

Editorial: DeSantis’s road show of voter intimidation

When Gov. Ron DeSantis brought his campaign of voter intimidation to Fort Lauderdale to hype the arrests of 20 people on voter fraud charges, he called it an “opening salvo.” He wasn’t kidding. No wonder people are worried.

DeSantis on Tuesday added local election supervisors to his list of suspected lawbreakers, smearing them with no proof. Here’s what he said in Live Oak (you can watch it on the Florida Channel): “There’s some local jurisdictions, they just don’t care about the election laws.” (He named no one). He added: “I think there’s been reports that supervisors have told voters, ‘Hey, if you’re a convicted murderer, you can vote, so go ahead and vote.’” (Again, no specifics. We know of no supervisors encouraging convicted murderers to vote.)

The governor’s Aug. 18 spectacle at the Broward County Courthouse is a case study in voter intimidation.

Why Broward?

DeSantis picked the state’s dominant Democratic county for a “major announcement” about convicted felons who were not eligible to vote but did in the 2020 election. That’s obviously wrong. But when four Republicans in The Villages were accused last December of voting twice — a felony also subject to five years in prison — we heard not a peep from DeSantis. No press conference, no show of force, nothing.

By the way, only three of the 20 latest suspects are from Broward. State law enforcement officials said six were from Hillsborough, three each were from Palm Beach and Orange counties, and two from Miami-Dade. Three others were still being sought.

In a disturbing show of armed force, 15 uniformed Broward deputies stood behind the governor (Fifteen? How many BSO deputies were on patrol at the time?) The performance was held in a courtroom, to make things look more threatening. Partisan activists passed out signs that read, “My Vote Counts.”

This road show included Attorney General Ashley Moody, Secretary of State Cord Byrd, FDLE Commissioner Mark Glass, and Pete Antonacci, the governor’s hand-picked chief of the new elections crime unit. Speaking with the authority of a state official, Antonacci noted that the special election for Congress in a predominantly Black district in Broward and Palm Beach was decided by five votes.

“I’m certain that in that tranche of voters, there were plenty of illegal ballots cast,” he said. Once again, no specifics, no examples.

The statement challenges the legitimacy of a Democratic member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, D-Miramar, who was re-nominated to a full two-year term Aug. 23. That is recklessly irresponsible rhetoric without proof, but that’s the tone set by this governor.

Falling apart

DeSantis’ spectacle is already falling apart. Some lawyers will challenge the role of the statewide prosecutor’s office, which can only pursue cases in two or more judicial circuits. The office is under the control of Moody, a DeSantis ally.

The governor may blame county supervisors, who can remove a voter’s eligibility, but that decision is based on information provided by the Department of State, an agency under DeSantis’ control. It’s right there in Chapter 98.075 (5): “The Department (of State) shall identify those registered voters who have been convicted of a felony and whose voting rights have not been restored... ”

All voters swear under penalty of perjury that they are eligible, and no one who is ineligible should be voting. But verification of a voter’s felony record is the state’s responsibility. (That’s you, Governor.) In a letter to supervisors on Aug. 18, the same day of the Broward spectacle, Antonacci told them that felons on their rolls may have voted “through no fault of your own.”

In addition, administrative rules that govern elections state: “The BVRS (state Bureau of Voter Registration Services) shall create an ineligibility case file based on an investigation of information that the match is credible and reliable for each identified voter ... “

DeSantis’ office made matters worse by wrongly claiming that verification is a local responsibility. Setting the record straight, Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg tweeted that the Legislature gave the agency more money to verify eligibility (though the agency is chronically underfunded, and verification is time-consuming and difficult).

Not only that, but in the confusion following passage in 2018 of Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to felons other than murderers and sex offenders, the state included a “grace period” for those confused by its applicability.

The grace period ended July 1, 2019. A few weeks later, according to court records, Terry Lewis Hubbard, 64, of Pompano Beach, registered to vote, even though he was ineligible because of a felony sex offense.

Look who sent voter ID card

Hubbard got a voter registration card from the Broward elections office, which at the time was run by Antonacci, who had been appointed interim supervisor by former Gov. Rick Scott. Others registered at state-run driver license offices, also under DeSantis’ control.

Let’s see how many of these cases stand up in court.

“For there to be fraud, there must be intent,” says Hollywood defense lawyer Larry Davis, who has worked on voter protection issues and represents one of the 20 defendants. “My client received a voter registration card from the supervisor of elections.”

Davis said his client met with two FDLE agents at his home and a week later was roused at 6 a.m. by agents brandishing automatic weapons. The voter was taken to jail in his underwear, said Davis, who declined to identify his client, saying he feared losing his job.

This is clearly part of the DeSantis strategy for winning a second term. By following the Trump playbook, he sows distrust of voting, with optics that appear calculated to discourage Black voters from casting ballots. But don’t take our word for it. Listen to what Antonacci said at the Aug. 18 press conference: “We’re going to be very watchful of the people who vote.”

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Tampa Bay Times. September 2, 2022.

Editorial: Gov. DeSantis’ sham felon voting arrests

State government’s own failures led ex-felons to face charges

Who gave those ex-cons that Florida just arrested the crazy idea they could legally vote? Turns out: the state of Florida. All 18 of those arrested told state investigators they received a voter registration card from their local elections office. And officials in Tallahassee acknowledged it was the responsibility of the state, not the counties, to flag those felons ineligible to vote. The revelations further expose the arrests as an election-year sham and the weaponization under Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida’s new elections police.

Only last month, the governor stood alongside the state’s top elections officials to announce the arrests of 20 people for voting illegally, in what officials described as the opening salvo of a crackdown on election fraud. But the milk soured fast as the state’s own culpability has come into view, and now advocates are urging those arrested to fight the charges, while the Senate sponsor of the felon voting law is musing that the operation may produce no convictions.

“The more that comes out on the arrests, the more I believe the individuals involved had no knowledge or intent to violate the law,” state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, wrote in a post on Twitter. Because “the state has to prove intent,” he wondered: “Were these people ever notified that they were not eligible to vote? And can we prove that they did it willingly?”

Those questions should have been thoroughly researched before anyone was arrested. All of those arrested told investigators they believed they were authorized to vote by someone in government, according to a new report by the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau. According to the charging documents, some were told they were authorized to vote by multiple government officials. Documents show that Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents knew that almost all of the people arrested Aug. 18 thought they had the right to vote in 2020 because they had received voter registration cards.

“Why are we prosecuting people who made an honest mistake?” asked Mark Rankin, a Tampa-based attorney, representing a 55-year-old seamstress caught in the dragnet.

That’s a great question with a terrible answer. Florida voters passed Amendment 4 in 2018, aimed at automatically restoring voting rights for most felons. But those convicted of murder and some sexual offenses were specifically excluded, and the Legislature also passed a bill requiring felons to complete “all terms” of their sentence, including paying all costs, fees and restitution.

The only problem was that lawmakers didn’t bother creating a central database to determine whether felons qualified or not. By May 2020, the Department of State had a backlog of 85,000 people it needed to verify and potentially remove from the voting rolls, state elections director Maria Matthews told a federal judge that month, a backlog she described as almost hopelessly large.

The 18 people arrested were registered to vote between late 2018 and 2020 during a period when the Department of State was struggling to weed out ineligible voters. Under Florida law, it is the state’s responsibility to screen ineligible voters and inform county supervisors to remove those people from the rolls. And until that occurs, those individuals “are eligible voters,” state officials declared. Some of those targeted by DeSantis remained on the rolls until this year. Of those arrested, Brandes predicts: “They’re going to find letters and they’re going to find video, and they’re going to find stuff that points to: We made a mistake.”

This is not sloppy policing but an unconscionable use of police powers to intimidate voters and instill distrust in elections. It makes the Republican-sponsored Election Crimes and Security Office appear like a hack operation. We can only hope the courts do what the governor and Legislature failed to do by protecting due process and ensuring that government is held accountable for its own mistakes.

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Miami Herald. September 1, 2022.

Editorial: Parkland jurors can’t avert their eyes from the AR-15’s carnage. Maybe none of us should

Nikolas Cruz bought the AR-15 that he used to kill 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School because it was “cool-looking.” That’s what he told a Broward Sheriff’s detective, according to court documents.

It was cool-looking.

Cruz’s trial isn’t over yet. The prosecution has rested, and the defense is making its case against the death penalty, after his guilty plea. But even as the jury continues its heartbreaking job, one so agonizing it would be beyond the endurance of many, the AR-15-style gun marketed as “America’s rifle” continues to plague us all.

Cruz chose the same style of weapon as the shooter in Uvalde, the one in Las Vegas, the one at Pulse in Orlando, the one at Sandy Hook, the one in Buffalo, the one in Highland Park, Illinois. These are guns that trace their roots to the Vietnam War. They’re designed to kill lots of people and to look pretty much the same as ones used in the military.

It makes us numb, that list of shootings. But how many of us would still feel that way — could still feel that way — if we’d seen what the jurors in the Cruz trial have had to see? They don’t have the luxury of averting their eyes from the carnage. They can’t duck from the reality of what this country allows: Cruz purchased his weapon legally.

That has to change.

The graphic photos of human beings’ destruction — the tiny entrance wound, the gaping, obscene exit wound — were shielded from the public, considered too awful for most of us to contemplate. But the jurors deciding Cruz’s fate had to see them. Reporters covering the case also viewed them, including David Ovalle.

Ovalle is the Miami Herald’s veteran court reporter. He’s seen some of the worst things that humans can do to each other. But even he struggled to comprehend the horrific damage depicted in the photos.

“For me, the exit wounds were so jarring to view,” he said. “It’s hard to even describe them, because the descriptions of gaping wounds, ragged flesh and deep-red-colored holes just don’t do enough to convey the devastation caused by these weapons of war.”

He talked about one boy, shot eight times, with exit wounds on his forearm — “a massive hole of ragged flesh” — and one of his legs. And about a girl, lying on the floor in front of a classroom lectern, “her eyes wide open as if she’s in pain, her mouth slightly open.” The side of her head is missing, her brain pulverized by a high-velocity bullet.

None of us should have to know about the damage that high-velocity bullets can do. And yet, as the shootings continue, so many of us do.

‘SNOWSTORM’ OF DAMAGE

Medical examiners have offered more grim lessons during this trial. They told jurors that the bullets that AR-15-style weapons use are created to inflict massive internal damage. Forensic pathologists testified about how the bullets tore through flesh and hit bone, creating a “snow storm” of bullet fragments peppering the person’s insides, often fatally.

As former Broward chief medical examiner Craig Mallak described it, “It’s a very small bullet, but it’s moving at 3,000 feet per second. There’s so much energy with these bullets. It just tears skin, bones, organs.” It’s a path 20 times to 30 times the size of the actual bullet, he said.

He performed the autopsy on 14-year-old Cara Loughran, who suffered three wounds: one small entry wound to the left upper back and two gaping exit wounds in the upper chest.

One bullet entered the rib area of 14-year-old Alaina Petty. “After that, the bullet was fragmented into multiple fragments that perforated the lungs, liver, kidney and exits on the left lateral side of the torso,” Associate Medical Examiner Iouri Boiko testified.

Meadow Pollack’s wounds were catastrophic. The 18-year-old was shot seven times, one fracturing her spine. A bullet that grazed her opened a five-inch gash on her skull. It wasn’t a direct hit. But the energy of the bullet was so powerful, she had no chance.

MARKETING WORKS

This style of weapon isn’t popular by accident — it’s marketing. The Washington Post recently published a story outlining how one of the manufacturers of AR-15-style rifles tried to run an ad during the Super Bowl, knowing the NFL would probably reject it but ready to launch accusations of censorship and hypocrisy. The ad was rejected. And the counterattack was “by far” the most successful marketing the company had ever had, one company exec said.

The United States banned assault weapons before, from 1994 until 2004. In that 10-year period, mass-shooting deaths were reduced, according to at least one study, published in 2019 in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. In July, the House passed new assault-weapons ban legislation, largely along party lines. It’s unlikely to advance in the evenly split Senate, but at least it is some recognition that the Second Amendment doesn’t confer unlimited rights.

And there is support from the White House. President Biden, in a Pennsylvania speech on safer communities and gun control Tuesday, said the county “is awash in weapons of war.” Parents whose children died in the Uvalde shooting, he said, had to supply DNA for identification, “because the AR-15 just rips the body apart.”

STILL-LIFE HORROR

Jurors in the Parkland case are doing what no one should have to do. Instead of shielding themselves from the dreadfulness of this mass shooting, they have to immerse themselves in it. They’ve listened to the anguished parents, siblings and friends. They’ve visited the still-life horror of Building 12 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, preserved since 2018 for the trial: dried pools of blood on the floor, overturned chairs, discarded headphones, a chess game still in the middle of play, broken glass that still crunches underfoot.

And they’ve seen those photos, the nightmarish pictures of slaughter four years ago on Valentine’s Day committed by someone who thought an AR-15 looked “cool.”

There have been so many shootings. We try to preserve our own sanity by turning away, afraid of having those images of blood and terror and viciousness branded into our consciousness forever.

But maybe we shouldn’t turn away. Maybe if all of us, including our elected officials, had to see those photos, pictures out of our worst nightmares, we could build some kind of consensus, again, on something that seems so simple it shouldn’t need saying: Weapons of war have no place in a civilized society.

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Orlando Sentinel. September 2, 2022.

Editorial: Is the right increasing abortions and undermining its own power? Yes.

Here’s what the people behind the hardcore assault on reproductive rights expect to see soon, across the country: A series of doors slamming shut, including some that trap sinful doctors and even women in prison cells. A hard wall of restrictive laws in red states (including Florida) that first block all access to abortion, then attack the most effective means of birth control. They envision a growing atmosphere of fear that puts women at the mercy of biological destiny.

But there’s another side these ultra-conservatives don’t see, and aren’t even trying to comprehend. If they did, they’d realize how wrong-headed they were. They would understand that their plans are hardening the resolve of the majority of Americans who feel the government should stay out of private decisions — including when and if they plan to bear children.

They would understand that the current atmosphere is likely to prompt an increase in the number of Americans who feel compelled to end pregnancies they might otherwise have carried to term.

And where far-right ideologues hold control — as they do in Florida — they would see a populace rising up and preparing to tear the reins of power from their hands.

Liberty under attack

The fear? That’s real. Americans of child-bearing age are scared – but not cowering. Far from it.

Start with a gut check on the prevailing view of abortion in this country. A Fox News poll in early August revealed that 60 percent of Americans disapproved of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision. They support abortion access by a majority that goes as high as two-thirds, albeit with some restrictions.

Supporters of reproductive liberty also see the doors slamming shut — in a way they never did prior to that shocking decision, despite more than a decade of attacks on access to reproductive health care that have already reached past abortion to restrict contraceptive access.

Americans are clearly paying attention now. They see abortion access crumbling in conservative states, including a recent report from a reproductive rights think tank finding that 43 clinics that offered abortion have closed in the past seven weeks, across 11 states that had so-called “trigger” laws. That list doesn’t include Florida, but we’re hearing about cases like the pregnant 16-year-old Escambia County resident caught in a fiendish dilemma: She had no parents, but was required by law to have parental consent for an abortion. A judge ruled she was too immature to terminate her pregnancy — yet, by obvious implication, mature enough to become a parent. Jaws dropped even more when an appeals court agreed with that conclusion.

We’ll probably never know the outcome of that case. Though we should know, soon, whether Florida’s courts are willing to pretend that there is no risk of “irreparable harm” in another onerous law that bans abortion after 15 weeks (which shrinks to about 12-13 weeks taking into account the law’s shifty wording). Forcing people to carry unwanted pregnancies to term ― even those caused by rape or incest ― isn’t “irreparable harm?” Briefs were flying fast and furious this week in that case, which is now before Gov. Ron DeSantis’ carefully stacked Florida Supreme Court.

Such a ridiculous decision would resonate hard with the majority of voters who understand that the Florida Constitution grants explicit privacy and self-determination rights that go far beyond the protections cobbled together on a federal level by Roe v. Wade. If the court is willing to ignore such clear language, it’s a clear sign that DeSantis’ judges have gone rogue. That could evolve into a death warrant for DeSantis’ ambition.

TikTok and the ticking clock

Meanwhile, restrictions could be stampeding dozens, perhaps hundreds or even thousands, of Floridians into a decision they really don’t want to make: Having abortions because they are too afraid to wait.

Because here’s what those ultra-conservative Florida leaders really don’t see. While they’re watching talking heads on Fox News or even CNN recite the arrests, the harassment, and the never ending recital of abortion prohibitions kicking in across the country, Floridians of childbearing age are on TikTok and Instagram. They’re watching video clips from private pilots (including some from Volusia County’s conservative-leaning Spruce Creek Fly-In community) offering to take them to blue states where abortion access is still unrestricted and finding thousands of heavily coded pledges from families offering to host women with a sudden need to go “camping.” They’re hearing pledges of solidarity and support from posters as diverse as the youth group Gen Z for Change and the Finnish Parliament. Yes, the real Parliament. Of Finland.

These digitally outreached hands — along with limited-access email lists that relay cries for help and draw on rapidly growing abortion-assistance funds — can get women to places where they can safely have abortions. What they can’t provide, however, is time.

And time is the one thing a person coping with an unplanned, potentially unwanted pregnancy needs. Because while far-right forces want to make it impossible to have an abortion, they’ve made it hellishly difficult for low-income people to raise children. Many workers have no real guarantee of paid maternity leave, and even the most generous policies are skimpy. Long-term, raising a child is projected to cost upwards of $300,000, including costs of child care in homes where every parent is expected to work.

Under laws like Florida’s, the clock runs out fast. In states with outright bans, the only option is to terminate a pregnancy before anyone else realizes it exists. With no time to think about alternatives and line up support, more pregnancies will be terminated. Count on it.

Termination of power

As for the impact on those who think they are solidifying their power? We’ll let two recent votes speak for themselves.

In July, 61 percent of voters in deep-red Kansas favored a new law protecting abortion rights. And this week, driven largely by abortion rights, Alaska voters thumped former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin to send a Democrat to Congress, defying all projections by a healthy 3 percent margin.

The opponents of reproductive liberty are right, in one critical area: American politics are on the verge of being remade by the timing of their savage attacks. But they don’t see what’s coming. And they’re not going to like it.

Online extra: A family matter

For one last tale of political abortion fallout, check out this this video from Hannah Stargel, a TikTok user whose mother, state Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, sponsored Florida’s parental-consent law along with this year’s 15-week abortion limit ― and whose father, Circuit Judge John Stargel, wanted to deny another teen an abortion in part because her GPA wasn’t high enough (and cited the law his wife sponsored in his ruling). “Talk about a conflict of interest,” Hannah Stargel notes wryly, before adding “Trust me, this is not the couple you want in power, making decisions for you and your body.”

Needless to say, Hannah Stargel didn’t support Mom in the crowded race for a west Florida congressional seat. Here’s how that turned out. Suffice it to say, Florida Republicans who oppose reproductive rights have something to worry about.

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