It resembled a political rally more than a news conference. In November 2021, exactly one year after Donald J. Trump lost the presidential election to Joseph R. Biden Jr., Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida spoke to a raucous crowd in a hotel conference room just a few miles from Mr. Trump’s home base of Mar-a-Lago.
Their suspicions about vast election malfeasance would be heard, Mr. DeSantis promised. He was setting up an election police unit and he invited the crowd to send in tips about illegal “ballot harvesting,” nodding to an unfounded theory about Democrats collecting ballots in bulk.
The crowd whooped and waved furiously. “He gets it!” posted a commenter watching on Rumble.
But in his seven-minute, tough-on-election-crimes sermon, Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, never explicitly endorsed that theory or the many others spread by the defeated president and embraced by much of their party.
In this way, for nearly three years, Mr. DeSantis played both sides of Republicans’ rift over the 2020 election. As his state became a buzzing hub of the election denial movement, he repeatedly took actions that placated those who believed Mr. Trump had won.
Most prominent was the creation of an election crimes unit that surfaced scores of “zany-burger” tips, according to its former leader, disrupted the lives of a few dozen Floridians, and, one year in, has not yet led to any charges of ballot harvesting or uncovered other mass fraud.
Yet Mr. DeSantis kept his own views vague. Only last month — two years, six months and 18 days after Mr. Biden was sworn into office — did Mr. DeSantis, now running for president, acknowledge that Mr. Biden had defeated Mr. Trump.
Mr. DeSantis has said he pushed “the strongest election integrity measures in the country.” But critics say their main impact was to appease a Republican base that embraced conspiracy theories about elections — and that came with a cost.
He failed to counter lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Florida judges are considering whether his administration overstepped its legal authority.
Nathan Hart, a 50-year-old ex-felon from near Tampa, is among 32 people who have been arrested or faced warrants under the new initiative. Mr. Hart, who plans to appeal his conviction, said he lost his job as a warehouse worker because he had to show up in court. When he cast his ballot for Mr. Trump he had no idea he was ineligible to vote, he said.
He and others suffered so that the governor “could have a really good photo op and make himself look tough,” he said.
The 2020 Aftermath
Tightening voting rules had not been high on Mr. DeSantis’s agenda when he first came into office in 2019. After the ballot-counting debacle during the 2000 presidential election, Florida had substantially revamped its elections. Experts considered the 2020 election, in which over 11 million Floridians voted, well run and smooth. Mr. Trump won by 371,686 votes.
One significant change Mr. DeSantis made to Florida’s elections was his decision to join the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC. The data-sharing program, which had bipartisan support, helps states identify people who had moved, died or registered or voted in more than one state.
When he announced the move to a group of local election supervisors, they broke into applause.
But after the 2020 election, Mr. DeSantis came under concerted pressure from Mr. Trump’s loyalists. Florida became a staging ground for people promoting election conspiracy theories, including Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, and the Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne.
Pressed again and again on whether he accepted Mr. Biden’s victory over Mr. Trump, Mr. DeSantis dodged. “It’s not for me to do,” he replied in December 2020. “Obviously, we did our thing in Florida. The college voted,” he said, referring to the Electoral College. “What’s going to happen is going to happen.”
But within a few months, Mr. DeSantis was pushing for legislation he said would bulletproof Florida’s elections from fraud, with tighter rules for mail-in ballots, the use of drop boxes and third-party organizations that register voters.
The governor signed the bill live on Fox News in May 2021.
Election Crimes Unit
But lobbying by the election denial movement did not end. Cleta Mitchell, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers in his effort to undo the outcome of the 2020 election, helped organize Florida activists into state and local groups through her national Election Integrity Network.
Members of Defend Florida, another group, went door to door canvassing for evidence of voter irregularities. They delivered their leads to local elections officials, who, to the group’s frustration, typically investigated and dismissed them.
Public records show the organization’s representatives met repeatedly with aides to the governor and other high-level members of his administration. Six months after the 2021 changes became law, Mr. DeSantis proposed the election crimes unit — a top priority, aides told lawmakers. He requested a team of state law enforcement officers and prosecutors who could bypass the local officials he suggested had turned a blind eye to voting abuses.
Some lawmakers worried about giving the governor’s office too much influence over law enforcement, according to people familiar with the deliberations. The Republican-led Legislature did not explicitly authorize state prosecutors to bring voter fraud charges, as Mr. DeSantis had requested.
Otherwise, the governor got much of what he wanted: $2.7 million for a 15-member investigative unit and 10 state law enforcement officers dedicated to election crimes. His administration has used prosecutors under the attorney general’s office to handle the bulk of the cases, even without the Legislature’s authorization.
The new investigative unit became a receptacle for activists’ tips about fraud. Activists at times alerted conservative media outlets to their leads, generating headlines about new investigations. Some accusations poured through unusual channels.
Activists in Mr. DeSantis’s home county, Pinellas, handed over one binder full of tips to Mr. DeSantis’s mother. They later heard back that the package had been successfully delivered in Tallahassee, according to two people familiar with the episode.
A small team reviewing the claims found the vast bulk were not credible.
“Most that comes my way has zany-burger all over it,” Peter Antonacci, the now-deceased former director of the election crimes unit, wrote to an official in a local prosecutor’s office in 2022, according to an email obtained by The New York Times through a public records request.
Andrew Ladanowski, a former analyst for the unit who describes himself as an elections data hobbyist, said he spent weeks combing through voter records from the 2020 election. He had expected to find thousands of cases of illegal votes, but pickings were slim. “I can safely say there was no large-scale fraud that could have had a change in a state or a national election. It wasn’t sufficient,” he said.
Jeff Brandes, a Republican former state senator who opposed the election crimes unit, described it as largely “Kabuki theater.”
Five days before Florida’s 2022 primary election, the governor, then running for re-election, announced third-degree felony charges against Mr. Hart and 19 other ex-felons.
A 2018 ballot initiative allowed former felons to vote but exempted those who had been convicted of murder or sex offenses. Defendants and their lawyers have said they were unaware of that distinction. They said they thought they could vote because the state had allowed them to register and issued them voter registration cards.
At a news conference announcing the charges, Mr. DeSantis said more cases from the 2020 election were to come. “This is the opening salvo,” he said.
But by the end of 2022, the unit had announced only one other case against a 2020 voter. Mr. Ladanowski said by the time he had left in December, the team had moved on to vetting the current voter rolls.
As of July, the election crimes unit had referred nearly 1,500 potential cases to local or state law enforcement agencies, according to the governor’s office. Just 32 — or 2 percent — had resulted in arrests or warrants, and those cases were unrelated to the purportedly systematic abuses that elections activists claimed had tainted the 2020 election.
Thirteen of the defendants had been convicted of felonies. Defense attorneys said that some ex-felons accepted plea deals simply out of fear of being sent back to prison, and that none received a stiffer penalty than probation. Appeals court judges are now considering whether the state prosecutors had the legal authority to bring charges.
The election crimes unit also fined more than three dozen organizations that ran voter registration drives a total of more than $100,000 — much of that for failing to turn in the voter registration forms quickly enough.
The governor has said that even a limited number of arrests will deter voter fraud. Press officers for the secretary of state and the state law enforcement agency said the DeSantis administration expected courts to eventually decide that it acted within its authority, and that investigations of mass fraud like ballot harvesting are complex, time-consuming and still open.
Warning Against ‘the Left’s Schemes’
In August 2022, the day after he announced the election crime unit’s first arrests, Mr. DeSantis went to Pennsylvania to endorse Doug Mastriano, a vocal election denier running for governor.
The trip was another chance for the governor to show election activists he gets it. Onstage with a man who had worked with Mr. Trump’s lawyers to send an “alternate” slate of electors to Washington, Mr. DeSantis spoke carefully.
He did not mention the 2020 result, but he stressed that his state had cracked down on illegal voters. “We’re going to hold ’em accountable,” he told an enthusiastic crowd, ending his speech with an exhortation to “take a stand against the left’s schemes.”
Mr. DeSantis continued to dance around the 2020 election for another year, while his policies sent a strong message to the Republican base.
In March 2023, Cord Byrd, Mr. DeSantis’s secretary of state, announced that Florida would pull out of ERIC, the system Mr. DeSantis had ordered the state to join in 2019.
Only a few weeks earlier, Mr. Byrd had called ERIC the “only and best game in town” to identify people who had voted in two different states, according to the notes of a private call he had with Florida activists allied with Ms. Mitchell. The notes were provided by the investigative group Documented. In its annual report, the election crimes unit also described ERIC as a useful tool.
But Ms. Mitchell’s group and other critics had attacked the system as part of a liberal conspiracy to snatch Republican electoral victories. Mr. Byrd said publicly that Florida had lost confidence in it, and his agency cited ERIC’s failure to correct “partisan tendencies.”
In Florida, activists celebrated the victory. But they also want more. In interviews they said they were frustrated that the election crimes unit hasn’t brought more charges or validated their claims of mass elections malfeasance.
And when Mr. DeSantis finally said last month that “of course” Mr. Biden had won the 2020 election, he faced the sort of reaction he had long tried to avoid.
“It’s a betrayal,” said Wesley Huff, a Florida elections activist who has been involved in Defend Florida and other groups.
Trip Gabriel contributed reporting and Kitty Bennett Susan C. Beachy contributed research.