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…
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….