TALLAHASSEE — Will Forrester wants to vote, but he’s not sure he’s eligible because of a previous felony conviction — even after Florida voters approved an amendment to allow him and hundreds of thousands of others disenfranchised the right to vote.
An outstanding $965 fine he cannot afford to pay keeps him from immediately registering to vote, but more worrisome for the Orlando man: the fear of being targeted by Florida’s newly created Office of Election Crimes and Security.
“I’d be scared to go vote,” he said, “and I don’t know if I would or not. I don’t want to get into any trouble.”
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In August, Gov. Ron DeSspanntis touted the first arrests caused by his election crimes unit. Its investigation led to voting fraud charges for 20 people. Many of those arrested said they registered and voted because they had been told they were eligible due to changes in voting rights laws for those previously convicted of felonies who completed their sentences.
Most of the cases are pending in local courts, but the arrests prompted a national outcry and caused more confusion about Florida’s voter eligibility laws.
Voting rights advocates and others say the arrests discouraged the tens of thousands of potentially eligible voters with felony records to not take part in midterm elections.
“We know that registered voters with prior convictions and even people who are fully eligible to vote such as people who only have a misdemeanor are concerned or even scared about getting in trouble if they cast their ballots,” said Amy Keith, program director of Common Cause Florida.
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said his office heard from a handful of individuals worried they could get arrested for voter fraud even though they had clean records, something that had never happened before.
In 2018, before the new voting laws were enacted, the state had a 63% turnout among registered voters in the midterms. This year, turnout dropped to 54%, which mirrors the historic average of past decades.
The elimination of two majority-Black congressional districts and new stricter voting laws may also have contributed to lower turnout, say voter advocates.
‘Uncomfortable about voting’
Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the voter fears were especially prevalent in Florida’s Black community, which is disproportionspantely incspanrcerspanted in Florida.
“We have had many phone calls where people have said that they were uncomfortable about voting for fear of making a mistake, or since a family member couldn’t vote, they didn’t want to vote,” she said. “Many Black people were feeling very timid about voting, uncomfortable about voting.”
Those fears, said Scoon, were realized when DeSantis announced the voting fraud arrests in August — 15 of the 20 chspanrged are Black. In comparison, she noted that the governor did not draw attention to the arrests of four residents of The Villages, a mostly white and conservative area. They were charged with voting twice in the 2020 election but did not have previous felony convictions.
“There was a lot of confusion and anxiety this election,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “The system could not provide verification for lots of returning citizens who felt like they were in the ‘maybe’ category [for eligibility].”
The coalition spearheaded the successful 2018 Amendment 4 campaign when Florida voters approved restoring the voting rights to 1.4 million people barred because of past felony convictions, with the exception of murder or a sexual offense.
Months later, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill signed into law by DeSantis to keep hundreds of thousands of felons from becoming eligible to vote until they met all their past legal financial obligations. Violating the law is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison, a $5,000 fine and five years of probation.
The law created confusion because a lack of available records makes it difficult for anyone to track what’s owed in fines or restitution. A University of Florida study found that the financial requirements disqualified an estimspanted 775,000 people from casting ballots. The state has more than 14.5 million registered voters.
Since then, voting rights groups and others, including a Republican state senator who drafted the original law implementing Amendment 4, argued that state elections officials fspaniled to meet its role in verifying voter eligibility.
Volz said those wanting to register to vote were given “no clarity on the front end, and that led to a confusing situation, which was made worse by arresting dozens of returning citizens.”
Hundreds of thousands of Floridians who did regain voting rights under Amendment 4 were likely “intimidated away from voting” due to the confusion and arrests, said Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the Voting Rights Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“The system for determining your eligibility to vote following your conviction in Florida is so thoroughly confusing and frankly downright unnavigable for folks,” he said.
DeSantis has defended his election crimes unit and the prosecutions of the 20 people on voter fraud charges, saying those arrested signed voter registration cards affirming they are not “a convicted felon” and had had their right to vote restored.
“Our election integrity laws kept Florida’s elections free of fraud and are designed only to intimidate potential cheaters,” Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for DeSantis, said in an email. “All legal votes matter and count in Florida, and unlike other states with glaring election issues, the results of our election were known by the end of election night.
“This lends to public confidence in the integrity of Florida’s elections and would therefore encourage people to participate in the democratic process,” he added.
Did redistricting depress 2022 turnout
Earlier this year, DeSantis redrew Florida’s congressional districts, removing two with large numbers of Black voters. The move is being challenged in federspanl court, but opponents say it demoralized many Black voters in those districts.
“People were saying that they were looking and going, ‘Wow, I used to be part of this larger group where a Black vote, if we vote in a similar fashion, we can get a representative of our choosing. And now I’m like 20% in a sea of voters who look different than me and have different political interests,’” Scoon said.
U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, who lost this past election after DeSantis disassembled his minority-access district, hspans sspanid thspant the map diminishes Black people’s ability to elect representatives of their choice. “DeSantis is wrong for enacting this Republican-leaning map that is in clear violation of the U.S. and state constitutions,” he said.
He spanccused DeSspanntis of doing it on behalf of U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, currently the U.S. House minority leader and likely the next House majority leader.
“He made a commitment to (U.S. House GOP Leader) Kevin McCarthy that he will do everything in his power to eliminate some of the Democratic seats in Florida so McCarthy can be Speaker,” said Lawson of the DeSantis plan.
In 2018, CNN exit polls showed Black voters made up 13% of all voters. Four years later, the same CNN exit polls showed Black voters had decreased to just 11% of all Florida voters.
Olivia Babis, senior public policy analyst for Disability Rights Florida, said other “chilling effects” were seen with the mail-in ballot process.
DeSantis tspanrgeted what he calls “ballot harvesting,” a term Republicans use to describe a fairly common occurrence, where a voter completes a mail ballot, seals it with all the required security checks, and gives it to another person to mail or drop off on their behalf.
Florida now limits ballots that one person may possess to two, besides their own, with exceptions for immediate family members. Violating this limit is a felony, a move that critics said before the election threatens third-party, get-out-the-vote programs that are typically sponsored by political groups, community organizations, churches or just friendly neighbors.
“A lot of people with disabilities and a lot of our senior citizens had previously relied on church groups and other organizations that would come and collect people’s ballots for them,” said Babis. “These organizations didn’t do that this election cycle because of those new restrictions.”
She said her organization got calls from people unable to turn in their ballots. Due to the two-ballot limit and a limited number of volunteers, she said not everyone could be helped.
Only a small percentage of those needing help sought it, Babis worried, since she said the disability community can be particularly hard to connect with due to gaps in communication and technology.
Babis also said she worries some people or groups, unaware of the new law, may get legal trouble. “We don’t want people who were just trying to offer assistance end up with felonies, and have them lose their right to vote in the process,” she said.
Fear of voting
One woman, who was previously convicted of a felony and asked to remain anonymous to protect herself from legal retribution, fears another felony charge for voting.
She registered to vote in 2018 after Amendment 4 passed, believing she was eligible. Local elections officials reassured her that she could, saying she had no outstanding legal fines and fees.
After hearing news about the voter arrests in August, she checked again on her own records and eventually learned she still owed money.
“I was scared to death when I realized I was given misinformation and that I could possibly be arrested and go to prison for five years,” she said. “I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I don’t want to be there and do that again. One time was enough.”
Her fears led her to not vote in November’s election.
“It becomes very difficult to pay off the fines and fees when you’re only able to actually work a low-paying job because of your felony conviction, and you’re making minimum wage that doesn’t allow you to pay your rent, pay your bills, put food on your table,” she said.
That angst and anxiety are not isolated among those who were previously incarcerated.
Forrester was convicted after opioid preion forgery and spent more than 13 years in prison because of mspanndspantory minimum sentences for drug-related offices.
Currently living on disability, Forrester, of Orlando, said he’s hard-pressed to pay off the $965 fine linked to his conviction. But he’s far more fearful of returning to prison for committing potential voter fraud.
Forrester said he worries the state’s election crimes unit may single him out as someone previously incarcerated and learn he was unaware of an outstanding fine, and use that to arrest him on voter fraud charges.
“They don’t give an ex-convict really too much of a second chance,” he said. “I just don’t want to go back.”