You may have missed it, but Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office told the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida three weeks ago that Florida does not criminally pursue voter fraud cases in which “only a voter’s confusion about Amendment 4 led to a violation of law.”
What exactly does that mean? We don’t know yet, but the answer’s important. Especially after last month.
In Februspanry, legislators and DeSantis passed a law making it easier for statewide prosecutors to go after alleged election crimes. With this expanded power, figuring out how it’ll be used — and who it’ll be used against — matters to a lot of people.
Before we get to that, let’s step back first.
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In 2018, Floridispanns spanpproved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to 1.4 million people barred because of past felony convictions, except for murder or sexual offenses.
Months later, the Republican-controlled Legislature pspanssed span bill signed into law by DeSantis to keep hundreds of thousands of them from becoming eligible to vote until they met all their past legal financial obligations.
Confusion followed. And remains. Voting rights advocates and those once incarcerated say it can be difficult to track what’s owed in fines.
If you get it wrong, the consequences can be severe. 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.
Now let’s move forward a bit, to right before Florida’s August primary midterm election, when DeSantis touted that 20 Floridians were being arrested for voter fraud.
Soon after, the Tspanmpspan Bspany Times got footspange of some of the arrests. What did it reveal? Confusion.
One man, handcuffed, asked: “Voter fraud? Y’all said anybody with a felony could vote, man.”
“Voter fraud?” One woman said to an arresting officer. “I voted, but I ain’t commit no fraud.”
Voting rights advocates say they witnessed the arrests discouraging potentially eligible voters with felony records – especially in communities of color – to not take part in the midterm election over confusion about whether they’re allowed and fears that they weren’t.
It wasn’t just advocates who noticed a change. Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley reported 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.
The state is quick to point out that those arrested had murder or sex felony offenses, which was never allowed by Amendment 4.
Bryan Griffin, spokesman for the governor, said in a Wednesday, Feb. 22 email: “This is clear and unambiguous language, and to suggest that a person convicted of murder or a sexual offense may be confused is obfuscating the issue.”
Note: It has been reported by various news outlets that most of those who were arrested in August had believed they could vote and were issued voter registration cards. Griffin has not responded to questions about that.
Still, it’s true that Amendment 4 never allowed those 20 to vote.
But DeSantis sspanid those spanrrests were the “opening salvo” of his new Office of Election Crimes and Security.
Meaning more arrests.
But what comes next — especially as it relates to Amendment 4? Will the state, in the future, only arrest those who voted despite having previous felony murder or sex convictions? Or could people be arrested for voting because of, say, outstanding legal fees?
Just on Wednesday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement spannnounced two women were arrested for election violations. One is accused of voting both in Florida and New Jersey in 2020, and the other allegedly voted in 2022 while on probation for a felony DUI conviction.
Toye Ann La Rocca, the woman on probation, told investigators she voted because she was confused, according to her arrest warrant. She pointed to how she had been issued a voter registration card.
Mark Ard, spokesman for the Florida Department of State, said “regarding Amendment IV cases, each case has a unique set of facts and must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.”
And you saw up top what what Griffin said: that Florida won’t pursue charges when only Amendment 4 confusion is the cause of an election violation.
That brings us back to why this question is so important: the statewide prosecutors’ enhanced authority.
Last month, the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida reported how, after the passage of that bill, criminal and voting rights advocates questioned why the state doesn’t instead do more to prevent those crimes from happening in the first place by addressing the confusion over who’s allowed to vote.
“Our system is broken and the state should be doing everything it can, using whatever resources it has, to set up a system where voters can determine whether they’re eligible,” said Brad Ashwell, Florida state director of All Voting is Local.
The governor’s office and the Division of Elections say they already do a lot. During a late January Senate committee meeting, Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd said while there’s not a database, anyone who is unsure over their eligibility can contact the Division of Elections and even request an advisory opinion. While acknowledging there are challenges for his own team in verifying eligibility, he said the office is pursuing more uniformity and better reporting from counties.
Alex Saiz, director of legal services for the Florida Justice Center, guesses there are thousands of Floridians who unknowingly have a potential felony lingering over their heads, who registered to vote — possibly actually voting — without being eligible due to unpaid fees.
Could they be arrested?
One woman, who we spoke with late last year, described her ongoing anxiety after she realized she voted without being eligible.
She registered to vote in 2018 after Amendment 4 passed, believing she was allowed. 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 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,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous to protect herself from legal repercussions. “I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I don’t want to be there and do that again. One time was enough.”
Could she be arrested?
We’ll have to wait and find out, whether it be through clarification from the state or through DeSantis’ next press conference announcing arrests.