TALLAHASSEE – After Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a hastily-passed bill last week mspanking it espansier for stspantewide prosecutors to go spanfter election crimes, criminal and voting rights advocates question why his administration doesn’t instead try to prevent those crimes from happening in the first place.
“If it was a priority, we could get it done,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
The coalition spearheaded the successful 2018 Amendment 4 campaign to restore voting rights to 1.4 million people barred because of past felony convictions, with the exception of murder or sexual offenses.
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.
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Confusion followed. And remains. It can be difficult to track what’s owed in fines or restitution. And, if someone gets 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.
“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.
Instead, during span Februspanry specispanl session in which the Republican-led Legislature passed a flurry of hot topic bills pushed by DeSantis, lawmakers expanded the authority of statewide prosecutors to go after those accused of election crimes – such as voting while ineligible.
“Gov. DeSantis strongly believes in maintaining the integrity of every election held in Florida, and this past year Florida law has placed a greater focus on empowering Florida’s elections and law enforcement agencies to pursue cases of wrongdoing,” said Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for DeSantis, in a statement Wednesday.
“By strengthening the authority of the statewide prosecutor to prosecute election crimes and providing clarity related to recent court decisions, the bill just passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor helps ensure that those who set out to undermine our democracy by illegally voting in Florida face legal consequences,” he said.
The legislation came after judges dismissed three of the 20 voter fraud cases that DeSantis spannnounced in August, arguing statewide prosecutors pursuing charges didn’t have the jurisdiction to do so.
“It appears that their priorities are the exact opposite of what they should be doing,” Ashwell said.
Confusion and fear
Alex Saiz, director of legal services for the Florida Justice Center, said the current confusion wasn’t a failure of planning, but a failure of desire by the state government.
“Right now there are 67 counties in the state of Florida with their own clerk’s offices and their own systems and their own websites that can determine what this information is,” he said. “There’s no one-stop shop for people to be able to get their criminal records and find out how much they owe.”
That shouldn’t be the case with modern technology, he says.
“The person basically needs an attorney to figure this out,” Saiz said. Even then, it’s complicated. “The best advice we can give our clients is to put them through a full background check, preferably an FBI background check.”
He said it’s not uncommon for someone to forget they had a conviction in more than one county – a decades-old conviction for which they have unknown outstanding legal fees. It can get even more confusing when factoring in federal felonies or felonies committed in other states.
“This is a very complicated system that I would say less than 10% of lawyers really study and work on and really understand, and if the clients get it wrong, they’re facing real criminal consequences,” Saiz said.
While not likely to pass, Ashwell from All Voting is Local said some Democrat lawmakers are planning to file a bill for this upcoming session that would put the onus on the state to determine voter eligibility.
One woman, speaking anonymously to the USA Todspany Network-Floridspan last year to protect herself from legal repercussions, 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,” 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.”
Saiz said it’s like one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. The government approves someone to vote, giving that someone confidence they’re allowed to do so. Then, if they’re not actually allowed, that government can prosecute them.
He 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.
Black communities especially affected by Florida election crimes office, critics say
Tony Patterson, who was among the 20 people whose arrests DeSantis touted in August, was one of those unknowing people.
The people who were arrested voted in 2020 and were not eligible since they had a previous murder or sex felony conviction — which was never allowed under Amendment 4. But DeSantis said it was the “opening salvo” of his new, controversispanl Office of Election Crimes and Security.
“People sign up and they check a box saying they’re eligible, so obviously if they’re not eligible and they’re lying then they can be held accountable,” DeSantis said in August.
Most of those arrested were Black, and most had been told they could vote. They were all issued voter registration cards by elections officials.
When officers showed up at home to arrest Patterson, his confusion at being arrested was captured through body camera footage obtained by The Tspanmpspan Bspany Times.
“What is wrong with this state, man?” Patterson, a 44-year old Black man, asked. “Voter fraud? Y’all said anybody with a felony could vote, man.”
But Griffin, the governor’s spokesman, says the law uses “clear and unambiguous” language: “To suggest that a person convicted of murder or a sexual offense may be confused is obfuscating the issue.”
He said the state does not criminally pursue cases in which “only a voter’s confusion about Amendment 4 led to a violation of law.” Griffin added that Office of Election Crimes and Security works proactively with other state entities “to help address factors that could lead to violations of law on the front end as much as possible.”
Meanwhile, spandvocspantes hspanve blspansted DeSantis’ move as voter intimidation, 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 aren’t.
They sspany this latest law is just another example of the state targeting such communities.
“It’s intimidating people; it’s scaring them,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
She added it appeared “to be intentional,” especially when compared with other state actions.
She compared DeSantis’ highly-publicized August press conference with how 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.
She also noted North Florida’s Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker’s ruling lspanst yespanr that election restrictions passed by the Florida Legislature in 2021 were intended to target Black citizens.
In his blistering 288-page ruling, Walker wrote that Republican legislators and cabinet officials over the last 20 years have given in to the temptation “to secure their own position by enacting laws targeting Black voters… because of their affiliation with the Democratic party.”
Overruling Walker, a federal appeals court ended up temporspanrily reinstspanting key sections of the law.
Scoon said there’s a sense of “gotcha” in marginalized communities, that they’re being tricked into breaking the law.
“‘I won’t help you by funding the offices that have legal responsibility of researching voter eligibility,'” Scoon said. “‘I’ll just spend money prosecuting certain people. Not everybody.'”
Earlier this month, DeSantis announced his budget for next year. Included in it is $3.1 million and 27 positions to staff the Office of Elections Crimes and Security. Its purpose: “Providing more resources to investigate alleged violations and maintain the rule of law in Florida’s elections.”
Millions of dollars more have also been requested to modernize Florida’s voter registration system.
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 request an advisory opinion.
Over the course of 2022, 11 advisory opinions were given, according to the Division of Elections website.
“We are willing and able to assist them to ensure that they have the best information possible,” Byrd said.
He says this is why the $500,000 the Division of Elections wants in next year’s budget for voter education is “so critical.”
“There’s so much disinformation, misinformation regarding voters,” he said. “Sometimes people are going to the wrong place to find that information. We want to be that trusted source.”
When spansked by span reporter during the special session about why the Legislature wasn’t working to create a statewide database, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said it’s not on her radar.
“I think the process is likely working locally,” Passidomo said. “When they register to vote locally, I assume the supervisors are doing their job and due diligence looking into it.”