20 were charged for voter fraud in Florida. Advocates say a broken system is to blame
Many of the individuals recently charged by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' new election crimes unit told investigators they had no idea that with their felony convictions, they were unable to vote when they cast ballots in the 2020 election.
Their experiences shed new light on Florida's controversial program for felons to restore their voting rights.
In a press conference last week, DeSantis announced to a crowd of supporters that the election crimes unit was charging 20 people across the state with voting illegally.
DeSantis described the arrests as the "opening salvo" from the new election and security unit. State lawmakers passed legislation earlier this year, known as Senate Bill 524, that created the policing force. The legislation followed pressure from DeSantis for the state to spend more resources on combating alleged voter fraud, which experts say remains very rare in American elections.
"People weren't getting prosecuted," he said last week. "Before we proposed this [unit] there were examples of this stuff seeming to fall through the cracks."
State law permits felons to try to gain back their voting rights, but not after convictions for certain crimes.
"They were disqualified from voting because they have been convicted of either murder or sexual assault and they do not have the right to vote," DeSantis said of the 20 people charged. "They have been disenfranchised under Florida law."
According to court documents, though, some of the 20 individuals told law enforcement officials that they thought they were able to vote when they cast ballots.
David Christopher Dana in Broward County, just north of Miami, told law enforcement agents in early August, according to an affidavit seeking his arrest, that he filled out a voter registration form "to see if his right to vote had been restored." The 58-year-old, who was convicted of a felony sex offense, later received a voter registration card, and then voted in person on Oct. 22, 2020.
Terry Hubbard, who was convicted in 1989 of sexual battery of a victim under 12 years old, told law enforcement that he registered to vote at the Broward County Property Appraiser's Office. Afterward, he was sent "a ballot and a letter in the mail stating he was eligible to vote," according to court documents. The 64-year-old then returned the mail ballot.
Advocates see a broken system
Florida voting rights advocates say these prosecutions are the result of the state's failure to create a system where individuals and election officials can easily verify whether someone has the right to vote after serving time for a felony conviction.
Some local election officials have told media outlets, including Politico, that counties forward voter registrations to the state, which is supposed to have statewide databases to cross-reference for eligibility.
In 2018, Florida voters approved a ballot measure so that the state would automatically restore the voting rights of people with prior felony convictions — except for people who committed murder or a felony sex offense. But during the following legislative session, the state legislature stepped in and passed legislation that required these returning citizens to fulfill every part of their sentence, including paying any fees or fines, in order to regain voting rights.
Nicholas Warren, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, says state lawmakers essentially created a "pay to vote" system, but they never created a way for these individuals to figure out how much they owe or if they owe anything at all.
"There is no simple way for a person who is coming out of their felony sentence to check whether they are eligible to vote," he told NPR. "And the rules are very complicated in Florida."
Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, says his group has been asking state officials to solve this issue for years now.
"We need to make sure that our data management system on the front end works in a way that gives assurances and clarity around the eligibility," he said.
Volz says voters should also be able to trust the state when they are issued a voter registration card. "It leads to the question of, if you can't count on the government to tell you if you are eligible to vote, then who can you count on?"
Advocates also say the state shouldn't be prosecuting individuals who say they didn't know they were unable to vote, because, Volz said, Florida law requires "the state to prove that someone willfully, intentionally, knowingly registered or voted while knowing that they were ineligible."
In reality, though, the ACLU's Warren says these kinds of cases play out differently than what the law intends. Like with most criminal prosecutions, those charged face a lot of pressure to plead guilty in order to avoid a jury trial.
"That's why we have seen some of the recent prosecutions of folks who by all accounts really genuinely did not know that they were ineligible when they registered and voted," he said. "They were even registered to vote in registration drives conducted by election officials."
Volz says these prosecutions come with significant human costs. The 20 individuals face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. He says he hopes these charges become a catalyst for state officials to finally solve this problem.
"We need to focus on solving this problem together rather than turning this into a political punching bag and using the lives of real people — real citizens in Florida — to play politics," he said.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.