Some eligible ex-criminals are afraid to vote because of Ron DeSantis

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right) called a press conference in August to announce illegal voting charges against 20 Floridians with previous felony convictions – who do not appear to have intentionally broken the law, but have instead fell victim to a confusing voter registration system ― a chill ran through the state.

As a result, some potential voters who are in fact qualified to register, thanks to a constitutional amendment to restore the franchise to ex-criminals that Florida voters approved four years ago, are nonetheless passing up that opportunity because that they are afraid of not going back to prison.

“We’ve had other people in the past who have said, ‘Look, I’m scared to vote,'” said Mike Gottlieb, a Democratic state lawmaker who serves on the state’s legal defense team. one of the accused men.

“I have never in the past encountered so many voters calling in fear that they might be sued or whatever for voter fraud,” Mark Earley, Leon County Elections Supervisor, told the News Service of Florida this week. “And these are all eligible voters who contacted me.”

Gottlieb said he believed DeSantis’ press conference, held in a courtroom in Florida’s bluest county, Broward, was ‘specifically designed to disenfranchise Democratic voters in Broward County’ – a charge he a spokesperson for the Florida State Department called “patently untrue.”

Nonetheless, news of the arrests quickly reverberated throughout the state.

“It had a major deterrent effect,” Gottlieb said. “I think they achieved their goal. There will be people who are not interested in voting because they fear being arrested. »

Neil Volz said he saw a similar response to arrests. Volz is deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group dedicated to helping returning citizens — that is, formerly incarcerated people — who have prior convictions.

“We are seeing individuals who, due to confusion, may not participate this year,” said Volz, who is a returning citizen himself. “It’s heartbreaking to think that the de facto decision someone has to make, when they don’t know whether they’re eligible or not, is not to vote.”

“It’s heartbreaking to think that the de facto decision someone has to make, when they don’t know whether they’re eligible or not, is not to vote.”

– Neil Volz, Deputy Director, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

“There’s Your Defense”

After Florida’s Amendment 4 was passed in 2018, former felons who had served time, parole, or probation for their convictions automatically regained their right to vote, with the exception of those convicted of murder or criminal sexual offences. But within months, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature also obligatory criminals to repay all fines and costs related to their sentence before they can recover their rights ― forcing returning citizens to navigate a county-by-county patchwork of court records that can to feel impossible to unravel.

In Alachua County earlier this year, months before DeSantis’ press conference, 10 Floridians have been charged for voting illegally, although most of them were registered to vote by county officials during a prison registration drive. All had to pay fines and costs for previous charges, Fresh Take Florida reported. Evidence against a defendant included $494 in unpaid fines dating back to 1994, according to Orlando Weekly.

There is no evidence that any of the people DeSantis mentioned in his August press conference supposed break the law. But all of the defendants DeSantis announced had been convicted of murder or felony sex offenses, making them ineligible for Automatic Voter Restoration. Yet no one stopped them from signing up.

Rather, the defendants say they were told by various parties — election officials, canvassers, a probation officer and even a sheriff’s deputy — that they had the right to vote, according to court records. reported by the Orlando Sentinel. The state issued them voter registration cards and they used them. Months later, police arrived at their doorsteps.

Body camera footage published by the Tampa Bay Times last week showed the times when Floridians realized they had essentially been misled into thinking they were eligible to vote.

“I say to myself, what is this? Electoral fraud? says Romona Oliver in one of the videos. “I voted, but I did not commit fraud.”

One of the officers who arrested her also seems confused.

“That’s the problem, I don’t know exactly what happened with it, but you have a warrant, and that’s why,” he says.

Another video shows Florida resident Nathan Hart telling officers he was told, “If you can vote, they’ll give you a card, and if you can’t vote, they won’t.”

“That’s your defence,” responds an officer.

In another video, Tony Patterson simmers in the back of a police car: “Why would you let me vote if I couldn’t vote?

“I’m not sure, mate,” replies an officer. “I do not know.” Elsewhere he says: ‘I have never seen these accusations before in my entire life.

Body camera footage released by the Tampa Bay Times showed Tony Patterson was arrested for voter fraud.

“Ultimate responsibility for ensuring compliance with the law rests with the voter, as local and state election officials are obligated to take the voter’s word on the voter’s request – assertions made under penalty of perjury” , Florida Department of State spokesman Mark Ard told HuffPost.

“These individuals lied when they registered to vote,” Ard said.

Of 19 arrests related to DeSantis’ press conference, 12 people were registered Democrats and at least 13 were black, the Tampa Bay Times found. A New York Times review of 400 charges of voter fraud nationwide over the past half-decade found that “those who are poor and black are more likely to be sent to prison than comfortable retirees facing to similar charges. This seems to be true in Florida.

The defendants who were the subject of DeSantis’ announcement face years behind bars – a stark difference from four residents of The Villages, Florida’s largest retirement community, who were charged with voting twice. One of the Villages defendants is awaiting trial, but three others — two Republicans and an unaffiliated voter, all white — participated in a pre-trial diversion program that required them to earn at least a C grade in a college course. 12-week adult civic education.

“Criminalize the vote”

At the August press conference, DeSantis touted the lawsuits as an “opening salvo” against voter fraud, promising more lawsuits to come. (Only one other case has since been charged.)

And the late Pete Antonacci, whom DeSantis appointed to head his new Election Crimes and Security Bureau, claimed without evidence that he was “certain” there had been “a lot of illegal ballots” during the of a recent Democratic primary.

FRRC’s Volz said the state could spend money to create a system that actually works to check eligibility initially, rather than leaving voters in the dark and arresting people who vote by mistake when they are not qualified.

“Instead of spending money to fix the system, we are spending money on law enforcement and the justice system, and we are seeing people’s lives turned upside down because of it,” he said. he declares. “The state has responded to a broken system by criminalizing voting.”

So far, the lawsuits are not going well for the state. Last week, a Miami judge dismissed the case against Robert Lee Wood, one of the defendants announced at DeSantis’ press conference, because the alleged crime was committed in a single county, meaning that he should have been prosecuted by the local state attorney, not the statewide prosecution office.

“Local prosecutors probably wouldn’t take these cases because the likelihood of a conviction would be low at best,” Larry Davis, Wood’s attorney, told HuffPost.

The state said it would appeal the case, but Davis said he was prepared to argue the merits of his client’s actions: “He had no intention of breaking the law.”

Jonathan Olson, a supervisor with the State’s Attorney’s Office in Lake County, Florida, expressed the same concern this month while declining to take on six cases in which the office verified that ineligible voters had voted.

By state law, the Florida Division of Elections is required to notify local officials if someone is not eligible to vote, Olson wrote in a statement. But no such notice was given and the individuals were mistakenly given registration cards.

“The evidence does not show deliberate actions by any part of these individuals,” Olson wrote. “Therefore, the state is unable to press charges.”

The state has taken the opposite route, sending a shock to hundreds of thousands of eligible Floridians who have previous felony convictions and yet have not yet registered to vote.

Ard said the State Department receives daily reports from registered voters with potential crimes on their records, but the process to verify whether registrations are accepted is done manually.

“In sum, and as the courts have noted, it’s easy to get listed and hard to get off,” Ard said. “It is as it should be. If Floridians wish to see this process changed, they should contact their legislative representative to amend the current bylaws.

Volz said the atmosphere in Florida today reminds him of the days he spent campaigning for the passage of Amendment 4, a statewide vote of Floridians who still had their rights, to extend the right to vote to those whom the state had excluded from society. Volz and other returning citizens were unable to vote on the amendment themselves. Now Floridians worried about facing charges simply for voting are in the same situation.

“We see some of that energy turning to voting and making sure the voice of returning citizens is heard — even if it’s through their friends, neighbors and loved ones,” Volz said.

“To see this revival is really interesting,” he said. “It gives us hope.”

The Huffington Gt

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