On August 18 last year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis held a press conference in a Fort Lauderdale courthouse to announce his latest achievement: arresting 20 formerly incarcerated people for voting illegally.
“They did not go through any process, they did not get their rights restored, and yet they went ahead and voted anyways,” he said. “That is against the law and now they’re gonna pay the price for it.”
The picture DeSantis painted at the podium featured sneaky former felons slipping into voting booths to subvert the democratic process. But as more details emerged, this image quickly began to decay.
The residents were charged with voting in some of the state’s bluest (and most diverse) counties. Each held convictions for murder or sexual offenses, disqualifying them from the rights restoration provided by Amendment 4, the 2018 amendment that restored voting rights to some formerly incarcerated people. Most of the accused, such as 50-year-old Hillsborough County resident Nathan Hart, were reportedly solicited to register to vote by an election worker in 2020. All told law enforcement that they genuinely believed they were allowed to vote.
DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin has said that the state wouldn’t go after voters who are just confused about their eligibility status under Amendment 4. But documents reveal a different story.
In fact, according to a review of records by The Appeal, those charged with crimes only discovered they’d made a mistake when law enforcement appeared at their doors.
Last August, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the state had sent voter ID cards to ineligible people due to understaffing and mismanagement. In the year since, The Appeal acquired 12 of the 20 arrestees’ voter registration applications from their county election supervisors and found that each received voter registration cards in 2019 and 2020 but weren’t pulled from the voter rolls until at least a year later—well after they’d cast ballots.
Amendment 4, a ballot initiative passed by Florida voters in 2018, restored suffrage for formerly incarcerated residents across the state, excluding those charged with murder or sex crimes. Republicans quickly hamstrung the amendment by enacting a policy requiring residents to pay all court fines and fees before their voting rights can be restored.
But these details aren’t entirely clear to the average voter. The state’s voter registration application merely asks the applicant to check a box saying, “I affirm that I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored.”
So, when a third-party election worker flagged Hart down outside his local DMV in March 2020, he didn’t know where his rights stood. Hart told the worker that he wasn’t sure about his eligibility status considering his first-degree felony.
“And he goes well, the best way to find out if you’re registered and if it’s approved or not, is to just go ahead and register to vote,” he said. “If you’re approved to vote, then they’ll send you your voter ID card and you’ll be good. If you’re not okay to vote, they simply won’t send you one. That’s the best way to find out for sure.”
Hart applied on March 9, received his voter ID card a few weeks later, and cast a vote in the November election. Three years later, the state hauled Hart into court.
Several other arrestees have stated that government officials also told them their applications were legal. Tampa resident Douglas Oliver told The Guardian that he hadn’t considered voting until a canvasser approached him at a store. Oliver, who’d been convicted of a sex crime in 2001, later followed up with his local election office to confirm that he was eligible, to which they responded that he was. Jerry Foster, age 72, similarly says he reached out to a sheriff’s deputy to see if he was eligible despite his sexual offense. State officials told Foster he could vote.
Palm Beach County resident Leo Grant Jr., who had been convicted of a sexual offense, told officers that he’d received a mailer telling him he was eligible to vote, according to a probable-cause affidavit a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) agent filed in Grant’s criminal case.
Another resident, 64-year-old Luis Villaran, was sent a voter ID card on July 21, 2020. However, the county elections supervisor wasn’t notified about his potential ineligibility until January 14, 2022.
Broward County resident Terry Hubbard’s process began even earlier—and stretched on even later. Hubbard registered to vote on August 7, 2019, was sent a voter registration card in March 2020, and voted by mail in the general election. The county election supervisor’s office didn’t receive a notice of his ineligibility until April 2022.
According to Florida law, it’s the state’s responsibility to alert applicants of their eligibility after what’s supposed to be a swift process through several agencies.
“The Florida Department of State has a duty under section 98.075(5), Fla. Stat. to identify those registered voters who have been convicted of a felony and whose voting rights have not been restored,” former Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee told reporters in October 2020. “The law requires the department to review information from a number of sources and make an initial determination as to whether the information is credible and reliable.”
As long as an applicant’s name is on the voter roll, “they are eligible voters,” she said.
When the Florida Division of Elections (FDOE) receives an application, it works with FDLE and the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) to search felony records for potential matches in their voter registration data.
“Felony matching is conducted within 24 hours after a person is registered and is also conducted on a daily basis against existing voter registration records … based on old felony convictions and new felony records that come online,” Florida Department of State spokesman Mark Ard told this reporter via email in February.
But he didn’t mention that the FDLE took an extended break from this process. (The agency did not respond to a request for comment.)
After Alachua County resident and researcher Mark Glaeser tipped off the local state attorney’s office about several returning citizens who’d voted illegally, FDLE conducted an internal investigation, which found a gap in the process. According to the investigation, the agency was supposed to send a report of individuals found in both the Felony Offender Registration and Tracking Services (FORTS) Database and state voter rolls to the FDOE monthly. However, after a new computer program created errors in their reports, the agency stopped sending them in 2019. FDLE planned to resume the process in January 2022.
Of the 12 voter registration applications acquired by The Appeal, seven reveal that counties were not notified of residents’ ineligibility until January 2022. Another three applications were not flagged until early February 2022. Another was not noted until April 2022. Just one was flagged in December 2021.
A Hillsborough County supervisor’s office spokesperson said in an email that the county must notify voters about their ineligibility no later than seven days after officials hear from the state.
But the FDOE was reportedly drowning in applications to sift through. On May 4, 2020, division director Maria Matthews testified in court that the agency had a backlog of about 85,000 applications to push through its felony-matching process. Their pace at the time averaged at about 57 voter files a day, meaning it would have taken four years to process all the applications.
“We are understaffed at this time,” she said on the stand. “We work through the files the best we can.” Matthews did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In October 2020, an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and ProPublica found that nearly 1,500 ineligible voters were incorrectly listed as registered.
When asked whether there was still a backlog in its system, the Florida Department of State did not respond.
So far, courts have thrown out several cases due to jurisdictional issues. But the highly-publicized arrests have still had an impact.
Returning citizens across the country have admitted to feeling fearful of registering to vote themselves due to DeSantis’s stunt, even if they’re eligible under their states’ laws. Some arrestees, like Hart and Peter Washington, have lost their jobs due to legal trouble. (Hart has since found a job cleaning parking lots.)
DeSantis, meanwhile, has both expanded the office investigating voter fraud claims and sought to broaden statewide prosecutors’ jurisdiction to secure more convictions.
Back in May, the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP filed a lawsuit against Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd for allegedly enacting a “byzantine” voter registration system that leaves returning citizens vulnerable.
“It increases the risk that a returning citizen will be investigated, prosecuted, and re-ensnared in the criminal system,” their complaint said.
Hart, meanwhile, took his case to trial. A state jury convicted him in a split decision in February, finding him guilty of illegally registering to vote but not guilty of improperly voting. On February 27, a Hillsborough County judge sentenced Hart to two years of probation.
Correction: This piece previously misstated the employer of an election contractor. Due to an editing mistake, the piece also misstated a portion of the process by which voters are informed about their eligibility. We regret the errors.