AAs he neared the end of a 10-year sentence, Peter Washington took “assimilation” classes to prepare for life after his incarceration, including the opportunity to regain his right to vote.
After his release, he received a voter registration form in the mail, completed it, and returned it to the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office. He then received a voter card in the mail from the Orange County Supervisor of Electors.
Believing he’d only just been given the right, Washington cast a vote with his wife at an early polling location in the 2020 presidential election.
On August 28, nearly two years later, deputies from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office arrested the 59-year-old black man and charged him with voter fraud as an “unqualified voter,” a third-degree felony.
Washington was one of 20 people — all previously incarcerated with murder and sex crimes convictions — arrested and charged with illegal voting, a third-degree felony, after Republican Governor Ron DeSantis announced his “opening salvo” against voter fraud in the state.
But court records and police reports reviewed by TSTIME appear to show that the people who were vilified by the DeSantis administration and the target of a high-profile campaign-style press conference — the first results of a new $1.1 million agency under the governor’s office — by election officials or other government officials were told they were eligible to vote.
Defendants said they had no intention of committing a crime, believing that a recent constitutional amendment granted them the right to vote, and were confused and frustrated as to whether they had done anything wrong.
The defendants in each of the cases reported that a district election bureau or a government official or agency advised that they register to vote. People convicted of murder or sex offenses are not eligible.
Their cases have exacerbated the complications surrounding voting rights for those with felony convictions — mirroring the volatile political minefield after Florida voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment to reinstate them in 2018.
Voting rights advocates stress that the recent arrests expose gaps in a system that should have prevented illegal voting in the first place.
In 2019, Michelle Stribling filled out a voter registration form, received her registration card in the mail in November, and cast her vote in the 2020 election.
She was charged with fraud on August 17.
The 52-year-old black woman told investigators she “couldn’t read or write well” and didn’t understand voter registration questions related to her right to vote.
“Stribling believed her rights were restored because she completed the voter registration application and received a voter registration card,” an affidavit said.
Leo Grant, a 55-year-old black man from Palm Beach County, told investigators that local election administrators had sent him a voter identification card, and he cast his vote in November 2020.
“I don’t really understand, how did I commit fraud?” Grant told the Miami Herald the day after the governor’s press conference. “I do not understand anything about it.”
“This highlights the importance of fixing the system, and we have real human costs for a broken system,” Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told reporters. TSTIME.
“We should have a statewide database that can verify eligibility up front, and none of these people would be in this situation,” he said. “We would not have this conversation in the context of a political campaign. We can just try to solve the problem.”
Ron DeSantis Announces 20 Arrests for Alleged Voter Fraud
Larry S Davis, an attorney representing one of the men arrested in Miami-Dade County, told: Politics that his client was arrested at 6 a.m. when a heavily armed and armored team of police officers pounded on his door.
“He was in his underwear and they wouldn’t let him get dressed before taking him to jail,” Mr Davis said Politics. “There were people in his backyard who were armed, and they were using a helicopter. It disturbed the whole neighborhood very early in the morning.”
Mr Davis said his client had been approached to register to vote at a local Walmart store, even stopping the polling officer to tell them he didn’t believe he was eligible because of his previous felony conviction.
That person told him that the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018 — which paved the way for about 1 million people with felony convictions to regain their right to vote — granted him the right to vote, according to Mr. Davis.
“They helped him fill out the paperwork. Later he got a voter card and thought he could vote. That was two years ago,” Davis said.
The governor’s press conference focused on the newly created Office of Election Crimes and Security, a first-of-its-kind governor-led agency that voting rights groups have warned is “a solution in search of a problem” and a potentially dangerous policy. tool that can be used to intimidate voters.
Opponents have argued that there are already means to investigate and prosecute allegations of fraud, the magnitude of which does not come close to altering election results.
“But we now have this process where we have not acquitted anyone up front, given them a voter ID card and then waited several years to arrest and prosecute them. That’s not the kind of system that screams ‘we have integrity’. We all want voter integrity. So let’s work together to solve the problem up front,” Mr Volz . told TSTIME.
TSTIME has asked for comment from the governor’s office.
In 2020, the state received 262 complaints of electoral fraud; 75 were referred to the police. More than 11 million voters in Florida took part in that year’s presidential election.
Despite these cases progressing with prosecutions, including the recent arrests of four people in the Republican retiree community The Villages, the governor claimed that without his electoral crimes office “nothing would be prosecuted, that nothing would ultimately happen.”
Earlier this year, two men from The Villages — Jay Ketcik and Charles Barnes — pleaded guilty to casting more than one vote in that year’s election.
Ketcik was one of three Republican voters from The Villages charged with voting twice in the December 2021 presidential election. Barnes was the fourth person from The Villages to be arrested for double voting in that election.
Pete Antonacci, who was appointed by the governor to head the Bureau of Election Crimes and Security, also claimed without evidence at the press conference that “many illegal votes were cast” in a close Democratic primaries in the province last year.
Following the passage of Amendment 4, state legislators also limited those rights to people who have already paid their unpaid fines, which proponents of voting rights criticized as a “pay-to-vote” system that has major implications for the return of poor minorities to public life.
“Many people have to choose between putting food on the table and voting. And we just think we can have a better system than that,” said Mr Volz TSTIME.
Earlier this month, a group of Democratic attorneys general from 16 states and Washington DC urged a federal appeals court to overturn Florida’s restrictions on ballot box returns implemented under a separate 2021 law, under the GOP-led electoral laws in the wake of Donald Trump. Trump’s persistent false claim that the 2020 presidential election was marred by fraud.
“No one disputes that there is a state interest in fighting voter fraud,” they wrote in their briefing. “But a voting restriction should really be aimed at promoting that interest and reasonably attuned to the magnitude of the problem.”