AAs he neared the end of his 10-year sentence, Peter Washington attended “assimilation” classes to prepare for life after prison, including the possibility of regaining his voting rights.
After his release, he received a voter registration form in the mail, filled it out, and mailed it back to the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office. He then received a voter card in the mail from the Orange County Supervisor of Voters.
Assuming he was recently eligible to vote, Washington voted with his wife at an early voting location during the 2020 presidential election.
On August 28, nearly two years later, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office arrested a 59-year-old black man and charged him with voter fraud as an “unqualified voter,” a felony of the third degree.
Washington was among 20 people — all previously incarcerated people with convictions for murder and sex crimes — arrested and charged with illegal voting, a felony of the third degree, after Republican Gov Ron DeSantis announced his “opening volley” aimed at voter fraud in the state.
But court records and police reports were reviewed The Independent appear to show that people who have been vilified by the DeSantis administration and targeted for high profile campaign press conference — the first results from the governor’s new $1.1 million agency — election workers or other state officials said they are eligible to vote.
The defenders said they did not intend to commit any crime, believing that a recent constitutional amendment gave them the right to vote, and were confused and disappointed as to whether they had done anything wrong.
The defendants in each of the cases reported that the county election office or some government official or agency advised them to register to vote. People convicted of murder or sex crimes remain ineligible.
Their cases heightened the complexities surrounding voting rights for people convicted of serious crimes — and reflected the volatile political minefield since Florida voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment to reinstate them in 2018.
Voting rights advocates stress that the recent arrests have exposed gaps in the system that was supposed to prevent so-called illegal votes.
In 2019, Michelle Stribling filled out a voter registration form, received her registration card in the mail in November of that year, and voted in the 2020 election.
On August 17, she was charged with fraud.
The 52-year-old black woman told investigators she “couldn’t read or write well” and didn’t understand voter registration issues related to her voting rights.
“Stribling believed her rights were restored because she completed a voter registration application and received a voter registration card,” the affidavit states.
Leo Grant, a 55-year-old black man from Palm Beach County, told investigators that local election administrators sent him a voter ID and he cast his vote by mail in November 2020.
“I don’t quite understand how I committed fraud?” Grant told Miami-Herald the day after the governor’s press conference. “I don’t understand any of this.”
“It underscores the importance of fixing the system, and we have a real human cost of a broken system,” said Neil Vose, director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The Independent.
“We need to have a statewide database that can validate entry and none of these people will end up 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 group of heavily armed and armored police officers knocked on his door.
“He was in his underwear and they wouldn’t let him get dressed before they sent him to prison,” Mr Davies said Politics. “There were armed men in his yard, they used a helicopter. It shook the whole neighborhood very early in the morning.”
Mr. Davis said his client was approached to register to vote at a local Walmart store and even stopped a poll worker to tell them he did not believe he was eligible because of his prior criminal record.
That person told him that the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018, which cleared the way for the restoration of voting rights to approximately 1 million people with felony convictions, gave him the right to vote, according to Mr. Davis.
“He was helped to complete the documents. He later received a voter’s card and thought he could vote. That was two years ago,” Mr Davis said.
The governor’s news conference focused on the newly created Office of Election Crime and Security, the first agency of its kind under the governor’s leadership, which voting rights groups have warned is a “solution in search of a problem” and potentially a dangerous political tool which can be used to intimidate voters.
Opponents argue that the resources already exist to investigate and prosecute allegations of fraud that do not come close to altering election results.
“But now we have this process where we have not cleared any of the first persons, issued them a voter ID, then waited several years to arrest and prosecute them. This is not a system that screams “we have integrity.” We all want voter integrity. So let’s work together to fix the problem on the front end,” said Mr Woz The Independent.
The Independent reached out to the governor for comment.
In 2020, the state received 262 complaints of election fraud; 75 sent to law enforcement agencies. More than 11 million Florida voters participated in that year’s presidential election.
Despite these cases, criminal prosecutions continue, including recent arrests of four at The Villages Republican retirement community, the governor claimed that without his election crime office, “nothing would have been prosecuted, nothing would have happened.”
Earlier this year, two people from The Villages — Jay Ketchik and Charles Barnes — pleaded guilty to voting more than once in that year’s election.
Ketchik was one of three Republican voters from The Villages who were charged in December 2021 with having voted twice in the 2020 presidential election. Barnes was the fourth person from The Villages to be arrested for double voting in that election.
Pete Antanacchi, who was appointed by the governor to lead the Office of Election Crime and Security, also said without evidence during a press conference that there were “a lot of illegal ballots” in the district’s Democratic primary last year.
After Amendment 4 was passed, state lawmakers also narrowed those rights to people who paid all their unpaid fines, which voting rights advocates criticized as a “pay-to-vote” system that heavily affects poor minorities returning 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, Mr Woz said The Independent.
Earlier this month, a group of Democratic attorneys general from 16 states and Washington urged a federal appeals court to throw out Florida’s restrictions on mail-in ballot cleanup imposed under a separate 2021 law, among the election laws being championed by the GOP after Donald Trump’s continued false claims that the 2020 presidential election was marred by fraud.
“No one disputes that there is a government interest in combating voter fraud,” they wrote in their statement. “But voting restrictions must be genuinely aimed at advancing that interest and reasonably calibrated to the scale of the problem.”