Nearing the end of a 10-year prison sentence, Peter Washington attended “assimilation” classes to prepare for life after incarceration, including the possibility of regaining his right to vote.
Upon his release, he received a voter registration form in the mail, filled it out, and mailed it to the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office. Next, he received a voter card in the mail.
Believing he had just gotten the right to vote, Washington voted with his wife at an early polling place during the 2020 presidential election.
On August 28, nearly two years later, deputies with 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 released on murder and sex offense convictions – arrested and charged with illegal voting, a third-degree felony, after Republican Governor Ron DeSantis announced his “opening crackdown” on the voter fraud in the state.
But court records and police reports reviewed by The Independent appear to show that people vilified by the DeSantis administration and targeted at a high-profile campaign-like news conference – the first results of a new $1.1 million under the governor’s office – were told by poll workers or other government officials that they were eligible to vote.
The defendants said they had no intention of committing any crime, believing that a recent constitutional amendment gave them their right to vote, and that they were confused and frustrated as to whether they had done anything wrong.
The defendants in each of the cases reported that a county elections office or some government official or agency told them they could register to vote. People convicted of murder or sex crimes remain unable to vote.
Their cases magnify the complications surrounding voting rights for people with felony convictions — and reflect the volatile political minefield after Florida voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment to restore them in 2018.
Voting rights advocates stress that the recent arrests expose loopholes 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 that November, and voted in the 2020 election.
She was charged with fraud on August 17.
The 52-year-old black woman told investigators that she “didn’t read or write very well” and that she didn’t understand voter registration questions related to her right to vote.
“Stribling believed that her rights had been restored because she had completed the voter registration application and received a voter registration card,” according to an affidavit.
Leo Grant, a 55-year-old black man from Palm Beach County, told investigators that local election administrators sent him a voter ID card, and he cast his ballot by mail in November 2020.
“I really don’t understand, how did I commit fraud?” Grant told the Miami-Herald the day after the governor’s news conference. “I do not understand any of this”.
“This underscores the importance of fixing the system, and we’re having real human costs to a failed system,” Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told The Independent.
“We should have a statewide database that can verify eligibility on the front lines, and none of these people would be in this situation,” he said. “We would not be having this conversation in the context of a political campaign. We could just be trying to solve the problem.”
Larry S Davis, an attorney representing one of the men arrested in Miami-Dade County, told Politico his client was arrested at 6 a.m. when a team of heavily armed and armored police officers banged on his door. .
“He was in his underwear and they didn’t let him get dressed before they took him to jail,” Davis told Politico. “There were armed people in his backyard and they used a helicopter. The whole neighborhood was disturbed very early in the morning.”
Davis explains that his client was approached to register to vote at a local Walmart store, and even stopped the poll worker to tell him that he didn’t think he was eligible due to his previous felony conviction.
That person replied that the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018 — which paved the way for an estimated 1 million people with felony convictions to regain their right to vote — gave him the right to vote, according to Davis.
“They helped him fill out the paperwork. She later 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 blue-chip agency under the governor’s direction that voting rights groups warn is “a solution in search of a problem” and a political tool that could be used to intimidate voters.
Opponents argue that resources already exist to investigate and prosecute allegations of fraud, the scope of which has not altered the electoral results.
“But now we have this process where you don’t authorize someone in the initial phase, you give them a voter ID card, and then you wait several years to stop them and process them. That is not the kind of system that proclaims ‘we have integrity’. All of us want the integrity of voters. So let’s work together to fix the problem from the start,” Volz told The Independent.
The Independent requested comment from the governor’s office.
In 2020, the state received 262 complaints of voter fraud; 75 were referred to the police. More than 11 million Florida voters participated in the presidential election that year.
Even as those cases move forward with prosecutions, including the recent arrests of four people in the Republican stronghold of The Villages retirement community, the governor said that without his election crimes office, “nothing would be prosecuted, nothing would end up happening.”
Earlier this year, two men from The Villages – Jay Ketchik 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 in December 2021 with voting twice in the 2020 presidential election. Barnes was the fourth person from The Villages arrested for voting twice in that election.
Pete Antonacci, appointed by the governor to head the Bureau of Election Crimes and Security, also claimed without evidence during the news conference that there were “a lot of illegal votes cast” in a close Democratic primary election in the county last year.
Following the passage of Amendment 4, state lawmakers also reduced those rights to people who paid all of their back fines, in what voting rights advocates criticized as a “pay to vote” system that greatly affects poor minorities returning to public life.
“Many people have to choose between putting food on the table or voting. And we think we can have a better system than that,” Volz told The Independent.
Earlier this month, a group of Democratic attorneys general from 16 states and Washington DC urged a federal appeals court to strike down Florida’s restrictions on vote-by-mail drop boxes implemented under a separate 2021 law, among the election laws. led by the Republican Party in the wake of Donald Trump’s persistent false claim that the 2020 presidential election was marred by fraud.
“No one disputes that there is a state interest in combating electoral fraud,” they noted in their brief. “But a restriction on the vote must be really aimed at promoting that interest and reasonably calibrated to the scope of the problem.”