Sep 1, 2022 - News

Florida voter fraud charges under scrutiny

Illustration of a prison cell with a padlock in the shape of Florida.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

There's been a lot of finger-pointing about who's to blame after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the arrests of 20 formerly convicted Floridians for alleged voter fraud. But will those charges hold up in court?

Criminal attorneys tell Axios that prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that voters had criminal "intent" when they illegally voted in the 2020 election.

Catch up fast: Florida's Amendment 4 restored voting rights for most individuals with former felony convictions. But the 2018 state referendum excludes those convicted of felony sex offenses or murder.

  • The 18 voters who've been arrested so far told investigators they received a voter registration card from local election supervisors and believed they were eligible to vote, according to the Miami Herald.

What they're saying: Attorney Larry Davis, who is representing a Miami man arrested in the investigation, told Axios that his client was assured at a voter-registration drive that he could vote despite his felony conviction. So, he signed up and received a voter card in the mail.

  • Two years later, police showed up at the man's house with long guns and arrested him in his underwear at 6am, he said. Davis did not wish to identify his client for fear that he may lose his job.
  • "For there to be fraud, there must be intent," Davis said. "When my client received his voter registration card from the supervisor of elections office, his only intent for voting was to participate in the election like everybody else."

A prominent voting rights group says none of the ex-felons should have been arrested because it's the state's job to verify if they are eligible to vote.

  • "If a Florida citizen can't count on the government to let them know about their voter eligibility, who can they count on?" Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, tells Axios.

The FRRC has set up bail and legal defense funds for those arrested for illegal voting allegations, and connected attorneys with those in need of representation.

  • Volz said he wants the state to create a database that tells voters in real time if they are eligible to vote or not, to avoid future arrests.

Florida International University law professor H. Scott Fingerhut, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said prosecutors may feel like they're under political pressure after DeSantis removed Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren from office for vowing not to prosecute certain crimes.

  • "I'm hoping each prosecutor's office is looking hard into these cases and is not going to be afraid to do the right thing, [even] if they think the right thing is to let a bad case go no matter how much it upsets the governor and his team."

Between the lines: Most criminal cases end in a plea deal and never go to trial, Davis said. It's up to the defendant whether to take a deal or try for a lower punishment in court.

  • "They may want their day in court, win or loss," Fingerhut said.
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