TALLAHASSEE — A Florida voting rights group is calling on state officials to fix what it says is a “broken” Florida voting system after videos of felons being arrested on charges related to voting illegally in 2020 went viral this week.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the 2018 effort to allow Floridians with felony convictions to vote, is also urging people to sign a petition for state and local prosecutors to “immediately stop arrests” of people with felonies on their records for voting.
“What we see with these videos is a human face on a broken system,” the organization’s deputy director, Neil Volz, said during a Wednesday news conference.
Videos of Floridians arrested by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new elections security force, first published by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald on Tuesday, revealed a personal glimpse of the effects of the governor’s efforts to root out perceived voter fraud.
The videos, in which the people being arrested appeared confused about the voter fraud charges, sparked immediate outrage and garnered millions of views on Twitter.
The 19 people charged with voting illegally all have sex offenses or murder charges on their records and are not allowed to vote. Yet they were all given voter ID cards after initial checks by the Department of State and they voted in the 2020 election.
“The same state that gave somebody a voter ID card several years ago is now charging them with voter fraud,” Volz said. “It’s our belief that as long as the state is unable to determine voter eligibility on the front end, we should not be arresting people on the back end.”
A spokesperson for the Department of State did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is coordinating the pro bono legal defense for most of the 19 people. The group said it also has lawyers standing by to consult anyone who is unsure about whether they’re eligible to vote.
When someone registers, Florida’s Division of Elections conducts basic checks to verify that the person is real. The division will later flag people for follow-up investigations, but those investigations have become far more complicated since Florida started allowing some felons — but not all — to vote in 2018.
The 2018 amendment and subsequent rule that felons must pay off all fines and fees to register to vote have caused debate and confusion among officials and would-be voters alike.
During a federal trial in 2020, Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews testified that her “understaffed” office was “struggling” to come up with a process for identifying ineligible felons.
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She testified the office had a backlog of 85,000 registration applications that had been flagged, and her team of 20 was able to process only 57 per day.
The Division of Elections has roughly the same number of employees today as it did in 2005, although the number of registered voters in Florida has increased by roughly 50% since then.
This year, state lawmakers signed off on $1 million to hire 15 new positions to help speed the process. At DeSantis’ request, they invested another $2.6 million to hire 10 new state police and hire 15 people for the newly created Office of Election Crimes and Security.
The 19 people targeted by the office are accused of “willfully” registering and voting when they weren’t eligible, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
But an attorney hired by the coalition to coordinate the legal defenses in these cases said those arrested didn’t know they were ineligible to vote.
“People were completely shocked by these arrests,” attorney Aidil Oscariz said Wednesday. “They’re not expecting to get arrested merely for voting. They’re not aware they were committing any kind of crime.”