TALLAHASSEE — A week after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the arrests of 20 people for alleged voter fraud, his administration quietly made a change that some say could help the state go after more people.
Starting in August, Floridians on probation have been required to sign an updated form placing the burden on them to determine if they’re eligible to vote.
Beneath warnings about remaining drug-free and reporting to their probation officer is the new message:
“By signing this letter,” the updated form states, “you agree that you are solely responsible for determining if you are legally able to register to vote and that you must solely determine if you are lawfully qualified to vote.”
Nearly 150,000 people are on probation, although it’s unclear how many have signed the form.
The Department of Corrections, which issues the form, said it was updated to ensure that everyone on supervision knew about the status of their voting rights. Some voting advocates said the warning could be helpful, although they highlight Florida’s broken system for determining voter eligibility.
But the timing of the changes — just eight days after DeSantis held a news conference accusing felons of voting illegally — has some questioning the state’s motives.
Each of the people arrested in August had previously been convicted of murders or felony sex offenses, making them ineligible to vote, even under the 2018 constitutional amendment giving most felons that right after they have finished their sentences. The Department of State, which reports to DeSantis, allowed them on the rolls anyway, and they voted in 2020.
To break the law, the voters’ actions had to be “willful,” a high legal burden. Many of those arrested have said they thought they could vote because they were issued voter ID cards.
The new probation forms — which those on probation are required to sign — could be used as evidence to show future actions were “willful,” said Alex Saiz, a lawyer for the Florida Justice Center, a Broward County-based nonprofit that provides legal aid and reentry services.
“This is just going to make future prosecutions easier for the state,” Saiz said. “I think it’s horrifying.”
The center posted a message about the changes on its website on Sept. 1, after its founder, who is on probation, noticed the language about voting rights while signing the new form.
Saiz, a criminal defense attorney, said prior versions of the forms have been used in the past to prosecute people for violating the terms of their probation.
People with felony convictions on their record, and who are still on probation, are not eligible to vote in Florida. But some people are on probation without felonies on their records and should be eligible to vote.
The form offers no guidance for how someone should verify their eligibility, beyond consulting an attorney. (The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has attorneys who will offer legal guidance for free and the Florida Justice Center does the same for indigent clients.)
“If someone tells you that you are eligible to vote, you must rely upon your own independent knowledge (as informed by your attorney if applicable) of your individual circumstances, and not upon the advice of any third parties who may be incorrect or unqualified to interpret your eligibility,” the form states.
It does not say to consult with county elections supervisors about eligibility. It also doesn’t tell people that they can seek an advisory opinion on their voting status from the secretary of state.
Probation officers also “may not give advice on voting restoration,” it states.
Other voting advocates note the new forms place the sole burden on the citizen — and not the state — to determine voting status.
“Anything that better helps people understand their voting rights and responsibilities is a positive step,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the 2018 effort to restore voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions. “At the same time, the state is responsible for verifying voter eligibility and managing the voting rolls from start to finish.”
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said Floridians do have a personal responsibility to verify their eligibility, but so does the state.
Since 2018, the state’s process for verifying whether felons were eligible to vote was made much more complicated. Instead of simply checking to see if a person had a felony on their record, the state now has to check the type of felony, whether the person is on probation or parole and whether they still owe criminal fines, court fees or restitution to victims. A federal judge in 2019 called it an “administrative nightmare.”
The secretary of state still can’t quickly tell whether someone is eligible to vote. The Floridians arrested by DeSantis in August remained on the rolls for years.
“There’s been well over $1 million spent on this issue, and we’re no closer to having a streamlined process than we were four years ago,” Brandes said.
As for the state’s new probation form, Brandes noted that roughly half of the state’s inmates read at a sixth-grade level.
“How many of them can truly understand what they’re signing here?” he said.