TAMPA — The trial of the first of about 20 people to be arrested in Florida on charges that they committed voter fraud by casting a ballot in the 2020 presidential election ended with a split verdict in a Tampa courtroom Tuesday night.
Nathan Hart, 49, was arrested in August as part of a sweep announced by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It was the first such move since DeSantis had established a unit to investigate voter fraud after the 2020 election despite little evidence that widespread fraud at the ballot had been occurring in Florida.
Hart had voted in the 2020 election despite a previous felony conviction in relation to a charge of lewd or lascivious molestation, which made him ineligible to vote.
Hart was charged with two third-degree felonies, which carry a penalty of up to five years in prison, in the voter fraud case. On Tuesday night, a jury found him guilty of false affirmation, but not guilty of voting as an unqualified elector.
The judge set the sentencing date for Feb. 27. Prosecutors are asking for five years’ probation, while the defense wants time served.
Hart had been offered a plea deal in which he would get two years of probation. He turned it down.
A judge last week offered Hart an even better deal: If he pleaded guilty, he would receive no punishment beyond the time he’d already served in jail. Hart turned down that offer, too.
”I don’t think that I willingly did, or knowingly did, anything wrong,” he said last week. “So I would like to fight to get it dismissed.”
A jury was picked Monday, opening statements began Tuesday morning and the prosecution rested its case by early Tuesday afternoon.
Hart then took the stand and explained that he was approached by a man outside a Hillsborough County driver’s license office in 2020. Hart said the man told him he would be able to vote after Amendment 4, a 2018 constitutional amendment approved by voters, restored that right to felons. Hart said he didn’t think he was eligible to vote, but the man said if he received a voter ID, he would eligible.
The man told him that the worst thing that could happen is that he wouldn’t be qualified to vote, Hart told the jury.
Hart was asked during his testimony why he checked a box on his voter registration saying he was eligible to vote. Hart said he was relying on the information given to him by the man who approached him.
Florida law says the violation has to be “willful,” which Hart’s lawyer, assistant public defender Joseph Kudia, mentioned during opening statements.
“You need to pay attention to whether or not the state proves this is knowing, this is intentional,” Kudia told jurors.
Nathaniel Bahill, an assistant statewide prosecutor, began the trial with an opening statement in which he read a passage on the Florida voter application that has a person swear they are qualified to vote. Bahill argued that when Hart filled out the voter application, he affirmed he was a qualified voter.
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“I submit to you that after you hear the testimony and see physical evidence, we will have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Hart is guilty,” Bahill said.
The prosecution called multiple law enforcement officers to the stand to explain their role in the investigation, which included obtaining documents about Hart’s conviction history and voting histories.
They also called Peg Reese, the chief of staff of the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.
Reese told prosecutors the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections inputs the information from voter registrations and sends them to Tallahassee for approval. She said there is no law in the state that says the county must perform a background check on those completing voter registrations.
Reese told the jury it is up to the state to confirm the information a person writes in their voter registration.
In the state’s closing argument Tuesday afternoon, prosecutors emphasized that Hart signed an oath and swore that what he signed was true.
“Our system, our American System, American voting system, really depends on honesty and integrity,” Paul Dontenville, an assistant statewide prosecutor, said.
Dontenville questioned why Hart would believe a man outside the driver’s license office was truthful and alleged Hart wanted to vote because he was politically active. Hart registered as a Republican.
He then questioned if the man Hart said he met outside the driver’s license office was real.
“He gave different versions of truth today, and there’s a reason for that,” Dontenville said. “Because it never happened the way he said it did.”
During the trial the prosecution established that Hart had visited the driver’s license twice in March, a discrepancy in his statement to police when he was questioned months earlier.
Hart later testified that he went to that office on March 3 to get his license renewed, and that was when he was approached by the man. Hart said he didn’t have the correct paperwork, so he had to return days later to renew his license.
During the defense’s closing arguments, Kudia emphasized the burden of proof lies with the state. He argued that law enforcement officers testified that they did not try to track down the man Hart said he met.
Kudia, the defense lawyer, said in closing arguments that the case was an example of the state failing by not identifying that Hart was ineligible to vote.
“If the county has failed, and if the state failed, the only entity we can go to is you, we’re asking you not to fail Mr. Hart,” he told the jury.