TAMPA —Michael Hazard wanted to be Tampa’s mayor.
Now, he faces possible charges of illegal voting.
Hazard’s long-shot run for mayor of the state’s third-largest city recently came to an end when county election officials ruled he is unqualified to vote let alone seek office.
"No one told me I was ineligible," Hazard said Monday.
He said he decided to register when he learned of efforts by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to streamline the restoration of voting rights for felons. Crist’s successor Rick Scott reversed those efforts.
"It was according to Crist’s statements," said Hazard, a Democrat, speaking of Crist’s 2007-11 term as governor. "With the understanding that Crist said we could register to vote."
Hazard, 49, a convicted felon, said he never applied to have his voting rights restored in Florida, as state law requires in order for a convicted felon to cast a ballot. State records confirm he did not apply.
On Monday, the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections turned over Hazard’s voting records to the county Sheriff’s Office for criminal investigation, said Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for the office.
To run for mayor, a candidate must be a resident of Tampa and a registered voter. Hazard had a Tampa address and had been registered to vote in Florida since 2013, transferring his registration from Pasco County in 2015.
State records show he voted in 2014 and 2016, even though he had a record in Florida for bad checks and forgery. He never went to prison but was on felony probation. He also served community supervision for similar charges in Georgia.
Cases like Hazard’s are rare, Kramer said but the office doesn’t have a way to determine how many fraudulent votes have been cast in Hillsborough County. The state doesn’t keep information on how many convicted felons have voted over the years either, said Sarah Revell, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Elections.
The issue has been at the forefront of state and national politics for several years. Conservatives, notably President Donald Trump, have charged that fraudulent voting is widespread. A number of academic studies have concluded that verified examples of fraudulent voting are scarce.
But the arguments have mostly centered on fraudulent voting by undocumented immigrants.
Florida has more than a quarter of the estimated 6 million convicted felons nationwide who have lost their right to vote.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled in February that the state’s voting rights restoration system is unfairly arbitrary and ordered Scott and his Cabinet to create a new process. The state appealed Walker’s order and last week an appellate court delayed Walker’s decision until a final resolution is reached.
Meanwhile, activists are seeking to grant automatic restoration of voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, except in cases of murder or rape. They’ve collected enough signatures to place Amendment 4 on November’s ballot.
Hazard said he would file a lawsuit, if necessary, to protect his rights. He said he proudly cast ballots for president during three elections.
"I voted for Obama twice and I voted for Hillary," he said.
State records show he cast his first vote in the 2014 congressional mid-term elections and first registered to vote in Pasco County in October 2013.
Georgia election officials didn’t respond to a request for information about Hazard’s voting history there. He was eligible to have his voting rights restored when he completed his sentence in 2005, said Racheal Peters, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Community Supervision.
Hazard said he didn’t think he had to petition to have his rights restored in Florida. He was aware Scott tightened the rules, but said he didn’t believe they applied to him. He called Scott’s actions those of a "pinhead."
The state Division of Elections notified the county office in March about Hazard’s felony record. The county office sent Hazard a letter shortly afterward notifying him of his potential voting ineligibility. Hazard responded to the letter last week, saying he disagreed with the county’s decision. He didn’t request a hearing to appeal.
Hazard didn’t mention the state and county actions when he first spoke to the Tampa Bay Times last week about his candidacy. A Tampa native, he currently lives with his family in Tampa’s Jackson Heights neighborhood, where they operate an online human resources and office supply company.
Orphaned at age 15, Hazard said his life experiences made him uniquely qualified to identify with the city’s less fortunate residents.
"You have to understand the plight of those people if you want to understand Tampa," said Hazard, who aimed to become the city’s first black mayor. The election is next March.
He framed his first run for office as the effort of an outsider. He or his business have donated about half of the more than $500 raised by his campaign, a fraction of the money raised by better-known candidates like former police chief Jane Castor and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik.
"I don’t owe anybody anything," Hazard said. "You can ask any politician my name and they won’t know who I am."