Florida’s felon-voting racket | Editorial
Florida needs to help felons vote, not entrap them at the ballot box.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday. [ AMY BETH BENNETT | South Florida Sun Sentinel ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Aug. 24, 2022|Updated Aug. 24, 2022

The state’s arrest last week of 20 Floridians on charges of voter fraud had nothing to do with election integrity and everything to do with intimidating voters. This was a small-potatoes racket that’s threatening to expand when what Florida needs is a better system for ensuring legal voting in the first place.

Gov. Ron DeSantis touted the arrests before a phalanx of uniformed law enforcement officers at the Broward County Courthouse, crediting the state’s newly formed elections police force for “the opening salvo” of a coming crackdown. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said the alleged crimes took place during the 2020 election, and that each person was charged with one count of false affirmation and one count of voting as an unqualified elector. DeSantis said those arrested were disqualified from voting because of convictions for either murder or sexual assault, making them ineligible to have their voting rights automatically restored under Amendment 4, which Florida voters approved in 2018 to make it easier for felons to cast a ballot.

The law’s the law, of course, but these people didn’t register to vote by themselves. Romona Oliver, for example, disclosed her felony conviction while registering to vote in Hillsborough County in 2020. But no one told Oliver her murder conviction was disqualifying. Now the 55-year-old Tampa resident worries about losing her seamstress job and returning to jail. Five of those arrested last week told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald that they believed they were qualified to vote, had no trouble registering and would have refrained if they knew they were ineligible.

What’s the point in going after a handful of people trying to turn their lives around, especially when the government’s own failures become a tool for entrapment? Oliver, after all, was removed from the voter rolls this spring, after the state notified Hillsborough she was ineligible. Yet the FDLE went after her and others only recently, and they now face third-degree felonies and up to $5,000 in fines and five years in prison. This was a ham-handed stunt before Tuesday’s primary to rationalize the elections police and the DeSantis’ era restrictions on voting.

You’d think with all the governor’s big talk about election integrity, the new police force would explore bigger controversies, like the sham candidates in 2020 that were key to helping solidify the Republican majority in the state Senate, or two years earlier, Florida Power & Light’s use of a shadowy nonprofit group in a race that kept a Gainesville-area state Senate seat in Republican hands. By why aggravate fellow Republicans or the state’s largest electric utility when you can harass a 55-year-old seamstress?

The damage here to voting rights and democracy isn’t that 20 or 30 or 50 people may have wrongly voted in 2020, when 11,144,855 Floridians cast a ballot. It’s that Florida is incapable by design of delivering the promises that Amendment 4 guarantees. After Florida voters adopted the amendment, DeSantis pushed the Republican-led Legislature to pass a bill requiring felons to pay off all fines, fees and restitution before being able to vote, even though Florida has no central database to track court fees. Two years after Amendment 4 was passed, only about 8% of Floridians with felony convictions had registered to vote, according to a Times/Herald analysis.

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The state needs to create a central clearinghouse to enable felons to determine if they owe financial penalties. There should be a cutoff date — one year seems sufficient — before the presumption of eligibility applies, lest state or local agencies keep these Floridians in limbo in perpetuity. And local elections supervisors need online access to this information in real-time. Arresting people who in good faith believed they were reintroducing themselves as productive citizens is ridiculous. It ignores state sponsorship of the bigger problem while denying hundreds of thousands their constitutional right.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.