TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Tampa Bay area supervisors of elections say the Florida Department of State informs them of voter eligibility, pushing back on recent comments from Gov. Ron DeSantis since he announced 20 arrests for voter fraud in the 2020 election by his new Office of Election Crimes and Security.
Meanwhile, several ex-felons arrested for voter fraud in Hillsborough County say they thought they were eligible to vote because they’d received voter registration cards or had been told they were eligible.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Gov. DeSantis said the responsibility for determining eligibility rests at the county level.
“They’re the ones that are registering people,” DeSantis said. “You go in your county and you register locally. You’re not registering in Tallahassee at the state government. And so it’s really their responsibility to ensure that their voting rolls are accurate.”
But elections supervisors take issue with several parts of the governor’s assertion.
Information voters enter when they register online in Florida “goes into the Florida voter registration system, maintained by the state,” according to the Pinellas County elections office. “The information is then pushed to counties via the ‘suspense queue’ to the counties.”
Additionally, while supervisors agree they are ultimately responsible for removing ineligible voters from the rolls, that information comes to them from the state, describing a process that is well-understood among elections supervisors and their staff and has been for years.
“No, it’s not very confusing, it’s pretty clear,” said Lori Edwards, the Polk County supervisor of elections, when asked who is responsible for determining eligibility. “It’s the state, and that’s per Florida statute. Florida statute says the Florida Department of State Division of Elections is responsible for identifying that information, compiling the background information and supplying the county supervisor of elections with it.”
Other Tampa Bay area elections supervisors pointed to Florida statutes as well, specifically F.S. 98.075, which begins by stating, “the department shall protect the integrity of the electoral process by ensuring the maintenance of accurate and current voter registration records.”
“The department shall identify those registered voters who have been convicted of a felony and whose voting rights have not been restored by comparing information received from, but not limited to, a clerk of the circuit court, the Board of Executive Clemency, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Law Enforcement, or a United States Attorney’s Office, as provided in s. 98.093.”Florida Statutes 98.075(5).
In determining the eligibility of ex-felons who have completed all terms of their sentence and had their voting rights restored, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson described a process that solely involves state officials, not county supervisors.
“Each day, Florida Department of State (DOS) provides FDLE a list of new or updated voter registrations which is checked for matches to known convicted felons in the state criminal history repository,” said FDLE Public Information Officer Gretl Plessinger. “FDLE provides the list of potential matches to DOS. FDLE does not determine eligibility.”
Each county election supervisor recently got a letter from Pete Antonacci, the new Director of the Office of Election Crimes and Security, stating that convicted felons may have voted in their county “through no fault of your own,” implying the eligibility is determined by the state.
Florida Statute 98.075 goes on to say “if the department determines that the information is credible and reliable, the department shall notify the supervisor…” That notification begins a detailed process of removal for county elections officials to carry out before someone can be officially removed from the voter rolls.
8 On Your Side spoke to or corresponded with elections supervisors and/or their spokespeople in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee, Pasco and Polk counties. They all said the same thing: voter eligibility is done by the state, and the state informs their offices when a voter is ineligible.
But there appears to be no initial check for eligibility other than the voter’s own affirmation before a voter registration becomes active and the voter receives an official card, a process that has confounded several of the ex-felons recently charged with fraud.
“There’s a long history of abuse in my family,” said Nathan Hart, one of the six Hillsborough County residents among the 20 Florida voters recently charged with fraud. “After that first incident, I realized there was something seriously wrong with me. Rather than keep it quiet and hope it would never happen again, I sought out professional help.”
That led to his eventual arrest and conviction for lewd and lascivious molestation of a minor in his own family in 2004, which makes him ineligible to have his voting rights restored under Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment that voters passed in 2018, which excludes convicted murders and sex offenders.
Hart says when he was approached by a man registering voters at the Ruskin DMV in March 2020, he initially pushed back, but thought he was a trustworthy official since he was at a government office.
“I told him I was convicted of a serious Class 1 felony, but he said worst case scenario I should register and I just wouldn’t be sent a voter card if I’m ineligible,” Hart said. “I saw when the law [Amendment 4] passed in 2018 but I was still under probation so I didn’t pay much attention to it. So I didn’t know the details two years later when I was approached at the DMV.”
“A month later, I got the card in the mail,” Hart said. “I figured that law applies to me after all, so I’m good to go. Elections come around in November. I end up voting for Trump.”
That vote led to him being charged with two felonies when the governor announced the 20 arrests at a press conference earlier this month.
Hubert Jack, who was also arrested, told 8 On Your Side a similar story: he was told to go ahead and register by a person gathering voter signatures for a petition and thought he was eligible when he received a voter card in the mail. Jack said he also got a letter stating he was eligible, though he has not been able to find the letter since his arrest.
“After my dad passed, the only thing I care about is taking care of my mama because she’s ill,” said Jack, noting that he would have never voted if he was ineligible. “I’m not gonna do nothing that’s gonna jeopardize her. I’d rather jump in front of a truck than go back [to jail.]”
Hart also said he’s terrified of going to prison — for the first time — for something he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to do.
“I know I’m ultimately responsible, but when a government official says you’re eligible…” Hart said as his voice trailed off. “I’m not so much upset as it’s a very stark reminder that I’ll never really be a part of society again. Doesn’t matter what I do or what reparations I make or what efforts I put forth, I’ll never really be a regular citizen anymore.”
“That’s permanently gone,” Hart said. “And this is just another reminder of that.”