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 must sign an updated form that puts the onus on them to determine if they are eligible to vote.
Under the warning about staying drug free and reporting to their probation officer is a new message:
“By signing this letter,” the updated form states, “you agree that you are solely responsible for determining whether you are legally able to register to vote, and that you need only determine whether you are legally eligible to vote.”
Nearly 150,000 people are on probation, though it’s unclear how many have signed the form.
The Department of Corrections, which issues the form, said it has been updated to ensure everyone under supervision knows the status of their voting rights. Some voting advocates said the warning could be helpful, though they point to Florida’s broken system for determining voter eligibility.
But the timing of the changes — just eight days after DeSantis held a press conference accusing felons of illegal voting — calls into question the state’s motives.
Each of the people arrested in August had previous convictions for murder or sex crimes, making them ineligible to vote, even under a 2018 constitutional amendment that gives most felons the right to vote after they finish their sentences. Department of the state, which sided with DeSantis, allowed them anyway and voted in 2020.
To break the law, voters the conduct had to be “intentional”, which meant a high legal burden. Many arrested they said they thought they could vote because they had been issued voter cards.
The new probation forms — which probationers must sign — could be used as evidence to show future acts were “willful,” said Alex Saiz, an attorney for the Florida Justice Center, a Broward County-based nonprofit that provides legal aid . and reentry services.
“That’s just going to make it easier for the state to prosecute in the future,” Saiz said. “I think it’s scary.
The center posted a report of the changes on its website Sept. 1 after its founder, who is on probation, noticed language about voting rights while signing a new form.
Saiz, a criminal defense attorney, said previous versions of the forms have been used in the past to prosecute people for violating the terms of their probation.
People who are convicted of a crime and who are still on probation are not eligible to vote in Florida. But some people are on probation with no crimes on their records and should be allowed to vote.
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The form offers no guidance on how someone should verify their eligibility, other than consulting with an attorney. (The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has attorneys who will offer free legal advice, and the Florida Justice Center does the same for indigent clients.)
“If someone tells you that you have the right to vote, you must rely on your own independent knowledge (informed by your solicitor where relevant) of your individual circumstances and not on the advice of third parties who may be incorrect or unqualified to interpret your eligibility ,” the form states.
It does not say that county election supervisors need to be consulted about eligibility. It also doesn’t tell people they can ask the Secretary of State for an advisory opinion on their electoral status.
Probation officers are also “not allowed to give advice about re-voting,” it states.
Other voting advocates note that the new forms place the sole burden on the citizen — and not the state — to determine voting status.
“Anything that helps people better 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 electoral rolls from start to finish.”
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg said Floridians have a personal responsibility to verify their eligibility, but so does the state.
Since 2018, the state’s process of verifying whether felons are eligible to vote has become much more complicated. Instead of just looking at whether a person had a criminal record, the state must now look at the type of crime, whether the person is on probation or parole, and whether they still owe fines, court fees or restitution to victims. A federal judge called it an “administrative nightmare” in 2019.
The Secretary of State still cannot quickly say whether someone has the right to vote. The Floridians arrested by DeSantis in August remained on the loose for years.
“Well over $1 million has been spent on this problem, and we’re no closer to having a more efficient process than we were four years ago,” Brandes said.
As for the new state probation form, Brandes noted that roughly half of state inmates are reading at a sixth-grade level.
“How many of them actually understand what they are signing here?” he said.