Shortly after law enforcement officers started arresting 20 people around the state of Florida for voting illegally in the 2020 election, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the arrests were the result of an investigation by his newly formed election police.
What he didn’t announce was there was a common theme among the arrestees.
They didn’t understand why they were being arrested.
“Voter fraud? I voted but I didn’t commit no fraud,” one woman said while being arrested in Tampa.
The Solutionaries have learned most, if not all, of those arrested thought their rights had been restored because they were allowed to register to vote, including Peter Washington.
“They sent me a voter registration card,” Washington said. “That’s what made me think,that I was eligible to vote, or my rights were reinstated,” he said.
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Neil Volz is the Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
“Those same voters have gotten voter ID cards from the very government who is now charging them,” Volz said.
“Ultimately, we’re dealing with a data management problem. We should bring in the best experts we can, and then put the systems and processes together so that we can simply give somebody a yes or no within a short period of time once they register to vote,” Volz said.
Volz said the state needs a centralized database where people with felony convictions can check their eligibility.
“The system is broken on the front end, and that’s where we need to focus our solution,” Volz said.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in many states, everyone can vote except people currently in prison.
In 19 states, people with felony convictions can vote after completing their sentence and rights are automatically restored, so there’s nothing they have to do.
Florida is one of seven states where people with certain felony convictions, like murder and sex crimes, cannot vote.
“States like Louisiana, states like Alabama, you can go to a website, you can call somebody and get assurances and verification on the front end that you’re eligible to vote,” Volz said.
Here’s how the state of Alabama creates a safeguard in the system. In Alabama, people with felony convictions that are not murder, or sex crimes, must apply for a “Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote” with the board of pardons and paroles.
The wait is up to 44 days to process voting rights restoration applications, according to the state’s website. If the certificate of eligibility is not granted, the person is not even allowed to register to vote.
That alone could fix Florida’s problem.
Jeff Brandes was the author of the implementing bill for Amendment Four, which restores people with felony convictions right to vote. Florida citizens passed the measure overwhelmingly in 2018. It took effect in 2019.
“The state of Florida could fix it,” Brandes said.
Under Florida statute, all of the people arrested were ineligible to vote because they were convicted of murder or sexual offenses, Brandes said.
“The Secretary of State’s Office just needs to do its job and compile the list of people who are convicted of felonies or sexual offenses or murder. And let’s start there,” he said.
Brandes agrees with Volz that a centralized database would simplify the process.
“It’s fairly simple if somebody is convicted of one felony in one county. It gets much more complicated when you have multiple felonies in multiple jurisdictions,” Brandes said.
“They could have a website dedicated to how felons can get the rights restored,” Brandes said. “They could have a standardized process and a standardized receipt that you’re eligible to vote. It’s just really a question of resources and how much resources the state is willing to put into solving these problems.”
Meantime the statewide prosecutor has dropped the charges against one of the 20 defendants -- citing “information received from the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office, and his incarceration in an unrelated case,” according to court records.
It is now the second case of the 20 that has been dismissed or had charges dropped.
A data management program could be put together inside of one year, Volz said.
Brandes said if the Secretary of State’s Office needs the money to do it, they should be asking the legislature for it during the next session.
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