BYron Smith was standing outside his house when the Tampa police officer handcuffed him. “What it is about?” asked Smith, troubled, up in the early afternoon Florida The heat of summer.
Minutes later he was sitting in the back of a police car, still trying to figure out why he was being arrested, body camera footage obtained by The Guardian broadcasts. “Did you vote? asked the officer. “Not this time, no,” replied Smith, 65. “They took that from me right away.” The officer then told him that $1,000 bond had been set for him. “What’s the charge?” Smith asked. “It was for something about fake votes and something else,” the officer said.
Smith had reason to be confused.
He registered to vote on January 14, 2019, just days later a highly publicized constitutional amendment in Florida, Amendment 4, came into force, restoring the right to vote to those convicted of a crime. Those convicted of murder and sex offenses were excluded from the amendment, but at the time lawmakers were still trying to understand what specific crimes would permanently disqualify someone from voting. When they agreed on a list months later, they knew there would be some confusion, so they includes a grace period it says that anyone, like Smith, convicted of a crime who checked in during the first six months of 2019 cannot be prosecuted for checking in illegally.
Local election officials approved Smith’s registration the same day he registered, and the following fall he voted in the 2020 election. It wasn’t until February of that year that election officials sent him a notice telling him it appeared he was ineligible to vote, according to Gerri Kramer, spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections. Smith’s 1993 conviction for possession of child abuse images, a sex offense that made him ineligible to vote in Florida.
Hours after Smith sat in the back of the police cruiser on August 18, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in a statewide courtroom in Broward County, held a press conference. Flanked by uniformed law enforcement officials, DeSantis announced that the state was prosecuting 19 people, including Smith, for voter fraud. All had previously been convicted of murder or a sexual offense and had voted in the 2020 election.
Smith was taken to the local jail in Tampa, where he was booked and released after posting bail. He was charged with knowingly voting illegally in the 2020 election, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Court documents reviewed by the Guardian revealed that many of those arrested were confused about their eligibility and thought they could vote. Smith, like all the other defendants, completed a voter registration form and received a voter registration card before voting. Florida authorities have yet to provide any evidence to suggest that any of those prosecuted were told they were not allowed to vote.
“How many of these people voluntarily attempted to commit electoral fraud? I don’t think any of them did. I don’t think there was any ill intent on the part of any of the 20,” said Jeff Brandes, a Republican state senator who played a key role in drafting legislation to implement implement amendment 4.
“They were asked if they wanted to register to vote, they may have been asked follow-up questions, they had read in the media that ‘hey, criminals just got their right to vote back. So they voted. They registered to vote,” he said.
Smith did not return a voicemail. Jonah Dickstein, a lawyer representing him, said his client did not knowingly vote illegally.
“He voted totally outwardly, openly about it. There’s nothing surreptitious about the way he did it. He came in because he wanted to vote. He wants to be reintegrated into society. He went to the registrar because he wanted to register, and they let him register.
Smith’s case illustrates why there are growing questions about the 19 lawsuits, which were the first DeSantis announced under a new statewide office charged with prosecuting voter fraud. State officials took years to identify ineligible voters on rolls and now voters are being punished for it.
“Honestly, they did everything right. They returned it, the supervisor sent it, the state didn’t check,” Brandes said. “It’s quite shocking, we’re going to be waiting three years and going through several different cycles before that person is flagged and told they can’t vote. If you can’t trust the Secretary of State, who is in charge of elections for the state of Florida, then who can you trust? »
DeSantis defended the lawsuits this week, saying the accused falsely checked a box on the voter registration form indicating that their right to vote had been restored.
“People sign up and check a box saying they’re eligible, so obviously if they’re not eligible and they’re lying, they can be held accountable,” he told a conference. press Tuesday. “Obviously it’s a very, very simple provision of our law to know that someone shouldn’t register or be able to register if they have these very serious convictions.”
Mark Ard, a spokesman for the office of the Florida secretary of state, declines to explain why it took the state so long to review the admissibility of Smith and other accused persons.
“These individuals lied when they registered to vote. They were never eligible, and there is no confusion about that. We are confident that when all the facts and evidence are revealed through the legal process, the reasons why these people were arrested will be clear,” he said in a statement.
Brandes, the state senator, said checking a box on a voter registration form was not enough to prove fraud.
“That doesn’t prove intent. All it proves is that they filled a sheet of paper. This does not prove that they intended to defraud or that they intended to deliberately try to commit electoral fraud,” he said.
The guardian revisited Smith Voter Registration Form as well as the applications for registration on the electoral rolls of almost all the accused persons. None contain an explicit warning that those convicted of murder or sex offenses cannot vote in Florida.
Smith and Peter Washingtonan Orlando man, are also the only two defendants among the 19 who registered during the Amendment 4 grace period. Both are only being prosecuted for voting illegally, not registering.
In the summer of 2020, the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals also appeared to offer some legal protection for those confused about their right to vote. At the time, 85,000 people with felony convictions had registered to vote after Amendment 4 went into effect, but state officials had yet to review their eligibility.
A majority of judges on the 11th Circuit, one of the most conservative courts in the United States, said that until Florida tells anyone they were ineligible due to a crime, they were “eligible to vote”.