TAMPA, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis's election police unit arrested 20 people on Thursday for breaking the state's election laws on felon voting rights.
Since 2019, convicted felons in Florida have been allowed to go to a polling place and cast ballots, except for felons convicted of murder and/or sexual assault. DeSantis said the 20 people arrested fit that profile. Six of those people live in Hillsborough county, including Nathan Hart of Gibsonton.
Hart told 10 Tampa Bay he was confused about the law when he registered to vote, and never believed he was breaking the law.
"I mean, I had no plans on committing voter fraud," Hart said. "I wasn't trying to swing the election with my one individual vote here in Hillsborough county."
Nathan Hart said he was at the DMV two years ago when someone approached him, asking if he was registered to vote.
"I told him no because I'm a convicted felon and I'm pretty sure we can't vote," Hart explained. "And he said they passed a law a few years ago and you can now. I said, are you sure because it's a pretty severe felony? He said, worst case scenario you fill it out and you get an ID card or you don't."
It was bad advice. Hart registered and was mailed a voter card a short time later. He incorrectly assumed that it indicated he'd been cleared to vote.
"I was a little surprised but I was like, 'oh, that law did apply to me after all.'"
In the 2020 election cycle—he cast his first ballot in decades for President Trump, not knowing the vote would land him in handcuffs.
"If I thought I was [breaking the law], I definitely wouldn't be wasting a vote on a potential jail sentence," Hart added.
Currently, it's up to voters to know whether they're eligible. There is no safeguard on the front-end which flags felons who attempts to register to vote who should not.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which fought to get felons these rights in 2018, calls it a flawed system.
Following the announcement of the 20 arrests, the group released a statement that said in part:
"We believe anyone who wants to participate in democracy and genuinely believes that they are eligible should not be punished because of the state's confusing voter system. If Floridians can not rely on the government to verify their eligibility, who can they rely on?"
However, lawyer Richard Harrison, who fought against giving felons these rights in 2018, said the state should not be expected to conduct background checks on every voter, and ignorance of a crime still makes you guilty of it.
"If you fill out a form and you say, under oath, that I meet the criteria and I'm eligible and I'm not a convicted felon, it's your burden to make sure those are true statements," Harrison said.
Nathan Hart said he is working with a lawyer to appeal the voter fraud charge against him.