First case in DeSantis voter fraud crackdown ends with split verdict
A Florida man on Tuesday was acquitted on charges of illegally voting but convicted of lying on his voter registration application in a closely watched voter fraud case.
The split verdict in Hillsborough county was the first time a Florida jury weighed in on a case of one of the 19 people Ron DeSantis announced were being charged with voter fraud in August. Nearly all of the 19 have said they did not know they were ineligible to vote and believed they could do so because they received a voter registration card from the state.
Related: Man arrested at gunpoint in DeSantis voter fraud crackdown, video shows
Voter fraud is extremely rare in the United States and voting rights advocates have decried the prosecutions as a thinly veiled effort to intimidate people from voting. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group that works with people with felonies to get their voting rights back, said they heard from several people ahead of last year’s midterm election who chose not to risk voting because they were afraid of getting prosecuted.
Nathan Hart, 49, was convicted on Tuesday of false affirmation in connection with an election, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Prosecutors in the case are requesting he serve five years’ probation in the case, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Sentencing is set for 27 February.
The Hillsborough county public defender’s office, which is representing Hart, declined to comment on the verdict. Neither DeSantis nor the office of the statewide prosecutor immediately returned a request for comment.
The conviction comes as DeSantis is seeking additional personnel and funding for the office of election crimes and security, the new statewide agency that handled Hart’s case.
Florida Republicans are also seeking expanded powers for the statewide prosecutor to charge people for it. Three of the 19 cases filed this summer have been dismissed because judges ruled that the statewide prosecutor did not have authority to bring the cases. But a new bill in the legislature would explicitly give the statewide prosecutor the power to do so.
Since 2019, Florida has allowed people with felonies to vote once they complete their sentence, unless they are convicted of murder or a sexual offense. Hart and the other 19 people charged all had prior crimes that fell into the latter two categories, but nearly all have said they did not know they were disqualified.
Hart registered to vote as a Republican in March 2020. He checked a box on the voter registration form acknowledging his prior conviction, but said his right to vote had been restored. The local election office in Hillsborough county approved Hart’s application, sent him a voter registration card in the mail, and he voted in the 2020 elections.
Prosecutors charged Hart with two different felonies, one for lying on the voter registration form, and another for voting knowing he was ineligible. The jury on Tuesday convicted him on the registration charge but acquitted him of illegally voting.
During the trial, which lasted a day, Hart said that he registered at the urging of a man who approached him outside a driver’s license office in 2020, according to the Times. The man, Hart said, told him that a new Florida law made people with felonies eligible to vote once they completed their sentence.
Hart recounted a similar version of events to police officers when they came to his house to arrest him last summer, according to body-cam footage obtained by the Times. One of the officers even appeared to sympathize with Hart, telling him “then there’s your defense”, one of the officers replied. “You know what I’m saying? That sounds like a loophole to me.”
Joseph Kudia, Hart’s lawyer, told jurors that prosecutors would not be able to prove Hart’s actions were wilfully illegal, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
But Nathaniel Bahill, the prosecutor in the case, pointed out that Hart had signed the voter registration form affirming his eligibility in 2020. He also questioned whether the story about being approached outside the driver’s license office was true.
Hart previously turned down two plea agreements that would have resulted in light punishments. Prosecutors had offered him a shorter probation and the judge overseeing the case had offered no additional punishment beyond the time Hart had already served in jail. Hart rejected both, the Tampa Bay Times reported. “I don’t think that I willingly did, or knowingly did, anything wrong,” he said . “So I would like to fight to get it dismissed.”
Michael Gottlieb, a Democratic state lawmaker who is representing one of the 19 other people charged, said that the illegal voting charge was easier to get an acquittal on.
“When they gave him the voter reg card and he goes and he votes, they’re telling him you’re OK to do this. So I think it’s much harder to get a conviction in that regard,” said Gottlieb, who said he did not follow Hart’s trial. “To go to a jury trial and say, ‘hey I’m a convicted felon I didn’t know I was breaking the law when I registered to vote.’ I think a lot of people are gonna look at that and say you knew or should have known the law but you didn’t.”
Neil Volz, the deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said the conviction highlighted the need for the state to improve its system for flagging ineligible voters and creating a reliable system for Florida voters.
“This trial highlights the need for a better voter verification system. There would have been no need to spend tax dollars on arrests, investigations, court costs and trials if our election process actually verified and assured a voter of their eligibility on the front end,” he said in a statement.