Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference held at the Broward County Courthouse on August 18, 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference held at the Broward County Courthouse on August 18, 2022 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

‘Complete Setup’: Florida Crackdown Has Ex-Felons Afraid to Vote

“The guys that I’m speaking to, simply put, are gun-shy [about registering and voting] right now,” one voting rights activist told VICE News.

Leroy Whitaker Jr. knows the value of a vote. Whitaker, a former felon, waited nearly two decades to cast one for the first time—which he did thanks to Florida’s 2018 ballot initiative that restored the right vote to felons not convicted of murder or sex crimes.

“You don’t realize how important your right to vote is until it’s taken away from you. In my case, for 18 years,” Whitaker, who was in prison from 1998 to 2016 and founded the nonprofit Adversity Overcomers Outreach Ministries after his release, told VICE News. “For a lot of us, we would love nothing more than to have all our rights returned back to us, to get back into the flow of life and make a change. Part of that is voting.”

But Florida has continued to make it difficult for thousands of former felons like Whitaker to vote, and new barriers have created more confusion and post-release hurdles for reintegrating back into society. In many cases, advocates say, these barriers are enough to dissuade these Floridians from taking part in the election process altogether—particularly after state lawmakers created a specific unit within the state police to investigate election crimes and 20 people were arrested in August for alleged voter fraud, a third-degree felony.


“You don’t realize how important your right to vote is until it’s taken away from you.”

Last month, the Tampa Bay Times obtained body camera footage from these arrests, showing confused and frustrated returning citizens being handcuffed. When 55-year-old Ramona Oliver was approached by police as she was leaving for work before 7 a.m., she responded: “Voter fraud? I voted, but I didn’t commit no fraud.” More than half of those arrested were Black, according to the Times

In 2018, Florida voters voted by a nearly 2-to-1 margin for Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to people convicted of non-murder or sexual assault felonies who’d completed their sentences. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was elected governor the same year, had opposed what he called the “automatic restoration of voting rights.” Though those who were arrested would not have been re-enfranchised under Amendment 4, they say they were told they were eligible, allowed to register, and even sent voter registration cards, as Politico reported in August. 


In 2019, the legislature significantly curtailed the law by passing legislation requiring those who wished to have their voting rights restored to pay “all fines and fees,” including restitution and legal fees,” before they could vote. Amendment 4 supporters have likened it to a poll tax.

“I think [Amendment 4] was a mistake and would not want to compound that mistake by bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders,” DeSantis, who signed the new law, said just six months after the amendment passed. (Neither the governor’s office nor Secretary of State Cord Byrd responded to a list of questions from VICE News.) 

A total of 4.6 million people in the U.S. are disenfranchised due to a prior felony conviction, according to data released by the Sentencing Project last month, and four years after Floridians voted to restore voting rights to former felons, the state still has the largest number of disenfranchised returning citizens in the country. More than 934,000 people who’ve completed their sentences are still ineligible to vote, according to the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for the rights of the incarcerated, including their right to post-prison suffrage. 


“It feels like a Dickens novel sometimes—it’s the best of times and worst of times. On one hand, we ended the lifetime ban for 1.4 million people, 216,000 returning citizens registered to vote in Florida,” Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told VICE News. “At the same time, there are hundreds of thousands of returning citizens who still face barriers to the full implementation and promise of Amendment 4.”

Voting rights advocates say the state is shirking its responsibility to returning citizens by allowing them to register and then arresting them for voting. The high-profile arrests, they say, amount to a crackdown that has caused a chilling effect among people who otherwise might be eligible to vote.

“The guys that I’m speaking to, simply put, are gun-shy right now,” Whitaker said. “This is all startling to them.”

In 2020, Miami-Dade County resident Robert Lee Wood was approached outside of a Walmart to register to vote, and did so; he then received a voter registration card in the mail from the state, and voted in the 2020 general election. In August 2022, however, Wood’s house was raided by the police and he was taken into custody—for the crime of voting illegally. 

“Dozens of cops surrounded his house with automatic weapons at 6 o’clock in the morning,” Wood’s lawyer, Larry Davis, told VICE News. “They wouldn’t even let him get dressed.”


But by October, the case against Wood had begun to unravel. Davis and fellow attorney (and Democratic state representative) Michael Gottlieb filed a motion that persuaded a judge to dismiss the charges against Wood by arguing that the case was not multi-jurisdictional, and thus not eligible for statewide prosecution. In his order, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch borrowed from Shakespeare’s Henry V, specifically, a line about how the titular character’s “arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings.”

​“How much wider even than that does [the Office of Statewide Prosecution] seek to extend its reach?” he asked. “In the case at bar, the answer is simple: wider than the enabling statute contemplates, and therefore too wide.”

But even with the charges dropped, Gottlieb says the state’s case against the voters is “entrapment” and “outrageous government conduct.”

“They should instantly take that person’s application and say, ‘Look, you're not entitled to vote,’” Gottlieb said. “But instead, they’re allowing them to vote, they’re giving them a voter registration card, they’re giving them a polling place… and then when they vote, they’re saying, ‘What you did was a crime.’”

“I’ve heard from people out there [doing voter registration] that people have said, ‘I’m not going to vote because I’m afraid I’ll get prosecuted.’”


In April, when DeSantis signed a bill creating the Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate alleged election crimes, he claimed in a statement that while Florida ran “the most secure elections in the country” in 2020, the state would “need to do more to ensure our elections remain secure.”

Those offenses, he said, would be reviewed by the Office of Statewide Prosecution, which prosecutes charges concerning two or more of Florida’s 20 trial circuits. 

Gottlieb, who is also representing Broward County resident Terry Hubbard, said he believes the people arrested in August were targeted for political reasons.

“I’ve heard from people out there [doing voter registration] that people have said, ‘I’m not going to vote because I’m afraid I’ll get prosecuted,’” Gottlieb told VICE News. “I think many share the opinion that the announcement of the 20 arrests was done in Broward County specifically to disenfranchise people from voting in the largest Democratic stronghold in the state of Florida.”

“Why hold a press conference in Broward [County] if it’s random throughout the state?” Gottlieb said. “There was no press conference held in [the heavily Republican retirement community] The Villages for the four individuals who voted there and in other states.”


Volz said that the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has heard similar things from people who’ve called the group’s hotline for help with fines and fees. “We definitely have talked with people who are unsure, and are deciding that they are not going to be a part of the voting process,” Volz told VICE News, adding that some people who’ve expressed this fear don’t even have a felony conviction. “There’s a lot of confusion in the process.”

Even further adding to the confusion: In August, the state rolled out a new form for people on probation that places the burden on them to determine if they can vote or not, the Tampa Bay Times reported Monday.

“By signing this letter, you agree that you alone are solely responsible for determining if you are legally able to register to vote, and that you must solely determine if you are lawfully qualified to vote,” the form states. “If someone tells you that you are eligible to vote, you must rely upon your own independent knowledge (as informed by your own attorney if applicable) of your individual circumstances, and not upon the advice of any third parties who may be incorrect or unqualified to interpret your eligibility."


Gottlieb called this a “complete setup.” 

“The whole purpose behind government is to vet and ensure that when giving somebody a driver’s license or vote or carry a gun, that they’re qualified to do so,” Gottlieb said. “They’re abdicating that responsibility. Number two, they’re firming up their future prosecution by potentially adding a whole new crime of perjury.”

“We definitely have talked with people who are unsure, and are deciding that they are not going to be a part of the voting process.”

Whitaker told VICE News that after body camera footage of Floridians being arrested for voting made the rounds among his old prison friends, many of them expressed a reluctance to vote. Whitaker said even he was initially hesitant about casting a vote this month, even though he voted just last year without any problems.

The only reason he’s still going to the polls next week is because of his close working relationship with the state’s attorney general.

“I’m banking on the fact that if I do run into any kind of issues and problems, [the attorney general is] someone I could call upon,” Whitaker said. 

Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project who sued the state over its 2019 law, said regaining access to the right to vote helps returning citizens fully become members of society again. “​​It’s all around a positive thing for the individual and everybody else for people to be able to re-engage,” Ebenstein said. “It’s a point of pride for a lot of our clients and others."


“When it comes to rights restoration, in a lot of cases, we’re talking about people who are no longer serving their sentence,” Ebenstein told VICE News. “They’re waiting for a period of time after the completion of their sentences, or they’re unable to pay financial obligations.”

But advocates say that Florida’s lack of a cohesive, statewide system makes it difficult for returning citizens to even know what their fines are and how much they owe.

“You really need to work with an attorney to find out exactly what the sentence you're given costs, because interest and other costs are not included,” said Volz, who is a returning citizen himself. “So you have to work with your local clerk of courts to access the information. Sometimes you have to pay to get the information on your own situation.”

“It’s a tedious process,” he added. 

Compliance with the state law has at times stumped even elections officials. In 2020, a representative from the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections’ office helped incarcerated people in the county jail register to vote, according to a ProPublica investigation. This year, Alachua County charged 10 of those people who registered with voter fraud. Four out of the 10 pleaded guilty, and one received an additional 10 months in jail. (The top elections official in the county defended her office afterwards, saying it’s “incumbent on the individual” to determine if they’re allowed to register.)

“When it comes to rights restoration, in a lot of cases, we’re talking about people who are no longer serving their sentence.”

For some former felons, these barriers further reinforce the idea that there is no point in practicing one of the few rights afforded to them after serving time, and that the right to vote alone isn’t enough to make them full members of society again. 

During a weekly call-in show last month on South Florida public radio station WUSF, a man identified as “Spencer in Jacksonville” called in during a discussion of the arrests and said that though he’d had his rights restored, he had no intention of voting.

“I kinda think it’s all just really crap. You get your rights restored but all you’re allowed to do is vote. You’re not allowed to carry a handgun and protect yourself, you’re not allowed to live in Section 8 housing. This is a mess created by our politicians,” Spencer said. “I still don’t vote. And I won’t. Why should I?”

Despite the uncertainty, though, many returning citizens aren’t giving up on voting entirely. For some, like Whitaker, having a voice after all these years is well worth the risk of accumulating new charges on their record.

“I’m not gonna back down from it, I’m just going to go vote. [...] Whatever occurs after that, I’m just going to have to deal with it at that point in time,” Whitaker said. “Man, I did 18 years. I’m looking forward to pushing forward and doing what I know God has called me to do. All these little hindrances that keep coming up that’s trying to distract from what I’m doing, I just can’t allow for that to happen.”

For others, the uncertainty around their vote has given them new purpose: advocating to those closest to them to practice their American right in their stead.

“We also know some of those same people are using this energy to reach out to their neighbors, to their friends, to their loved ones, and encouraging them to be their voices at the ballot box, which is not unusual for this movement,” Volz said. “That’s how we got all our petitions by and that’s how we got people to vote for Amendment 4, before any of us could even vote, those of us with past convictions, is to go to your loved ones and be like, ‘Hey, be my voice.’”