Vote illegally, get caught: What happens? Very little

Published July 18, 2004

Florida has spent millions in unsuccessful attempts to remove felons from voter rolls, and it waves a big stick at those who vote illegally: up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.

Yet felons who vote have little to fear.

Since the 1970s, fewer than 40 people have been convicted of casting an illegal vote, and only two have been sentenced to prison. Most receive probation for voting as felons, nonresidents or noncitizens.

While prosecutors and elections officers say state records do not reflect all voter fraud cases because many of them go through pretrial intervention programs that wipe records clean, they agree voter fraud exists in much larger numbers.

It is generally not considered a serious crime or one that merits a lot of attention. Voter fraud is largely ignored unless an election is questioned, someone complains or a voter is investigated on other charges.

"It's hard to prove they actually voted illegally, because they go into the voting booth and it's completely private," said Buddy Johnson, Hillsborough County supervisor of elections, who has referred a handful of potential illegal voters to prosecutors. "The best part of that action is on the front end, not allowing that to happen. That's what we're all trying to work toward."

But many felons slip through:

Felon Daniel Ray Erickson voted eight times in nearly every major election in Hernando County before he was caught in a 2002 investigation of his failure to register as a sex offender.

Despite widespread reports of forged and improperly witnessed ballots during the Miami mayoral election and runoff in November 1997, that scandal drew fewer than 20 illegal voter convictions, according to state records. The Miami Herald had found that felons cast 105 ballots in the race.

The Florida Elections Commission, which can levy civil penalties up to $1,000 for illegal voting, has never ruled that anyone violated elections rules by casting a fraudulent vote, a commission spokesman said. It has fined a handful of people for submitting false voter registration information.

No elections supervisor in the Tampa Bay area has looked at county rolls after an election to compare lists of felons and those who voted.

Florida is one of seven states that bars felons from voting unless their rights have been restored, a 19th century prohibition rooted in efforts to keep former slaves from voting. Attempts to amend the state Constitution to automatically restore felons' voting rights have failed.

In the 1990s, voter fraud grew with new federal motor-voter laws, which allow driver's license applicants to swear they are qualified to vote with a check mark and a signature.

After the 1997 Miami mayoral scandal, the Legislature passed a law in 1998 aimed at preventing voter fraud by requiring the creation of a statewide voter database and a list of felons that election supervisors would use to help identify unqualified voters. The law also provides for tougher penalties for voter fraud charges.

The state has spent $2-million on the lists, compiled by the consulting firm Accenture. But the felon list was scrapped after it was discovered that it erroneously excluded Hispanics and included felons who had won back their civil rights through clemency.

But no one has mounted an aggressive campaign to prosecute and enforce penalties on those guilty of voter fraud.

"When you take election law cases to state attorneys, as a rule, they just throw up their hands," said former state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Palm Harbor Republican who sponsored the 1998 law. "Why state attorneys haven't enforced it is not an issue I know about."

Florida's unusual voting prohibitions arm felons who illegally vote with their No.1 defense against criminal punishment: ignorance. Prosecutors must prove voter intent to deceive.

"Most people think once you serve the sentencing time, it's over," said Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute in Miami, a nonprofit group that specializes in inmate rights.

When Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio served as elections supervisor in Hillsborough County, she pursued voter fraud, but made a deal with the State Attorney's Office to ignore illegal voters who registered through motor-voter applications, said lawyer Craig Clendinen, a former assistant state attorney who says he won voter fraud convictions that do not appear in state records.

"Am I going to prosecute this guy who went to get a driver's license, and can sit there with a straight face and say I went to get a driver's license?" said Clendinen, now a private lawyer. "This guy did not intend to commit a crime."

The other major hurdles are time, energy and limited resources, especially since voter fraud leaves no specific victims and judges tend to give violators probation. The only two felons in the state sentenced to prison for voter fraud simultaneously served time for other, more serious crimes.

"We want our law enforcement focusing on armed robbers, murderers and real felons," said Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino, who discovered voter fraud in Hernando County while investigating Daniel Ray Erickson's refusal to register as a convicted sex offender.

Most voter fraud charges evolve from county elections supervisors who pass information to authorities.

While state law requires supervisors to weed out felons before an election, supervisors have no authority to investigate and pursue penalties after an election, said Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood. They rely on complaints made to their offices, Nash said.

Elections supervisors say they pursue voter fraud when they hear about it, but they don't go digging.

"We get tipped off, we get into confrontations where a voter actually spills the beans unknowingly," said Pasco Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning, who won a jury conviction in the 2000 election against an illegal voter who had bragged, "I'm going to vote, and you're not going to catch me."

In a separate case, Chris Carman, 34, of Longboat Key was sentenced to probation when someone complained that he cast a fraudulent ballot in 2000. Although Carman is not a felon, he committed voter fraud when he forged an absentee ballot for a friend who later complained.

The judge withheld adjudication on the felony, which restored Carman's civil rights, including his voter rights.

"I was guilty, only because of the signature part," said Carman, an avid voter. "But I was stupid."

- Jennifer Liberto can be reached at 352 848-1434 or liberto@sptimes.com