‘Illegal voting must be willful:’ Voter fraud accusations could face legal hurdle, Florida senator says

20 people were arrested earlier this year on suspicion of illegally voting in 2020

Following Gov. DeSantis' announcement of 20 felons who were arrested on accusations of voter fraud, one state senator told News 6 that such fraud must be "willful" to constitute a crime.

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – There is more evidence the state’s case against 20 people accused of illegally voting in the 2020 election could face a legal hurdle.

A News 6 investigation revealed the Lake County State Attorney’s Office had a lack of evidence to file charges against six people accused of the same crime.

There is language in the law that could have a big impact on the other cases.

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Florida’s law that allows convicted felons — excluding those convicted on felony charges related to murder or sexual assault — to vote after they have served their sentence is specific: prosecutors must prove intent.

The state senator who wrote the legislation — titled Amendment 4 — told News 6 that is by design.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes told News 6 that not only did he author the implementing legislation for Amendment 4, but he and others were intentional in writing it.

“We thought that there needed to be some grace, and so we put the word ‘willingly’ in, which means they have to have knowledge of what they’re doing in order to actually commit a crime,” Brandes said.

That’s the exact portion of the statute, 5th Circuit State Attorney William Gladson’s office referred to back in May, when they decided not to file charges against six people accused of illegally voting in the 2020 election.

“A person who willfully submits any false voter registration information commits a felony of the third degree,” according to the statute.

“‘Willfully’ requires the state prove the actions were intentional, knowing, and purposeful,” Jonathan Olson, division supervisor in the 5th circuit, wrote.

“In all of the instances where sex offenders voted, each appear to have been encouraged to vote by various mailings and misinformation...” Olson wrote. “Each were given voter registration cards, which would lead one to believe they could legally vote in the election.”

That’s one reason 59-year-old Peter Washington told News 6 he thought he was eligible to vote.

“They sent me a voter registration card,” Washington said.

Washington was one of 20 people arrested for allegedly illegally voting in the 2020 election. He pled guilty to felony charges of attempted sexual battery of a child in 1996, and so his voting rights were not restored under Amendment 4.

Governor Ron DeSantis made the announcement about the arrests two weeks ago.

“They’re going to pay the price for it,” DeSantis said during the announcement.

However, several of those arrested, including Washington, were under the impression that their rights had been restored.

“I think what you’re going to find out is a good state attorney, they’re going to have a really tough time showing that these people willingly and intentionally tried to deceive or tried to commit fraud and vote,” Brandes said.

Advocates are urging the 20 defendants to fight the charges.

Attorney Roger Weeden is now representing Washington, according to court documents.

Weeden is President of the Central Florida Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

The organization is reaching out to those defendants and offering to represent them pro bono, according to Weeden.

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About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning reporter Louis Bolden joined the News 6 team in September of 2001 and hasn't gotten a moment's rest since. Louis has been a General Assignment Reporter for News 6 and Weekend Morning Anchor. He joined the Special Projects/Investigative Unit in 2014.