This week, one of the 20 convicted felons who voted illegally in August and were arrested by Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Office of Election Crimes and Security reached a plea deal with prosecutors from all over the state.
Luis Villaran, 64, of Delray Beach, pleaded guilty to third-degree felonies of false affirmation and voting as an unqualified elector. Both of these crimes can send a person to prison for up to 10 years. He had to spend one day in jail and then go on probation for six months.
Court records show that Villaran has to pay $1,500 by August 8 to cover the costs of the prosecution and investigation. If Villaran doesn’t pay, the debt could be sent to a collection agency, his driver’s license could be taken away, or he could be arrested.
Villaran was found guilty of a sexual felony in 2014, but he signed up to vote in February 2020 and voted in both the primary and general elections that year. He and the other Florida residents who were arrested in August had all been convicted of murder or sex crimes. This made them ineligible to vote after voters in 2018 passed a constitutional amendment that gave convicted felons the right to vote again.
Officers from the state made the arrests soon after DeSantis set up the Office of Election Crimes and Security to make sure elections are fair. Some Democrats thought it was a way to get votes.
Several days before he was arrested, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent met with Villaran at his home. A probable cause affidavit said that he admitted that he had checked the box on his voter registration form that said he was a convicted felon whose voting rights had been restored.
The affidavit said that Villaran said he checked the box “by mistake” and told the agent, “Maybe I’m confused.” In a second box on the application, Villaran was asked if the Board of Executive Clemency had given him back his rights. He left that box blank. He told the agent that he had never gotten any paperwork that said he could vote again.
When Villaran talked to the agent, his sister was in the room. Villaran asked her a question in Spanish, and his sister told the agent, “Are you asking if he voted in November 2020, if we voted for Trump or Biden? Yes, we did vote,” the affidavit said.
Thursday, Villaran’s lawyer turned down an interview request. When emails were sent to the Office of the Attorney General about Villaran’s case, they were not answered.
DeSantis, who might run for president in 2024, pushed the state legislature to set up the election police unit to deal with concerns about voter fraud that have spread in the GOP after former President Donald Trump made false claims that his reelection was stolen.
Voter fraud is rare, usually only happens once in a while, and is usually caught. An investigation by the Associated Press into the 2020 presidential election found less than 475 possible cases of voter fraud out of 25.5 million ballots cast in the six states where Trump and his allies disputed his loss to Democratic President Joe Biden. DeSantis has praised Florida in the past for having a smooth 2020 election.
In January, the Office of Election Crimes and Security put out its first annual report. It talked about the 20 arrests and the two other arrests of people who were not convicted felons but were arrested on similar charges.
The office looked into 57-year-old Lauderhill resident Alford Nelson and sent the results to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Nelson, who was born in Jamaica, is said to have used a fake birth certificate to register to vote and then voted illegally in the 2020 elections, even though he is not a U.S. citizen.
In October, he was arrested on two counts of voting without being able to. His case is still going on.
The report also talked about the arrest of Cheryl Ann Leslie, 55, of Loxahatchee in November. She was accused of voting in both Florida and Alaska in the 2020 elections. The same is true for her.
The report says that the Office of Election Crimes and Security got more than 2,000 complaints about supposed violations of election laws or other “irregularities.” The report said that since the office opened, it has “conducted hundreds of preliminary investigations,” many of which led to criminal referrals to law enforcement. It also said that “a number of criminal convictions have been secured” and that others are still in the works.
According to the office’s report, nearly 300 possible violations of election laws or “irregularities” were looked into in Broward County in 2020. About 230 cases were looked into in Palm Beach County and almost 250 cases were looked into in Miami-Dade County.
Some of these cases were sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or the Office of the Attorney General. The report showed that many of the cases were closed after an initial investigation by the Office of Election Crimes and Security found that there wasn’t enough evidence to send the case to law enforcement or that law enforcement chose not to pursue the case.
“Enforcing Florida election law has the main effect of punishing people who break the law, but it also, and this is just as important, keeps people from voting illegally or doing other crimes related to elections,” the report said.
In August, Villaran was one of eight people from South Florida who were arrested. Three other people have had their cases thrown out by judges in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
At the end of December, a Broward County judge signed an order to drop the case against 63-year-old Pompano Beach resident Terry Hubbard. Cases against 57-year-old Miami resident Ronald Lee Miller and 56-year-old Opa-locka resident Robert Lee Wood have also been dropped in Miami-Dade County.
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In all three cases, the judges decided that the Office of Statewide Prosecution did not have the power to bring a case to court. Only crimes that happened in two or more counties can be tried in the statewide office.
Tuesday night, the Tampa Bay Times reported that a jury in Hillsborough County found Nathan Hart, 49, of Gibsonton guilty of false affirmation but not guilty of voting as an unqualified elector. Hart’s sentence will be given on February 27.
The newspaper said that Hart turned down a plea deal that would have given him two years of probation. Hart was given no punishment other than the time he spent in jail if he pleaded guilty, but he still didn’t want to do that.
Cases for the following South Florida residents are still being worked on:
County of Palm Beach
Robert Simpson, 64, of Pahokee, and Leo Grant Jr., 55, of South Bay.
County of Broward
Nathaniel Singleton, 71, of Fort Lauderdale, and Eugene Suggs, 65, of Miami.