Eight Palm Beach County felons who voted illegally in the 2012 primary election will not be charged because authorities couldn’t prove they were aware they didn’t have the right to vote. Meanwhile, two of the felons remain on the Palm Beach County voter rolls.
Peter Antonacci, the previous state attorney before Dave Aronberg took office in January, launched an investigation into the illegal voting after a Palm Beach Post investigation in November found eight felons who voted despite never having had their civil rights restored. The detective assigned to the investigation — Michelle Romagnoli of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office — confirmed most of The Post’s findings. She added that five of the men went on to vote in the general election Nov. 7.
Voting illegally or registering to vote illegally in Florida can lead to third degree felony charges, but only if one does so “willfully.” Romagnoli did not find evidence the seven men did know, according Mike Edmondson, Aronberg’s executive assistant. She told them that if they were to vote again, they could be charged.
The state has made a concentrated effort for a decade to bar felons from the polls. Last year, the state made a well-publicized push to stop noncitizens from voting.
Romagnoli spoke with seven of the eight men, each of whom said they hadn’t been told by the supervisor of elections that they couldn’t vote and hadn’t been turned away at the polls. Five read or saw news accounts saying that former Gov. Charlie Crist gave automatic pardons to thousands of felons, which they thought applied to them.
Gov. Rick Scott repealed Crist’s reforms in 2011, imposing a five-year waiting period for non-violent felons to have their rights restored and a seven-year waiting period for violent felons. As of April 1, the Florida Parole Commission’s clemency board had more than 15,000 pending cases for the restoration of civil rights.
Those who voted by absentee ballot kept getting their ballots in the mail. Romagnoli did not find any documents contradicting the felons’ claims.
Another one of the felons told the detective he had an error in his probation documents that he thought indicated he could vote, and another said he had received paperwork saying he had been pardoned by Crist. Romagnoli has not spoken with one of the eight felons — Jeffery Addison — because he has not returned her phone calls or letters. Along with Linzy Chavers, he had already been removed from the voter rolls by the time Romagnoli started her investigation.
At least one Palm Beach County man — not one of the eight — has been convicted of a felony for registering to vote illegally. A Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy was executing a search warrant in 2010 in Bruce Wagner’s home when he found a voter registration card in Wagner’s name in which he had indicated he didn’t have a felony conviction. In fact, Wagner had multiple felony convictions, including some for burglary and cocaine possession, and he hadn’t had his rights restored.
For submitting a false registration — and for failing to register as a felon with the sheriff’s office — Wagner was sentenced in 2012 to two years in prison.
The Florida Department of State is responsible for verifying that registered voters have the right to vote and, if they find any who don’t, to then inform the appropriate county supervisor of elections. But checking each record is time-consuming: More than 213,000 people have registered to vote in Florida just since the general election in November, about 15,000 of them in Palm Beach County, Chris Cate, the department’s communications director, said in an email.
Removing an ineligible felon from the voter roles takes time because even if a person has a felony record with the Department of Law Enforcement or the Department of Corrections, that doesn’t necesarily mean they are ineligible to vote. A person could have had their case dismissed on appeal, for example.
After the Department of State finds a match and informs the supervisor of elections, the supervisor must notify the voter and give them a chance to admit or deny their ineligibility to vote. It can take up 120 days to remove a felon from the rolls from the time a supervisor of elections is informed of a match, Cate said.
The Department of State has sent Palm Beach County more than 1,000 matches since Nov. 7, Cate said.
Though Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said she thinks the system for verifying voter eligibility is “slow and onerous,” she has few alternatives. By law she is allowed to act on information from other sources to remove felons from the voter rolls, but doesn’t do so.
“Frankly, I don’t go searching the rolls for felons. I do rely on the system as it is,” she said.
Romagnoli wrote in her investigative narrative that she told Bucher about the ineligible voters, and that Bucher removed them from the voter rolls. As of May 3, however, two of the felons who voted in the 2012 primary and general elections — Herbert Dawkins and Edwin Carter — were still listed as registered voters. Although she declined to name which one, Bucher said she never received information on one of the two men from the Department of State. Another is “very close” to being removed from the rolls, she said.
Dawkins, 70, has voted in every general and primary election since 2002. Still, he won’t apply to get his right to vote restored.
“I’m getting old, I’m gonna die,” he said. “I don’t need no rights no more.”
What we found
Using public records law, The Post last fall compared the names of 128,000 county voters in the Aug. 14 primary with a list of all felons from the Florida Department of Corrections and researched further records to confirm eight felons who voted. Also, a review of about 870,000 Palm Beach County residents registered for Nov. 7 election revealed 31 born in the 1800s. The oldest? David Bell of Delray Beach, who would have turned 121 in December, but died in 1998 at 106.