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Floridians Face Prison for Voting from Jail

Tough-on-Crime Republicans Retaliate Against Rights Restoration Efforts

by Jenifer Lockwood and Panagioti Tsolkas

In February 2022, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) concluded an eight-month investigation involving the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office’s effort to register voters in the county jail. So far, the effort has resulted in a three-year prison sentence for at least one of 10 people currently known to be facing charges.

The investigation stemmed from a report filed by Gainesville database researcher and programmer Mark K. Glaeser, 65, an avid Republican with an extensive record spanning a decade of filing complaints against elected officials and businesses with Democratic Party affiliations. Glaeser claimed to have found thousands of individuals across Florida who registered or voted illegally in the 2020 election, including approximately 100 people in Alachua County, 34 of whom were allegedly housed in the jail at the time they voted, by mail, using the jail address as their primary residence.

That doesn’t necessarily make what they did a crime. Pre-trail detainees do not lose their right to vote upon arrest, though they often do not have access to a ballot, limiting their ability to participate in elections. Multiple voter education events in the Alachua County jail, including two voter drives in 2020 were sponsored by the county’s Election Supervisor, Kim A. Barton (D). As FDLE’s report notes, Barton held the drive to provide voter education to detainees and prisoners as part of a state-approved financial literacy bill that was put into place after Amendment 4 concerning felons voting rights passed in 2019.

So far, 10 of them have been arrested and charged with felony election-related crimes, including illegally voting in 2020. Barton, who is a named plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against the state’s narrow interpretation of Amendment 4, told investigators that her office held the drive only to provide voter registration and vote-by-mail information, and that it was up to the individuals to determine if they were eligible to vote based on that information. The FDLE report addressed concerns that Barton’s office may have deviated from normal standards and worries that registering people in jail “could compromise the integrity of the Florida Voter Registration System.” However, FDLE cleared all election employees of any wrongdoing.

At the heart of the issue is Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution, passed by a two-thirds majority of voters in 2019, which allows those convicted of a felony offense to have their voting rights restored upon completion of their sentence, except those convicted of murder or sexual offenses. [Editor’s Note: Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) opposed the exclusion of anyone from the amendment, and advocates voting rights for all. See: PLN, Oct. 2019, p.58.]

Following adoption of Amendment 4, Republican legislators pushed for an interpretation that would require people with felony convictions to pay all fines and fees in full before registering to vote. That was challenged in a class-action suit by impacted Florida residents and national civil rights groups, including NAACP and League of Women Voters, as well as Barton’s office in Alachua County. The crux of their argument was that the requirement to pay fines and fees is akin to a poll tax, leaving those who can’t afford to pay punished by denying the fundamental right of a free society. A favorable ruling in May 2020 by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle provided hope for Amendment 4 to benefit the largest number of voters, rather than whittling away at its effect. But four months later, at a peak in voter registration efforts, that was overturned by the Eleventh Circuit in a 6-4 decision on September 11, 2020. See: Jones v. Gov. of Fla., 975 F.3d 1016 (11th Cir. 2020).

Assessing national voting trends for people with felony convictions, Michigan Daily called the effects of the Eleventh Circuit decision “disastrous.”

“Rather than creating a system where felons repay their debt to society for their crimes, fines and fees act essentially as an obstructive poll tax,” opined columnist Alexis Hancz, who noted “[o]nly an estimated 50,000 felons in the last two years have actually registered to vote.”

To date, there is no system in place to flag ineligible voters. The FDLE investigation also found that county clerk’s offices around the state had no documentation to show what a person might owe, and if the fines have been turned over to a collection agency the amount is even more difficult to obtain.

Of the ten people arrested, now known on social media as the #Alachua10, Daniel Roberts, 48, was the first convicted and sentenced for false swearing or submission of false voter registration as a prisoner. Roberts was sentenced by Judge James Colaw to three years in the Florida Department of Corrections as part of a plea agreement, where his sentence will run concurrent to a six-year sentence on battery and weapons charges.

Dedrick De’Ron Baldwin, 46, was the last to be charged as a result of Glaeser’s report. He is currently serving a 12-year sentence, on which he was awaiting trial on at the time of updating his voter registration to the jail address. He had initially registered over a year prior, in February 2019, and received no notification that he was ineligible.

But according to court records, Baldwin had unpaid fines. So how much was it that barred him from casting a vote—possibly for the same officials who would ultimately send him back to prison, such as State Attorney Brian Kramer (R), who vocally opposed an inclusive interpretation of Amendment 4 and was elected in 2020?

$494 dollars, stemming from charges as far back as 1994.

A third target of Glaeser’s vigilante effort in “the Republicans’ drive to root out election fraud,” as States Newsroom reporter Kira Lernerdescribed it, was Kelvin Bolton, 55. Law enforcement officers located Bolton at a homeless shelter, where he was on early release from jail, but technically still under state custody, serving two and a half years for theft and simple battery. He was put back in jail, on a $30,000 bond, essentially because he owes $7,018 in court fines and fees. Like eight of the 10 facing charges, Bolton is Black. According to court records, he registered as a Republican.

Lerner described the case as “one of the first of its kind since Florida ended the Jim Crow-era voting policy that disproportionately affected Black citizens.” She further noted that “Bolton’s arrest shows how the constitutional amendment now is being weaponized against poor people who may not realize they are committing a crime.”  

Glaeser also attempted to get people arrested in other counties, claiming he had “identified nearly 2,000 sex offenders in Florida who illegally registered to vote in the 2020 election, roughly 25% of whom voted,” according to a report in the Gainesville Sun.

In Lake County, the state attorney’s office decided it would not file charges, stating that “[i]n all of the instances where sex offenders voted, each appear to have been encouraged to vote by various mailings and misinformation.” The Daily Commercial reported a statement by Jonathan Olson, the office’s division supervisor, who said that each of those in question “were given voter registration cards which would lead one to believe they could legally vote in the election. The evidence fails to show willful actions on a part of these individuals. Therefore, the State is unable to file charges.”

So are the current prisoners from Alachua County—those facing arguably bogus voting fraud charges—just test cases, designed to illicit fear with minimal retaliation? Is the effort perhaps also an indirect form of retaliation against Barton’s office for its stand against officials in Tallahassee who prefer not seeing representation from the people they put in cages?

In response to these cases, groups including the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) have announced the formation of a task force to defend former prisoners against voter fraud. At a news conference, FRRC Executive Director Desmond Meade, a former prisoner, called the arrests frivolous. “You had a public official go into a jail and register those individuals. Checks and balances should have been incorporated to make sure that the people who were registering were registering lawfully.”

While the current backlash is directed against efforts to expand ballot access to those who are arguably hardest hit by state policies, it shouldn’t come as a shock. The exclusions openly presented in the Amendment provided foreshadowing. As HRDC Director Paul Wright said of Amendment 4 before it passed, “Realistically, do you see anyone spending $15 million so murderers and sex offenders can get the right to vote?”

Wright was referencing the millions raised to advocate for Amendment 4. Millions more have since been spent by FRRC and other organizations to pay off outstanding fines for potential voters, not to mention the cost of ongoing class-action litigation aimed at changing the interpretation of the Amendment. It would be much less costly to follow the lead of our neighbors to the north in Canada, where voting became legal for all current prisoners in 2002. [See: Sauvé v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), [2002] 3 SCR 519; 2002 SCC 68.]

The states of Maine and Vermont also recognize prisoners’ voting rights. While it may seem like an insurmountable task in many of the remaining 48 states, for those who believe in fundamental human rights, it is certainly a worthy goal. As Wright notes wryly, “then we’d just need to find someone worth voting for.” 

Sources: Brennan Center, Daily Commercial, Gainesville Sun, Louisiana Illuminator, Michigan Daily, Orlando Weekly, WUFT

Panagioti Tsolkas, a former Assistant Editor of Prison Legal News, worked with the Florida Immigrant Coalition’s civic engagement program in 2019-2020 to register potential voters in the Alachua County jail, as well as homeless shelters, public housing projects and parking lots across Gainesville.

Jenifer Lockwood was formerly incarcerated in the Florida Department of Corrections for 13 years, during which she worked as a law clerk in the prison law library. She is currently working toward a degree in legal studies at South University, and she is an advocate for prisoner rights and a supporter of organizations that seek to abolish Florida’s minimum mandatory drug laws.

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Related legal case

Jones v. Governor of Florida