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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

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) has 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 resident 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. (Three examples here). Glaeser claimed to have found thousands of individuals across the state of Florida that registered or voted illegally in the 2020 election, alleging approximately 100 people in Alachua County alone, 34 of which were either current or ex-prisoners housed in the jail at the time they were said to have voted.

So far, 10 of them have been arrested and charged with felony election-related crimes, including illegally voting in 2020. Glaeser also reported that the prisoners named all voted while in jail, by mail, and all used the jail address as their primary residence.

Pre-trail detainees do not lose their right to vote upon arrest, but they often do not have access to a ballot, limiting their ability to participate in elections. Multiple voter education events were held for prisoners housed in the Alachua County jail, in which prisoners were informed of the state’s current voting laws. On at least two occasions, the voter-drive was sponsored by the county’s Election Supervisor, Kim A. Barton (D), once in February, and again in July of 2020. FDLE’s report states that the SOE held the drive to provide voter education to prisoners as part of a state-approved financial literacy bill. The literacy bill was put into place to help with the voting process and voter education after an amendment concerning felons voting rights was passed in 2019.

Barton, who would also become a named plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against the state’s interpretation of Amendment 4, told investigators that the office only held the drive to provide voter registration and vote-by-mail information, and that it was up to the individual to determine if they were eligible to vote, based on the information provided. The investigation report indicated an opinion that the SOE office may have deviated from the normal standards, claiming registering people in jail “could compromise the integrity of the Florida Voter Registration System,” however, FDLE cleared all employees, former or current, of any wrongdoing.

At the heart of the issue is Florida’s Amendment 4 ballot item, passed in 2019 by two-thirds vote, allowing those convicted of a felony offense to have their rights restored, upon the 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 the adoption of Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution, Republican legislators pushed for an interpretation of the adopted language that would require people with felony convictions to have paid all fines and fees in full. The change was successfully challenged in court by a class action suit by impacted Florida residents and national civil rights groups, including NAACP and League of Women Voters, as well as Kim Barton’s SOE office in Alachua County. The crux of their argument was that the requirement of paying fines and fees is akin to a poll tax, where people who can’t afford to pay are punished by the being denied a fundamental right in a supposedly free society. A favorable ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle came down on May 24, 2020, providing hope for Amendment 4 to remain as intended, to benefit the largest number of voters, rather than whittle away at its effect. Four months later, at a peak in voter registration efforts, it was overturned by the Eleventh Circuit, in a 6-4 decision released on September 11, 2020. See: Gruver v. Barton, (consolidated with Jones v. DeSantis), U.S.D.C. (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 4:19-cv-00300-RH-MJF.

In assessing national voting trends for people with felony convictions, a columnist from Michigan Daily wrote about the Eleventh Circuit decision, “the effects of the reversal are 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. Only an estimated 50,000 felons in the last two years have actually registered to vote.”

To date, there is not a system in place that would flag ineligible voters. The 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 collection it is even more difficult to obtain.

Of the 10 arrested, now known on social media as the #Alachua10, Daniel Roberts, 48, became the first to be 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 tenth to be charged as a result of Glaeser’s report. He is currently serving a 12-year sentence, 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.

According to court records, Baldwin’s unpaid fines that barred him from voting for the officials that 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—were $494 dollars 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 Lerner described 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, in 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 the court records, he registered as a Republican.

Lerner described the cases 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.”   

Details of these cases have trickled out slowly, as most of those charged are now current prisoners and, like Baldwin, were unaware of the cases until contacted by the news service Fresh Take on Florida.

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 “In 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 that Jonathan Olson, the office’s division supervisor, also wrote in a statement, “Each 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.”

This leads one to believe the current prisoners from Alachua County facing arguably-bogus voting fraud charges may be test cases, aimed to illicit fear with minimal retaliation, and perhaps also an indirect form of retaliation against Kim Barton’s SOE 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 held the Executive Director and former prisoner, Desmond Meade, 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 against efforts to expand ballot access to those who are arguably hardest hit by state policies, it shouldn’t come as a major shock. The exclusions openly presented in the Amendment, against people convicted of criminal charges, can be viewed as a sort of foreshadowing. As 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 help pay off the outstanding fines of potential voters, not to mention the cost of the years-long ongoing class action litigation aimed at changing the interpretation of the Amendment. We would do better 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, “then we’d just need to find someone worth voting for.”

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

Panagioti Tsolkas is a former Assistant Editor of Prison Legal News and worked with the Florida Immigrant Coalition's civic engagement program in 2019-2020, including registering 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 her incarceration she worked as a law clerk in the prison law library and is currently working toward a degree in legal studies at South University. Lockwood 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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