Law \ Legal

In Florida, Jailed for Voting 

Kelvin Bolton was arres­ted at a home­less shel­ter earlier this year in Gaines­ville, Fla. He was held on a $30,000 bond and charged with three counts of third-degree perjury and fraud.

His alleged crime? Voting with unpaid fines or court fees.

Bolton, 55, is one of 10 people previ­ously detained in a county jail who a local prosec­utor is pursu­ing for allegedly regis­ter­ing or voting while ineligible.

At the time, he had no idea his actions were anything but legal.

Now, he and other formerly incar­cer­ated people could land back behind bars for mistakenly believ­ing they were eligible to vote because of a 2018 ballot initi­at­ive that restored voting rights to most Flor­idi­ans with past convic­tions.

Bolton, who had been convicted for several nonvi­ol­ent offenses, was registered to vote by the Alachua County Super­visor of Elec­tions office while in jail. He later cast an absentee ballot in the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

Accord­ing to Bolton, offi­cials told him he had regained his voting rights, and he was unaware that court debts he owed from unre­lated past convic­tions would render him ineligible. Had he known it was a crime, he said he never would have voted.

But prosec­ut­ing people with past convic­tions for illeg­ally voting ignores the legal complex­it­ies of the state’s own making. In 2018, Flor­idi­ans approved the Voting Restor­a­tion Amend­ment, known as Amend­ment 4, which aimed to restore voting rights to most state resid­ents with past felony convic­tions who have completed their sentences.

Amend­ment 4 put an end to Flor­id­a’s categor­ical policy of life­time disen­fran­chise­ment for felony convic­tion, a policy with clear racist origins that was estim­ated to disen­fran­chise 1 in 4 Black men in the state.

Support­ers celeb­rated the amend­ment, which was estim­ated to expand the fran­chise to roughly 1.4 million Flor­idi­ans. However, not even a year later, Flor­id­a’s Repub­lican-controlled legis­lature passed Senate Bill 7066, which bars people from regain­ing their voting rights if they have outstand­ing court debts related to a felony convic­tion — as was the case with Kelvin Bolton.

Any law that requires people to pay to vote is funda­ment­ally anti­demo­cratic. But to make matters worse, Flor­ida makes it virtu­ally impossible for people with past convic­tions to determ­ine with certainty what they might owe.

The state lacks a cent­ral­ized data­base for track­ing court debt and payments, so there is no easy way to verify court debts within the state’s 67 counties or access data on federal or out-of-state finan­cial oblig­a­tions.

As such, many formerly incar­cer­ated people don’t know they have outstand­ing debts at all, nor are they aware these debts would render them ineligible to vote. And without a proper record-keep­ing system, state and local offi­cials struggle to help indi­vidu­als verify this inform­a­tion.

Moreover, those who do know the exact sum of their debts are some­times no better off. Polit­ical scient­ist Daniel Smith estim­ated in 2020 that 79 percent of Flor­idi­ans with past convic­tions who have completed their sentences owed at least $500 in fines and fees.

The chal­lenge of paying off these sizable debts can be insur­mount­able, espe­cially when consid­er­ing that involve­ment in the crim­inal legal system tends to mean lower income.

On top of the chal­lenge of veri­fy­ing and meet­ing the finan­cial prerequis­ites, Flor­idi­ans are also being failed by the depart­ment of state — an office tasked with review­ing new regis­tra­tions and flag­ging ineligible voters for removal from the rolls.

Rather than help­ing to alle­vi­ate confu­sion and spare unwit­ting people with past convic­tions from prosec­u­tion, the depart­ment of state has allowed disqual­i­fied voters to register and vote without noti­fy­ing local elec­tion offi­cials about the mistakes in a timely fash­ion.

By the state’s own count, as of 2020, there were more than 85,000 registered voters with past felony convic­tions whose eligib­il­ity had to be screened, which offi­cials estim­ated would take until 2026 to finish review­ing.

Thus, indi­vidu­als are left to pay the price of the admin­is­trat­ive back­log.

This isn’t the only way in which the state shares the blame for the recent prosec­u­tions.

In August, 20 Flor­idi­ans were arres­ted for regis­ter­ing and voting in the 2020 elec­tion despite having past murder or sexual offense convic­tions, which were excluded from Amend­ment 4.

Like Bolton, several of those who illeg­ally registered to vote were encour­aged to do so by local and state offi­cials.

Accord­ing to the defend­ants, offi­cials incor­rectly informed them that Amend­ment 4 made them eligible to vote. Some of them also mistakenly assumed their regis­tra­tion was legal after receiv­ing a voter regis­tra­tion card in the mail — some­thing Flor­ida sends to all voters regard­less of whether they’re later found ineligible. Instead of acknow­ledging the state’s role in the prob­lem,

Gov. Ron DeSantis has touted the arrests as proof of the effect­ive­ness of his new Office of Elec­tion Crimes and Secur­ity, an entity formed in July to crack down on unfoun­ded claims of wide­spread voter fraud.

Taken together, the labyrinth­ine nature of Flor­id­a’s pay-to-vote system, the depart­ment of state’s inac­tion, and the dozens of high-visib­il­ity arrests seek to discour­age people with past convic­tions from parti­cip­at­ing in our demo­cracy.

Notably, those found guilty of voting while ineligible could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. When the chances of misin­ter­pret­ing the law are so high and the penal­ties are so severe, it’s little wonder that poten­tially eligible voters may be reluct­ant to test their luck.

Rather than deliver on the prom­ise of Amend­ment 4, Flor­ida has done everything in its power to keep people with past convic­tions from the polls.

Instead of offer­ing guid­ance and support for those trying to navig­ate the complex rules for regain­ing the fran­chise, the state has doggedly gone after them in the name of stamp­ing out unproven voter fraud.

For as long as the state capit­al­izes on the public’s confu­sion and fear of prosec­u­tion, people with past convic­tions will continue strug­gling to freely exer­cise their right to vote.

The original version of this essay was published as a blog post by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, and is reproduced with permission.

 


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