Florida gave voting rights to people with felony convictions. Now some face charges for voting.

Many residents are unclear about their eligibility to vote, and verifying status can be difficult

By: - April 29, 2022 4:30 am

People march in Jacksonville, Florida, to support Amendment 4 in 2018. (Florida Rights Restoration Coalition)

Florida authorities arrested a Black man while he was staying in a homeless shelter and charged him with voting illegally in a case tied to Republicans’ drive to root out election fraud.

But Kelvin Bolton’s arrest raises questions about the rollout of Amendment 4, passed by Florida voters in 2018 to restore voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions. 

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

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When law enforcement found 55-year-old Bolton at the homeless shelter and arrested him for illegal voting, according to court records and as first reported by Fresh Take Florida at the University of Florida, he was on early release from jail but still serving two-and-a-half years for theft and simple battery. 

Bolton, who is currently being held in the Alachua County jail on $30,000 bail, is one of 10 people recently charged in the Gainesville, Florida, area with third-degree felonies for illegal voting. Eight of the 10 are Black men.

They all registered to vote while in jail or mailed ballots from jail, but had unpaid fines and fees from prior felony convictions that barred them from voting under a 2019 law, according to the state attorney’s office. Each is facing a potential five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. 

Bolton currently owes $7,018 in unpaid court fines and fees, including $1,500 in attorney and indigent appearance fees, according to an analysis of court records.

Voter registration

Bolton had registered to vote in July 2020 during a voter registration drive in the county jail conducted by Alachua County’s Democratic elections supervisor, Kim Barton. Bolton cast a ballot by mail in August and November 2020. 

“If someone in the prison came up to him and said, ‘Hey, man, you know you can vote? Even though you’re in prison,’ Kelvin would vote,” said Bolton’s sister, Derbra Owete. “He wouldn’t question it because somebody in authority told him he could vote.”

She described her brother as gullible and impressionable. Although she is not aware of a formal diagnosis, she believes he is mentally ill. As a child and adult, he rarely had a stable home, she said. He was placed in foster care until his sister gained custody of him and two of their siblings. 

Bolton registered as a Republican, but Owete said she doubts he knows the differences between the two parties. 

Dedrick De’Ron Baldwin, another one of the 10 people facing illegal voting charges stemming from the voter registration drive, told Fresh Take Florida that he didn’t know he was ineligible.

“They told us that if we weren’t already convicted of our current crime then we were able to sign up and vote,” he wrote from prison to Fresh Take Florida. “They probably signed 65 or 70 people up that day, so I don’t understand how I can be charged with voter misconduct. All I was doing was what they told me I had a right to do.”

A view of the Alachua County jail in Florida. (Courtesy of Alachua County Sheriff’s Office)

Barton declined to comment on the voter registration drive, directing all questions to prosecutors. All employees of her office have been cleared of any wrongdoing in connection with the drive.

Darry Lloyd, chief investigator with the office of Republican State Attorney Brian Kramer, said that all individuals charged with illegal voting committed crimes because they knowingly registered to vote while ineligible, and then cast ballots. 

“They knew they didn’t have the right to vote and they did it anyway,” Lloyd said. “If you’re a convicted felon and you have multiple felonies, then you know that you don’t have the right to vote.”

But that’s no longer the law in Florida. 

In 2018, nearly two-thirds of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to most people with felony convictions who have completed the terms of their sentence. The amendment originally restored the right to vote to roughly 1.4 million people.

But shortly after the election, the state’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a law requiring that people with felony convictions pay off all fines, fees, and restitution associated with their sentence before they are eligible to register to vote. After GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law in June 2019, roughly 774,000 people who would have been eligible to vote were no longer allowed.

Multiple voting rights groups brought legal challenges to the law, and in an opinion in May 2020, a federal judge said Republicans had created an “administrative train wreck” and ruled that the people blocked from voting could still participate in elections. But a federal appeals court overturned that order. The back-and-forth created widespread confusion and left many Floridians unclear about their eligibility to vote. 

Fines and fees

States Newsroom could not determine how much Bolton knew about his unpaid fines and fees. The county jail only permits reporters to schedule calls with detainees with permission from the individual’s attorney, and Bolton’s public defender declined to comment on ongoing litigation. They said they don’t believe it’s in their client’s best interest to comment, either. 

“We are disappointed that the State Attorney has chosen to prosecute any individuals under this statute, particularly considering the lack of clarity in law and the difficulty individuals face in determining if their sentences would be deemed ‘complete’ under the law,” Stacy Scott, the office’s lead public defender, wrote in an email. 

The state has an impenetrable system of records.

– Jonathan Diaz, with the Campaign Legal Center

Most of Bolton’s bills for court fees have been forwarded to collection agencies, according to court records. But Bolton’s sister said he hasn’t had a stable address or home for many years and may have been hard to track down. 

It’s also unclear how Bolton could have determined that he owed unpaid fees while he was in the county jail, as he wouldn’t have been able to reach out to the clerk’s office to determine the total. 

Lloyd said that Kramer is developing an initiative with supervisors of elections so that citizens can verify their voting status if they’re unsure, but no such system exists now. 

“The state has an impenetrable system of records,” said Jonathan Diaz, a voting rights attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, which filed suit against Florida challenging the law requiring the payment of fines and fees. Even veteran county clerks have trouble figuring out who is eligible to vote, according to Diaz.

This bureaucratic morass is “by design because that’s the system that Florida created for this,” he added. The arrests, he said, are “more an indictment of Florida than anything else.”

Intention of Amendment 4

Florida law requires that citizens determine for themselves whether they are eligible to vote. 

But Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition that campaigned successfully for Amendment 4, said that’s not consistent with what voters intended when they restored voting rights to people with felony convictions. 

“This case exemplifies that our work to live up to the promise of Amendment 4 is far from over,” he said, referring to Bolton. “If people in Florida cannot rely on the government for assurances that they can vote, who can they rely on?”  

Florida has no centralized system for someone with a felony conviction to determine whether they owe fines or court costs. For a person with a record in multiple counties, determining eligibility would require contacting multiple county clerks, some of whom do not have any written record of how much outstanding money people owe.

It’s common for people like Bolton, who lack a steady income and experience homelessness, to have unpaid court fines and fees, said Sarah Couture, Florida state director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center. 

“In Florida statutes, judges are not given the ability at sentencing to take someone’s individual situation into consideration and do what is called an ability to pay assessment,” she said. “Most fines and fees are mandatory in assessment and their amounts are as well. Judges have very little discretion when it comes to fines and fees.”

It’s also not unique that Bolton owes $1,500 in attorneys fees, though he is indigent and needed public defenders provided by the state.

“Despite the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is typical for indigent folks to not only pay for their public defense but also for their prosecution,” Couture said. “They even have to pay a $50 application fee for their public defender.”

Across the United States, 18 states charge an upfront application fee for a public defender and 43 states have authorization to charge for a public defender, according to FFJC.  

Citizen complaint

The charges in Alachua County stem from a citizen complaint, according to Lloyd. Florida resident Mark Glaeser notified officials about a list of potential illegal voters last year, according to the Gainesville Sun.  

Lloyd said the state attorney’s office sent the complaint to local law enforcement to investigate, but because the alleged offenses took place in the jail, which is operated by the sheriff, they passed the allegations on to the state. 

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is overseen by the governor and state Cabinet, comprising the independently elected attorney general, chief financial officer, and commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, conducted an eight-month investigation into the allegations.

More voters could also be charged with illegal voting as the investigation continues. And, advocates fear that, like Bolton, those who could be arrested may have no idea they’re even committing a crime. 

“I don’t believe that he knew he was committing fraud,” Bolton’s sister said. “ I do feel like he is a pawn.”

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Kira Lerner
Kira Lerner

Kira Lerner is the democracy reporter for States Newsroom in Washington, D.C. She has previously covered voting, criminal justice and civil rights for publications including Votebeat and The Appeal.

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