Florida authorities arrested a black man while he was staying at a homeless shelter and charged him with voting illegally in a case related to Republicans’ drive to stamp out voter fraud.
But Kelvin Bolton’s arrest raises questions about the rollout of Amendment 4, passed by Florida voters in 2018 to restore the franchise to Floridians with felony convictions.
The case is one of the first of its kind since Florida ended Jim Crow-era voting politics that disproportionately affected black citizens. Bolton’s arrest shows how the Constitutional Amendment is now being used as a weapon against the poor who may not realize they are committing a crime.
When law enforcement found Bolton, 55, 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 from Florida, he was on early release but was still serving two and a half years for larceny 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 in prison or sent ballots from prison, but had unpaid fines and fees for previous felony convictions that barred them from voting under a 2019 law, according to the state attorney’s office. Each faces five years in prison and a fine of $5,000.
Bolton currently owes $7,018 in unpaid fines and court costs, including $1,500 in attorney fees and indigent appearances, according to an analysis of court records.
Bolton had registered to vote in July 2020 during a county jail voter registration drive led by Alachua County Democratic Election Supervisor Kim Barton. Bolton voted by mail in August and November 2020.
“If someone in the prison walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, man, do you know you can vote? Even if you’re in jail, Kelvin would vote,” Bolton’s sister Derbra Owete said. “He wouldn’t question that because someone in authority told him he could vote.”
She described her brother as gullible and impressionable. Although she is unaware of an official diagnosis, she believes he has a mental illness. As a child and adult, he rarely had a stable home, she said. He was placed in foster care until his sister obtained custody of him and two of their siblings.
Bolton registered as a Republican, but Owete said she doubted he knew the differences between the two parties.
Dedrick De’Ron Baldwin, another of 10 people facing illegal voting charges stemming from the voter registration drive, told Fresh Take Florida he didn’t know he wasn’t eligible.
“They told us that if we weren’t already convicted of our current crime, we could register and vote,” he wrote from jail to Fresh Take Florida. “They probably registered 65 or 70 people that day, so I don’t understand how I can be accused of election misconduct. All I did was what they told me I was allowed to do.
Barton declined to comment on the voter registration drive, directing all questions to prosecutors. All employees in his office have been cleared of any conduct-related wrongdoing.
Darry Lloyd, chief investigator for Republican State’s Attorney Brian Kramer’s office, said all of those charged with illegal voting committed crimes because they knowingly registered to vote when they were not not eligible, then voted.
“They knew they weren’t allowed to vote and they did it anyway,” Lloyd said. “If you’re a convicted felon and have multiple felonies, then you know you’re not eligible to vote.”
But that’s no longer the law in Florida.
In 2018, nearly two-thirds of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which restores the franchise to most felony convicts who have served the sentences. The amendment originally restored voting rights to about 1.4 million people.
But shortly after the election, the state’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a law requiring those convicted of felonies to pay all fines, fees and restitution associated with their sentence before they can register for vote. After GOP Governor Ron DeSantis signed the law in June 2019, about 774,000 people who could have voted were no longer allowed to vote.
Several voting rights groups have challenged the law, and in a May 2020 opinion, a federal judge said Republicans had created an “administrative train wreck” and ruled those barred from voting could still participate in elections. But a federal appeals court overturned that order. The back and forth has created widespread confusion and left many Floridians unclear about their eligibility to vote.
Fines and fees
The United States Newsroom could not determine what Bolton knew about his unpaid fines and fees. The county jail only allows reporters to schedule calls with inmates with permission from the individual’s attorney, and Bolton’s public defender declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. They said they also didn’t think it was in their client’s interest to comment.
“We are disappointed that the state’s attorney has chosen to prosecute individuals under this law, particularly given the lack of clarity in the law and the difficulty individuals have had in determining whether their sentences would be considered “complete” under the law,” Stacy Scott, the bureau’s senior public defender, wrote in an email.
Most of Bolton’s bills for legal costs were passed on to collection agencies, according to court records. But Bolton’s sister said he hadn’t had a stable address or home for many years and may be difficult to trace.
It is also unclear how Bolton could have determined he owed unpaid charges while in the county jail, as he could not have contacted the clerk’s office to determine the total.
Lloyd said Kramer is developing an initiative with election supervisors so citizens can check their voting status if they’re unsure, but no such system currently exists.
“The state has an impenetrable records system,” said Jonathan Diaz, a voting rights attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, who has filed a lawsuit against Florida challenging the law requiring the payment of fines and penalties. costs. Even former county clerks are struggling to determine who has the right to vote, according to Diaz.
This bureaucratic quagmire is “by design because that’s the system Florida created for it,” he added. The arrests, he said, are “more of a Florida indictment than anything else.”
Intent of Amendment 4
Florida law requires citizens to determine for themselves whether they are eligible to vote.
But Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition that successfully campaigned for Amendment 4, said it didn’t match voters’ intent when they restored voting rights to people convicted of crime.
“This case illustrates that our work to deliver on the promise of Amendment 4 is far from complete,” he said, referring to Bolton. “If the people of Florida can’t rely on the government to make sure they can vote, who can they rely on?”
Florida does not have a centralized system for a person convicted of a crime to determine whether they owe fines or court costs. For someone with a record in multiple counties, determining eligibility would require contacting multiple county clerks, some of whom have no written record of how much people owe.
It’s common for people like Bolton, who don’t have a stable income and end up homeless, to have unpaid fines and court costs, said Sarah Couture, Florida State Director for the Fines and Fees. Justice Center.
“In Florida law, judges do not have the ability in sentencing to take into consideration someone’s individual circumstances and do what is called an assessment of capacity to pay,” she said. “Most fines and fees are mandatory in the assessment and so are their amounts. Judges have very little discretion regarding fines and costs.
Nor is it unique that Bolton owes $1,500 in attorney fees, despite being destitute and in need of state-provided public defenders.
“Despite the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is typical that indigent people not only pay for their public defense, but also for their prosecution,” Couture said. “They even have to pay a $50 filing fee for their public defender.”
In the United States, 18 states charge an initial filing fee for a public defender and 43 states have the authority to charge a public defender, according to the FFJC.
The charges in Alachua County stem from a citizen complaint, according to Lloyd. Florida resident Mark Glaeser tipped off a list of potential illegal voters last year, according to the Gainesville Sun.
Lloyd said the state’s attorney’s office sent the complaint to local law enforcement to investigate, but because the alleged offenses took place in the jail, which is run by the sheriff, they forwarded the allegations in the state.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is overseen by the governor and state cabinet, including the independently elected attorney general, chief financial officer and commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, conducted an eight-hour investigation. months on the allegations.
More voters could also be charged with illegal voting as the investigation continues. And, defenders fear that, like Bolton, those who might be arrested have no idea they are even committing a crime.
“I don’t believe he knew he was committing fraud,” Bolton’s sister said. “I feel like he’s a pawn.”