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His last night as a prisoner in North Florida, Kelvin Bolton couldn't sleep. Fifty-five years old, with a wispy goatee the same color as the gray flecks in his hair, he was about to get out after serving a 2 1/2-year sentence for theft and battery. The last time he'd seen his brothers and sisters at a big family gathering, he'd marched onto the dance floor ostentatiously, turned away and wrapped his arms around himself to caress his own back. As he swayed goofily to the music, everybody laughed.
Now Bolton was so close to being free and seeing his family again. The next morning, a bright Wednesday in April, he was already dressed in his street clothes and cleared to go when the woman processing his paperwork stopped him.
"The lady said, 'Hold on, you can't go anywhere,'" Bolton remembered in a recent phone call.
Confused, he asked her what was going on, he recalled. There was a warrant out for his arrest for incidents in 2020, she explained gruffly. But that was impossible. He'd been in jail at the time, awaiting his prison stint.
Guards loaded Bolton into a van, then drove an hour and a half south to deposit him in Alachua County Jail.
There, he found out what he'd done wrong.
In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, in a historic ballot initiative that restored the right to vote to most state residents with felony convictions. Until then, Florida had been one of only four states — the others were Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — where people who had committed felonies needed to petition the governor to have their voting rights restored. It was a grim legacy of 19th-century laws passed after the 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote.
Supporters applauded the law as restoring voting rights to what experts estimate is over 1 million people in Florida, about 5% of the population of the state.
But the state's dominant Republican lawmakers quickly installed a financial hurdle to those new rights. The following year, they passed a law to clarify that people convicted of felonies could only vote if they first paid off any money they owed for committing their crimes. The penalty for registering or voting without doing so: a felony charge for voter fraud.
On the surface, the mandate seemed reasonable: Even advocates for Amendment 4 agreed that requiring paying off fines and restitution to victims was just. In Florida, however, that task proved a sometimes insurmountable challenge — one that disproportionately hit Black people. Florida has no centralized database to allow people to figure out what legal financial obligations they owe to the state. Instead, its 67 counties and various state agencies each maintain their own databases. The state also does not track information for federal or out-of-state convictions, which people are also required to pay off before voting.
On top of the fines and restitution, Florida layers on court fees that can run into the hundreds of dollars. Together, a voter's debt can run into the thousands, a financial hole that some may never climb out of.
"That's kind of the bottom line of the absurdity of this — it's Kafkaesque," said Dan Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida. "It's very troubling that we would have state attorneys prosecuting individuals who did not know their status, and there was no way for them to determine their status."
Florida's voting hurdles are part of a national pattern. For years across the country, Republican state lawmakers have been implementing new restrictive voting laws, including reducing access to vote-by-mail ballots, stricter voter identification rules and limits on early voting. These efforts have accelerated since Donald Trump promoted the false claims that Joe Biden stole the 2020 presidential election. Democrats, meanwhile, have pushed to expand voting access.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis boasted that in 2020, Florida, a swing state with a history of contentious elections, "held the smoothest, most successful election of any state in the country," while he also signed a flurry of voting law changes that he said would further strengthen the integrity of future votes. And DeSantis has tacitly endorsed prosecuting people convicted of felonies for voter fraud. In April, he signed a bill establishing the Office of Election Crimes and Security, which will investigate alleged election violations.
Despite the increased scrutiny, voting fraud remains so rare in Florida that it hasn't come close to altering election outcomes. The Florida Department of State in 2020 received 262 election fraud complaints, just 75 of which were referred to law enforcement or prosecuting authorities, according to the agency.
"Florida is an outlier, because the intentional targeting of citizens with felony convictions as a way to undermine democracy has been a throughline in that state," said Nicole Porter, senior director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. "And the attempt to address that, by popular vote, has been undermined by the legislature."
In 2020, a representative of the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections conducted a series of outreach efforts at the local county jail to let inmates know of their new rights and offer to help them add their names to the voter rolls.
During three visits to the jail, the official helped sign up at least 10 inmates, including John Boyd Rivers, Dedrick Baldwin and Bolton.
Rivers, 44, felt a visceral thrill at the prospect. Sitting in his cell in February 2020 facing a battery charge for hitting his wife, he was told by the county representative that he could register to vote. The official, he said, told him that he could disregard the check box on the form that asks whether the applicant has a felony conviction because he didn't have a disqualifying felony. That seemed odd to Rivers, since he had a previous felony conviction. (He subsequently was sentenced for the battery charge.) No one told him anything about needing to pay off his financial obligations before registering to vote, Rivers said, and the jail didn't give him an accounting of those debts when he was later released.
Back at home, Rivers was excited when his voter registration card arrived in the mail. He'd lost his right to vote at 18, he said, after voting just once. Now he could vote in a presidential election. He and his wife went to their polling place, and he cast his vote for Donald Trump.
Bolton, too, was excited to sign up. He also said no one told him he'd need to pay off his debts before casting his ballot. Although he registered as a Republican, he said he decided to vote for Biden.
In all, 10 of the men who the official helped register to vote have been charged with voter fraud on the grounds they were ineligible.
Their alleged illegal voting was first spotted by a citizen who analyzed Florida's voting rolls and then shared the information with the state. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement subsequently launched an eight-month investigation, after which it identified the 10 inmates.
State investigators found that some jail employees remembered the elections official giving clear directions to inmates about having to pay off financial obligations, while others did not. The investigation concluded that the jail visits were "lacking in both quality and longevity" and "showed a haphazard registration of inmates." But the state prosecutor nevertheless proceeded with charges, although not against county officials.
Officials at the Alachua Supervisor of Elections office declined to comment to ProPublica. But Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton denied any wrongdoing in a statement released in June.
Brian Kramer, the state attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Florida, defended his office's prosecutions to ProPublica, saying he believed the 10 men knew they were committing fraud. "I'm not going to say I will prosecute or not prosecute because it's politically popular or unpopular," he said.
Four of the 10 have pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to between 364 days and three years in prison. Bolton and three others have vowed to go to trial, while the remaining two await arraignment. They face charges that carry a penalty of up to five years in prison, five years of probation or $5,000 in fines. Eight of the men are Black, and two are white.
Critics say the charges are unjust and, at a bare minimum, excessive. In nearby Lake County, the state prosecutor declined to bring charges against sex offenders who had registered to vote despite the law prohibiting voting rights restoration for those charged with sex offenses or murder. In April, two white men living in The Villages in Sumter County, an overwhelmingly white county in central Florida, pleaded guilty to each casting two ballots for Donald Trump during the 2020 election. Rather than face prosecution, they entered a pretrial intervention program, under which they must serve 50 hours of community service and attend an adult civics class, among other requirements. Because the men in Alachua County have prior felony convictions, they are ineligible for pretrial intervention and face harsher sentences.
"I'm thinking I'm doing something good for the community, so that's why I chose to try to do it," Bolton said. "It was not malicious — I was not trying to commit a felony of voting fraud. I never would have voted."
Baldwin, 47, who is in prison on a manslaughter conviction, was sentenced to an additional 364 days. He felt "set up," he said, since nobody told him he wasn't eligible.
"There's no way Biden was that important to me to vote for him," he said in an email to ProPublica from prison. "We were flat out tricked into voting."
The elections official who visited the jail denied telling the men that they could disregard the check box and said he warned them that they'd need to pay off their financial obligations, according to a person familiar with the matter who declined to be named because he feared reprisals. The elections official declined to comment to ProPublica on the record.
The voter fraud charges were especially bitter for Rivers. By the time they were filed, Rivers said, he had already used part of his federal stimulus check to pay off more than $3,000 in costs related to his criminal record so he could reinstate his driver's license and return to work.
"I should have known there would be some kind of catch," Rivers said.
Florida's history of felon disenfranchisement dates back to 1838, when the state's first constitution prohibited people convicted of bribery or assorted "high crimes and misdemeanors" from voting. After the Civil War, faced with the prospect of formerly enslaved Black men voting, the state expanded the law so that anyone convicted of a felony lost the franchise. But in 2018, 64% of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, allowing people convicted of felonies, except for murder or sexual offense convictions, to vote.
This embrace of new voters became more complicated the following year when the state legislature passed its law. It required that people convicted of felonies must determine their own eligibility before registering to vote. The Florida Department of Corrections and county detention facilities are required to provide notice to inmates at the time of their release of their outstanding financial obligations.
But it is unclear if all of the facilities do so.
Florida charges those convicted of crimes with an array of fines and fees, some of which statutorily cannot be eliminated or reduced. Defendants facing felony charges are assessed $100 to use a public defender, as well as a $100 prosecution fee. At least one person already sentenced in the Alachua County cases has been charged an additional $671 for his voting fraud charges on top of the financial obligations he already owed.
Finding out what someone owes is time-consuming and expensive. An analysis led by Traci Burch, a political science professor at Northwestern University, tried to determine the legal financial obligations owed by a random sample of 153 Florida residents convicted of felonies and found consistent information for only three of them. Counties often keep poor records, have cumbersome websites and employ unhelpful clerks.
What's more, it can cost money merely to find out how much money you owe. Four in 10 Florida counties charged either a payment or processing fee to look at their databases, and 15% charged a fee to access certain records, according to Burch's research.
In 2020, Smith, the Florida political scientist, estimated that just over 1 million people would be eligible to vote under Amendment 4. Of that number, about 77% had outstanding legal financial obligations, rendering them ineligible to vote under Florida's new law until they paid their debts. Four out of five Floridians with felony convictions owed at least $500 in fines and fees, Smith's analysis found. More than 59% owed more than $1,000.
The state legislature immediately disqualified about 750,000 people from being able to vote when it passed its law requiring people convicted of felonies to pay their debts first, Smith estimated. And the new law's impact was felt much more harshly by Black people, who faced greater fines and fees: 26% of white Floridians with a felony conviction would be eligible to get their voting rights restored under the new requirement, but only 18% of Black people, according to Smith.
In May 2020, a district court judge ruled that parts of the law were unconstitutional and that the law had established a pay-to-vote system. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling the following September, saying it was in the state's power to require the payoffs and the law didn't violate people's rights. The state Supreme Court has also issued an advisory opinion that deemed the law legitimate.
Unsurprisingly, the number of people with felony convictions who have registered to vote has fallen far short of what supporters hoped. More than 85,000 such people registered in Florida ahead of the 2020 election.
Supporters of the law say that it's only fair to have people fulfill their full sentences, including paying any crime-related debts. Some state attorneys, including Kramer, the attorney prosecuting the Alachua cases, have also developed processes within their jurisdictions by which people with felony convictions can verify their voting eligibility or request to reduce their fines and fees.
Felons who have not yet registered to vote can also appeal to the state to have certain fees reduced or eliminated, said Republican State Sen. Jeff Brandes, the sponsor of the law demanding the payoffs before voting rights restoration.
"We truly believe there are people who are indigent that will just simply never be able to pay," he said. "The court only collects a fraction of what is given out anyways. And so there should be a way for the state to grant some grace or for the court to grant some grace and provide people flexibility."
Kelvin Bolton has been sitting in the Alachua Council Jail since April, waiting for his case to proceed.
He's been in and out of the system since he was 16, piling up a long record of mostly nonviolent crimes, most recently for stealing a car, groping a woman in a store and taking cigarettes from a Dollar General.
He aims this time to keep a vow he made to his family and himself to stay straight. He said he is frustrated that the prosecutor subsequently created a program for people convicted of felonies to check their voting eligibility while he and the others are still facing charges.
"Why would they want to keep charging us for something that they're in the wrong for?" he said. "The state is in the wrong for what they did to us."