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A Government Official Helped Them Register. Now They’ve Been Charged With Voter Fraud.

Ten Florida men with felony convictions have been charged with voter fraud because prosecutors say they registered and voted illegally. Critics say the punishments are unfair.

John Boyd Rivers may have unknowingly committed voter fraud after being told by a county representative that he could register to vote,credit: Octavio Jones for ProPublica.

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.

 

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“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.

He’d voted.

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.

Kenyetta Carmela Artis holds a photo of her son, Xavier Lavell Kevon Artis, 22, who is incarcerated at the Alachua County Jail for registering to vote while ineligible. Credit: Octavio Jones for ProPublica

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.”