MADISON — Lawyers for six of the nine defendants accused in an alleged voting fraud scheme in northern Florida asked a judge to dismiss the charges Friday, saying the state is attempting suppress black voter turnout by criminalizing technical election law violations.
The charges stem from a Madison County School Board election two years ago that was decided by 28 votes. The defendants include the winning candidate and the county's top election official.
Circuit Judge Julian Collins said he would set another hearing on the motions to dismiss once the six defendants file formal motions and the state has a chance to reply in writing. Only one defendant had filed before Friday's pretrial hearing.
"This has the potential to chill and intimidate, and it has," defense lawyer Robert Cox said afterward. "The black community in Madison is now afraid to participate in the political process."
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and FBI conducted a yearlong investigation in the rural county, but no federal charges were filed. The defendants, all black, were arrested last November.
FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger declined to comment on the voter suppression claims. The agency previously has denied defense allegations that defendants and witnesses were threatened or intimidated.
The case of Supervisor of Elections Jada Woods Williams, who faces misdemeanor negligence charges, has been moved about 50 miles west to Tallahassee at her request.
The other defendants, including School Board member Abra Hill Johnson, are charged with felonies, each punishable by up to five years in prison. They include fraud in connection with casting a vote and making false reports to law enforcement authorities.
Johnson and her husband, Ernest Sinclair Johnson, allegedly sought absentee ballots on behalf of other voters but had them sent to third-party locations instead of the voters' homes. They then took the ballots to the voters and returned them to the elections office after voters had filled them out, according to the FDLE. Other defendants were accused of obtaining absentee ballots for voters without their knowledge.
Two defendants are in a pretrial diversion program after reaching deferred prosecution agreements with the state.
"We're making every effort to try to resolve this case short of a trial," State Attorney Willie Meggs said.
He said prosecutors have offered the other defendants the same deal, except for Abra Johnson.
"We feel like they were used," Meggs said.
The remaining felony defendants including the Johnsons have refused plea deals as a matter of principle because they don't believe they did anything wrong, said defense lawyer Jami Coleman. She compared their actions to running a stop sign.
"Essentially what the state's trying to do is bootstrap a criminal voter fraud statute to a violation of a civil statute," Coleman said.
It would be the first time that's been done in Florida if Collins refuses to dismiss the charges, she said.