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5 Florida inmates face voter fraud charges after jailhouse registration drive

The inmates registered to vote in 2020, in the midst of legal wrangling over a state constitutional amendment over felon voting rights.
A state investigation of a voter registration drive in a jail July 2020 by the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office has led to charges against at least five inmates.
A state investigation of a voter registration drive in a jail July 2020 by the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office has led to charges against at least five inmates. [ Fresh Take Florida ]
Published Mar. 31|Updated Mar. 31

GAINESVILLE — A Florida prosecutor has filed felony voter fraud charges against at least five inmates in what is believed to be the first cases resulting from a state investigation into a voter registration drive conducted inside the jail in July 2020 by Alachua County’s elections supervisor.

All the men charged this week had listed the county jail on their voter forms as their home address, according to registration records. At least four voted in the 2020 elections. Each owed a few hundred dollars in unpaid court fees in prior felony cases when they registered as voters or cast ballots in the last presidential election, according to court records, which would have made them ineligible under Florida law.

The men included two Democrats, one Republican and two who did not affiliate themselves with any political party.

“I just knew it was to good to be true and the guy told me it was OK to vote as a felon,” said one of the men, Henry Thomas Shuler III, 38, of Gainesville. In his email from state prison on unrelated charges, Shuler was referring to a former Alachua County election worker, T.J. Pyche, 27, of Gainesville who visited the jail for roughly two hours during a registration drive, according to jail visitor logs.

Pyche, the former director of communications and outreach for the Alachua County supervisor of elections, declined Wednesday in a phone interview to discuss the case. He resigned from the agency in July, shortly after the state investigation began.

Shuler said he was unaware he was being charged with voter fraud until contacted by Fresh Take Florida, a news service operated by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

“I would like to apologize to the voters, poll and to you,” Shuler wrote. He added: “If there (is) anything else I need to do you can let me know.”

In another message he sent Wednesday, Shuler appeared angry and confused: “How I’m being charge(d) with a felony,” he asked.

The other men charged this week did not respond to messages sent to them in prison or jail asking to talk.

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The voter registrations for all the men charged in Alachua County have been revoked. Four of the five are serving unrelated sentences in Florida prisons. The fifth was in jail Wednesday in Hamilton County along Florida’s northern border on a misdemeanor charge related to a missed court date.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement had been investigating complaints since the middle of last year about jail inmates who may have been improperly registered as voters by the office of Kim A. Barton, the supervisor of elections in Alachua County.

Barton, a Democrat, organized a voter registration drive July 15, 2020, at the Alachua County Jail, ahead of that year’s presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Months later, Trump won Florida, but Biden won the overall presidential election nationwide.

Amid complaints submitted last year to the state attorney and sheriff’s office about 18 inmates who registered to vote in 2020, Barton said it was the responsibility of the inmates filling out registration papers to confirm they were eligible. In a statement at the time, she called it “categorically false” that anyone from her office intentionally registered ineligible voters.

“He told me it was OK to vote as a felon, and I ask him would I be in trouble or anything else,” Shuler wrote from prison. He said he was told it was legal for him to register and vote.

Pyche’s lawyer, Ron Kozlowski, said his client was not aware Shuler or the others who registered from the jail that day were ineligible.

The county elections office has not been contacted by prosecutors as of Wednesday, said Aaron Klein, who took over Pyche’s job as director of communications and outreach.

The prosecutor’s office did not immediately respond to phone messages asking about the cases.

After the complaints, the sheriff, Clovis Watson, referred the case to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a state agency that is part of the DeSantis administration.

Under Florida law and court rulings, most felons — except those convicted of murder or sexual offenses — can register and vote after they complete their prison terms and no longer owe any unpaid fines or court fees. It would have been permissible to register jail inmates as voters at the time who were awaiting the outcomes of other criminal cases if their previous felony cases had already been wrapped up.

“If they are not convicted felons, or if they are and meet the requirements provided by Florida statute, they perhaps have the right to vote,” said Klein, the county voting office spokesman. “They absolutely have the right to vote if they are legally able to.”

Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 that allowed felons to vote legally without going through a complex process to have their rights restored. But the law underwent legal challenges that took months to resolve in 2020. The five inmates registered to vote in the middle of that dispute.

Related: Florida ruled felons must pay to vote. Now it doesn't know how many can.

In May 2020, a federal judge in Tallahassee, Robert Hinkle, ruled against Florida’s Republican governor and Legislature and dramatically expanded the number of eligible voters in the state to include former felons unable to pay their court fines and fees.

Among other reasons, Hinkle said it was “not as easy as one might expect” for felons — or Florida election administrators — to know whether or how much they owe in court cases, especially for criminal convictions decades ago.

A federal appeals court on July 1 — days before the jail visits — blocked the trial judge’s ruling, effectively reinstating the ban on convicted felons who hadn’t paid their financial debts. The same appeals court in September 2020 overturned Hinkle’s decision and said Florida was allowed to restrict voting by felons who still owed unpaid fines and fees.

Related: Florida felons lose voting rights case in federal appeals court

Despite a lack of evidence of large-scale voter fraud in the 2020 election, Florida Republicans pushed for more regulation of elections and a full audit of the presidential election. In response, DeSantis proposed a new Office of Election Crimes and Security to investigate election crimes. The Legislature passed a bill creating the unit in March, and DeSantis is expected to sign it soon.

Related: Florida Legislature sends voting bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis' desk

All but one of the men in Gainesville charged this week registered to vote on July 15, 2020. The fifth registered to vote from the jail on Sept. 30, 2020. That was 19 days after the appeals court ruling that restored voting restrictions on felons with unpaid fines or fees.

Submitting false voter registration and illegal voting are third-degree felonies punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Barton was first elected in 2016 to a four-year term and ran for reelection unopposed in 2020. Klein, the spokesman for her agency, said the office has been working with the sheriff to provide voter registration and education for those in jail since 2014.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporters can be reached at cilvento@freshtakeflorida.com and alugo2@freshtakeflorida.com.

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