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Five Florida inmates are indicted on voter fraud following jailhouse registration drive

Vote Alachua sign
Timothy Williams/WUFT
/
Fresh Take Florida
This Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, photograph shows workers inside the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office preparing for the upcoming presidential election. A Florida prosecutor filed felony voter fraud charges on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, 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 Democratic elections supervisor.

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.

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 Democratic 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 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 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.

The criminal cases offered Republicans in Florida – including Gov. Ron DeSantis – some of the first allegations about very limited numbers of possible fraud involving Democrats.

In a handful of investigations since 2020, most cases have involved Republican voters, including four residents of The Villages, a GOP stronghold, recently arrested and charged with voter fraud, and accusations that Republican canvassers in South Florida illicitly changed the party registrations of elderly, Hispanic Democrats to the GOP last year.

Ongoing investigations have also focused on Duval, Gadsden, Lake and Leon counties. Although Lake County is reliably red, those others are among the few in Florida that lean heavily Democratic.

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, home to progressive Gainesville and the University of Florida.

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 by a percentage of 51-48, or 373,231 votes, but Biden won the overall presidential election nationwide.

Reliably blue, Alachua was among only 12 of Florida’s 67 counties that voted Democratic in that election. Biden carried 63% of the 142,323 votes in Alachua County, one of his strongest performances in the state.

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 Democratic 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 completed 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.

In May 2020 – just before the registration drive in the jail – 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 repaid 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.

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.

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 re-election 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.

Those charged include:

  • Xavier Lavonne Artis, 22, of Gainesville pleaded guilty in March 2019 to felony burglary and auto theft charges in Duval County. The judge withheld his guilty sentence, but he still owes $668 in court fees, according to court records. He was charged this week with providing false voter information when he registered as an unaffiliated voter. He is serving a five-year sentence in prison on the 2019 charges. He was convicted of those crimes in Alachua County and fined more than $16,000 six days before the 2020 primary elections, according to voting records. He still owes $5,764 in that case, court records showed. He voted in the primary in 2020 by absentee ballot from jail, and voted in the general election by absentee ballot that year while he was in prison, records showed.
  • Kelvin Bolton, 55, of Gainesville, who has a lengthy criminal history on drug and theft convictions back to 1988, pleaded no contest and was convicted of felony theft in Alachua County in January 2018. He was sentenced to one year in prison and still owes $671 in court fees, according to records. He has been released from state prison after serving two years on additional charges of theft and battery, and was in the Hamilton County jail this week. He was charged this week in Alachua County with providing false information when he registered as a Republican, and two counts of illegal voting. He voted in the 2020 primary and submitted an absentee ballot in the general election that was not counted, according to voting records.
  • Therris Lee Conney Jr., 33, of Gainesville, who also has a criminal record over more than a decade, pleaded no contest in August 2011 in Alachua County to felony burglary and cocaine charges. He was sentenced to six years in prison and fined $674, court records showed. He still owes $38.84 in that case. He is serving a five-year sentence on drugs and weapons convictions from October 2020, just weeks after he registered to vote. He still owes $621 in those cases. He was charged this week with providing false voter information when he registered in September 2020 as a Democrat, and one count of illegal voting. He voted in the 2020 general election, records showed.
  • Arthur Leonard Lang, 43, of Gainesville was convicted in January 2013 on felony charges of fleeing police after a traffic stop and driving with a suspended license. He was sentenced to 22 months in prison and still owes $1,464 in court fees. He also still owes $671 more after he was sentenced in December 2020 in Alachua County to four years in prison on other felony drug and resisting arrest charges. He was charged with two counts of providing false voter information when he registered as a Democrat, and one count of illegal voting. He voted in the 2020 November election. He is serving a four-year sentence on theft, fraud and drug charges in state prison. 
  • Shuler was charged with providing false voter information when he registered as an unaffiliated voter. He never cast a ballot. He is serving a six-year robbery sentence in state prison.

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.