Tag: felon disenfranchisement
How Idaho Entrapped An Ex-Offender Into Voting Illegally

How Idaho Entrapped An Ex-Offender Into Voting Illegally

Laurie Erickson just came home from the Ada County Jail in Boise, Idaho.

Detained since March 1 of this year, Erickson admits she violated the law, although without any of the required intent.
Erickson voted in the 2020 presidential elections when she was on parole at the time for possession of a controlled substance, so she pleaded guilty to one count of felony illegal voting/interference with an election on June 23, 2022 which subjected her to a maximum prison sentence of five years and/or a $50,000 fine. She’s now serving a three-year sentence of probation for the new charge.

Erickson was working as a food delivery driver when parole officers picked her up. She’s back at it already, having dropped off orders from Chicago Pizza and Pojo’s Family Fun Center within an hour or two of walking out of the jail.

While she was detained, Erickson lost three months of income, though, and feared she’d lose her home. She didn’t, but only because her landlord likes her and her boyfriend, according to Mark Renick, Erickson’s friend and director of re-entry services at St. Vincent de Paul Southwest Idaho, a charity affiliated with the Catholic Church. If the landlord wasn’t fond of them, she’d likely be homeless right now.

So some luck wove its way into the plot line of Laurie’s recent past. But it's not all easy. Erickson has three months of back rent to pay and the court fees and costs stemming from the last three months total $1395.50 which she has to pay by July 2025, which is hard since that first shift delivering food she made $38.88. Only $100 of the total assessment is a punitive fine according to Renick.

Erickson’s story seems both cautionary — ineligible people shouldn’t cast ballots — and excessive — almost $15 per day for a charge that the state of Idaho didn’t really want to incarcerate her for (they had to take her into physical custody without a warrant because parolees aren’t allowed bond when charged with a new crime). It was an offense against the public order of Ada County, Idaho that the the Gem State ultimately valued at a whopping C-note.

The story seems unfortunate and preventable until one realizes that Erickson never sought the voter registration form that kicked off this mess. She received the form in the mail and returned it to get an absentee ballot; Idaho was one of 25 states where absentee ballots had to be procured by the voters themselves; counties were allowed to inform residents of this any way they chose and Ada County mailed out registration packets.

Erickson says she probably wouldn't have voted if the form didn’t arrive at her home unsolicited.

It’s not as if she was on a hunt for the form and just happened to pick one up at the parole office, where they’re available. Erickson says she saw signs when she was incarcerated on the original drug charge that said that once all fines and fees are paid and someone’s been out a year, they’re eligible to vote.

The signs, she says, were misleading because, when combined with the appearance of a voter registration form that arrived after she had been home for a year and paid off all of the legal financial obligations imposed by Idaho’s criminal legal system, they led her to believe she wasn’t committing a crime. She had no intent to break the law.

Initially, Erickson’s story sounds like entrapment. In Idaho, entrapment is an affirmative defense, with the burden of proof resting on the defendant who claims it. All Erickson would have had to do is prove that a state agent gave her the idea of voting --I'm looking at you, registrar who ordered forms mailed to residents because of the pandemic -- and that a state agent persuaded her to commit the crime. And she would have to show that she wasn’t ready and willing to vote as an ineligible person.

She could have tested this at trial, but Erickson was advised, incorrectly, by other inmates that there’s no entrapment defense in Idaho which is why she entered her plea of guilty last month.

Disenfranchised people voting isn’t a huge problem, numbers-wise. The conservative Heritage Foundation compiled a database of 1365 instances of proven illegal voting. Of those 1365, only 278 are for voting by an ineligible person. And of those 278 instances of voting by an ineligible person, only 77 were ballots cast by a person who was convicted of a felony whose rights had not been restored. Slightly over five percent of illegal votes are cast by people who’ve been disenfranchised by their status as convicted felons.

The larger problem is how situations like Erickson’s discourage positive and lawful conduct. “We are law abiding citizens and they act like we are scum because we voted,” she told me.

That’s a problem because voting correlates with lower recidivism. Offenders in states that permanently disenfranchise people are 10 percent more likely to reoffend. Back when former Florida Governor Charlie Crist re-enfranchised 155,315 offenders, less than one percent of the restored citizens recidivated, very likely because the ones who voted weren’t subject to arrest when they performed their duty as citizens.

In fact the better behaved parolees are more likely to land in a mess like this. According to Los Angeles attorney Arash Hashemi, who represents people on probation and parole, it’s the good parolees who can most easily fall victim to erroneous instruction.

"If you're actually someone who's trying to rehabilitate yourself and, you know, be a productive member of society, you're actually going to put your faith in your parole officer [and other government officials.]...So if they tell you you can go vote and you listen to them, then I think for them to later on say, no, you committed a crime is unfair,” said Hashemi in an interview.

Erickson should have done more due diligence and made an inquiry to her parole officer. But she didn’t see the need to do so because she was mailed the form. And even checking with a parole officer wouldn't have been dispositive. In North Carolina, where the voting rights status of people on probation and/or parole remains in limbo pending litigation, registration forms are still available at parole offices, where parolees may end up violating the law and the terms of their release if they vote.

You'd be surprised. A lot of people who were incarcerated when they get out, they're not that sophisticated with the everyday procedures that you and I take for granted," Hashemi said.

Erickson will be eligible to vote again in Idaho in 2025, after the 2024 presidential election. “I know all I want to know now…enough that I’ll never vote again,” she texted me.

It’s not the best news I’ve heard from someone who’s just been set free.

If you would like to donate to the Facebook fundraiser to help Laurie Erickson get back on her feet, please do so here.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

If This Initiative Gets On The Ballot, Florida Could Be Changed Forever

If This Initiative Gets On The Ballot, Florida Could Be Changed Forever

A grassroots campaign to amend Florida’s constitution to restore the voting rights of upwards of 1.5 million Floridians who have been convicted of non-violent felonies and completed their sentences is poised to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.

By Wednesday, the Florida Department of State has certified more than 745,000 petition signatures of the 766,000 needed to get on the ballot. The proposed constitutional amendment also has to meet signature thresholds in 14 legislative districts and has done so in 12 of them, campaign organizers said.

“In total, we submitted well over 1.1 million petitions to the supervisors of elections offices all across the state, from Pensacola to Key West,” campaign manager Jackie Lee said on a conference call Tuesday. “And all the petitions, we think, where we needed to verify, were also all in by December 29th, to ensure that we could make the ballot. We all know they needed to be verified by February first. So because of all of your hard work, we had them in on time. We’re… actually even excited to submit a couple right after that date because they kept on coming in from all around the state.”

The felon rights restoration effort is one of America’s most important electoral initiatives in 2018. More than 10 percent of Florida’s voting-age population, 1.7 million residents, have lost their voting rights under the nation’s most punitive felon disenfranchisement law—a statute that has its roots in the Old South’s racist Jim Crow culture.

“This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation,” the legal petition states. “The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the governor and cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case-by-case basis.”

Florida is the third most populous state, with slightly more than 20 million people. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 1.2 percent, which was slightly less than 113,000 votes, to win its 29 Electoral College votes. Should 60 percent of Floridians—the threshold for passage—who vote next fall approve the constitutional amendment, it could deeply alter the state’s politics as well as its criminal justice system.

The campaign’s organizers, led by Desmond Meade, a former felon who became a lawyer, are casting their effort as a redemption-steeped crusade to give a second chance to all of those who have done their time for non-violent crimes. In a teleconference organized by Floridians for a Fair Democracy Tuesday, he repeatedly emphasized this was a moral crusade and avoided any discussion of the political consequences.

“I want to make sure we are oriented right back where we started from,” Meade told the 150 activists, including clergy, on the call. “When each and every one of you made a decision to be involved in this campaign, it was based around people. It was based around the personal stories of your family members and your friends who were looking for second chances in Florida. And I think it is this orientation that has not only gotten us this far, but will take [us] across this finish line. It’s not about anything else. It’s not about politics. At the core of this, it’s about everyday all-American citizens, who just want a second chance.”

Meade’s framing, which reflects his life story, has resounded because Florida has so many ex-felons who cut across society. Only 30 percent are black, campaign organizers said, and a great many were victims of overzealous drug war prosecutions. Evidence of that deep resonance can be found in the fact that nearly a quarter-million of the petition signatures gathered were collected from volunteers, not paid circulators.

“We are very confident with moving forward with the campaign,” said Lee. “As of right now before the call, we are at 745,000 verified of the 766,200 that we need. So we are approaching that overall number and we are also verified in 12 of the 14 [legislative] districts that we need. So we are marching forward.”

The campaign’s next phase is more public education and growing their grassroots team, the organizers said. In coming days, Floridians for a Fair Democracy will launch a new campaign website and social media pages. More importantly, the organizers plan on calling all of the 1.1 million voters who signed their petition and urging them to talk to friends and family about the cause—as well as recruiting for the fall’s get-out-the-vote effort.

“At the end of the day, our campaign is not driven by how we think people will vote but whether or not they have the opportunity to vote after they have paid their debts to society,” Meade reiterated. “This campaign is not driven by race; it’s driven by an all-American message. Because we understand that this issue has impacted all lives from people from all walks of life… If we can keep the heart of what this campaign originated on, and knowing that this is what will take us across the finish line, I think that we be well positioned to transform this state and this country.”

When asked about opposition and roadblocks, Meade replied to stay focused on what they can control. For example, Florida’s Constitutional Revision Commission, which meets once every 20 years and is convening this month, has been discussing felon re-enfranchisement amid hundreds of other proposed changes. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who dramatically reversed his Democratic predecessor’s efforts to restore ex-felon voting, appoints about half of that body’s members.

As the Naples Daily News reported last fall as the voting rights restoration campaign was gaining ground and Constitutional Revision Commission was gearing up to meet, Scott has single-handedly thwarted felon re-enfranchisement.

“Scott’s directives require felons to wait an additional five to seven years after completing parole and probation before they can apply to have their rights restored,” it noted. “Offenders must be crime-free during those years, and the application is tedious. Felons must obtain certified copies of the charging document, judgment and sentence for each of their felony convictions. That process can be difficult for people whose crimes were committed decades ago. After being submitted, the application takes several years to process. Offenders who have committed more serious crimes must travel to Tallahassee for an in-person hearing before the clemency board. If rejected, applicants must wait two years before reapplying.”

Meade and other organizers emphasized their effort is aimed at giving non-violent offenders a second chance. Indeed, the vast majority of former felons in the state have not been convicted of murder or sexual assaults. The FBI’s 2016 crime statistics for Florida, for example, list 1,100 murders and 13,100 rapes. Those figures contrast with its nearly 1.7 million former felons, the figure given by the Washington-based Sentencing Project.

As the constitutional amendment is poised to clear November’s ballot access hurdle, Meade reminded everyone to keep their eyes on the prize—and on the narrative of personal redemption, paying civic debts and regaining full citizenship rights.

“We have no control or power over what the Constitutional Revision Commission does,” he told one caller who feared a competing proposal.

“What we are engaged in with this citizens’ initiative is one of the purest forms of democracy at work, right? We are hedging our bets on the people,” he continued. “This is a people’s campaign and regardless of what we think the Constitutional Revision Commission may or may not do… we are focusing primarily on the efforts of people like you and 1 million other Floridians that say this is the way they want to go.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).