how Florida is targeting the formerly incarcerated to stop ‘voter fraud’

Just as it had been all day, courtroom 3C at the Alachua county courthouse was mostly empty when members of the jury filed in on Tuesday evening. John Boyd Rivers, a mason who once laid the bricks of the courthouse, stood up to hear whether or not they would convict him on two counts of voter fraud.

Judge James Colaw read the verdict on the first charge: not guilty. Then he read the verdict on the second: guilty. Rivers stood quietly as he listened, a small hole visible in the red long-sleeve shirt he wore to court over khaki pants and work boots.

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It was a result that was unimaginable to Rivers, 45, who voted for the first time in his life in 2020.

Rivers became interested in doing so in February of that year when he was being held in the county jail on a different charge. One day, TJ Pyche, the outreach director at the local elections office, came to his unit with voter registration forms. An eager employee just a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday, Pyche told the inmates that Florida had recently changed its voting laws, making it easier for those with felony convictions to cast a ballot.

Rivers remembers asking Pyche if he could vote while in jail on a violation of his probation. As Rivers remembers it, Pyche said that he could as long as his prior convictions weren’t for murder or sex offenses – crimes that result in the permanent loss of voting rights in Florida. Rivers hadn’t been convicted of those crimes, so he filled out a voter registration application, registering as a Republican, and gave it to Pyche.

When Rivers eventually received a voter registration card in the mail, he believed he was eligible to vote. And he was thrilled, as it made him feel as if he was a part of something.

That fall, he cast his first ballot in the presidential election.

Nearly two years later, Rivers was indicted for voter fraud along with nine other people who registered with Pyche.

In dozens of cases in Florida, prosecutors have filed charges against people with felony convictions who believed they were eligible to vote, received voter registration cards in the mail and then later turned out to be ineligible because of their criminal history.

Many of those cases are being handled by a new statewide unit focused on voter fraud created by Governor Ron DeSantis. But no local prosecutor has brought more charges than Brian Kramer, the elected state attorney in Alachua county, who is prosecuting 10 people, including Rivers.

Voting advocates have decried the prosecutions across Florida as intimidating, designed to dissuade people who are uncertain about their eligibility from voting. And are particularly alarmed at those prosecutions enabled by Pyche, an official elections office employee.

“They set up about a dozen people, essentially, set them up, sent them a voter registration card, encouraged them to register, sent them a voter registration card, and then when they registered, the supervisor of elections office – nobody’s charged from [that office],” said Andrew Darling, Rivers’ lawyer. “It sends a message that we don’t want you voting.”

American states have a long, ugly history of using law enforcement to intimidate and suppress voters

Blair Bowie of the Campaign Legal Center

“American states have a long, ugly history of using law enforcement to intimidate and suppress voters,” said Blair Bowie, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center who specializes in restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions. “This is clearly what is happening in Florida. We should be paying attention because other states may follow suit.”

Kramer, a Republican elected in 2020, dismissed those concerns. He noted his office has started a program to help those with felonies figure out their voting eligibility, though he acknowledged few people had utilized it.

“My job is simply to enforce the law as it’s written by the legislature and if it has a deterrent effect, that’s fine,” he said in an interview in his office in downtown Gainesville.

“All prosecutions are intimidating.”


Rivers’ case was just the second of the voter fraud cases in Florida to make it to trial. A central issue in the case was whether he knew he had to repay all of his outstanding debts related to prior criminal cases before he could vote. For the last few years, that repayment requirement has been the subject of intense scrutiny in Florida.

In 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment allowing people with felonies to vote once they completed their sentence. But in 2019, Republicans in the legislature imposed the new requirement that fines and fees would have to be paid off in order to vote.

Voting rights groups sued, saying the measure was essentially a poll tax. Florida did not have a centralized way to check voters’ eligibility, so it would be extremely difficult for anyone to figure out what they owe. A federal judge struck down the law in 2019, but that ruling was later overturned by a federal appellate court, upholding the law. When the US supreme court allowed the law to go into effect for the 2020 election, Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying Florida had created a “pay-to-vote scheme” that would block people from voting because they were poor.

The Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, created a statewide office focusing on prosecuting voter fraud.

The Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, created a statewide office focusing on prosecuting voter fraud. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“The voting cases happening in Alachua county and across the state put a human face on our broken election system,” said Neil Volz, the deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the main group that pushed a 2018 constitutional amendment expanding voting rights for people with felonies. “The people of Florida deserve better.”

When Rivers registered, he owed thousands of dollars in debts related to prior criminal cases.

Pyche testified that when he visited the jail, he repeatedly said that anyone who wanted to vote had to have completed their sentence and paid off all fines, fees and restitution. A jail employee who accompanied him on his visits corroborated what he said.

But Rivers says he never heard anything about fines and fees. An informational flyer that Pyche carried was also confusing – it said someone could vote when they completed all terms of their sentence, but didn’t specify repaying outstanding debts. Pyche testified that he could not recall meeting Rivers or what specifically he said on the day Rivers registered.

“He didn’t follow the rules,” David Marguiles, the prosecutor who handled the case, said during the trial. “Voting requires effort. Citizenship requires effort. John Rivers did not display effort.”

Rivers faced two criminal charges. One for illegally signing up to vote and a second for illegally voting. Both were punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Rivers’ attorneys argued that he couldn’t be held liable for illegally registering because he hadn’t known about the requirement that he had to repay fines and fees in order to vote. Once he received his voter registration card in the mail, no one had told him he was ineligible.

The local elections office only reviewed his application to make sure that it was completely filled out before issuing him a voter registration card. Under Florida law, the secretary of state’s office is supposed to review all new applications to determine someone’s eligibility. In Rivers’ case, it didn’t raise any issues.

There was much confusion over the law at the time, Kim Barton, the county supervisor of elections, testified during the trial. The secretary of state’s office was backlogged in reviewing applications.

To complicate matters further, in April 2020, after Rivers received his voter registration card in the mail, he pleaded guilty to a new felony and was placed on probation, once again losing his voting rights. But he still didn’t receive any notice from the state telling him that and voted in November.

It wasn’t until October 2021, nearly a year later, that the state notified the Alachua county elections office that Rivers was ineligible and removed him from the rolls.

Prosecutors maintained that Pyche had informed Rivers about the outstanding debt obligations and that it was Rivers’ responsibility to know his eligibility. “They gave a voter registration card to everyone. That doesn’t mean their rights have been restored,” Marguiles, the prosecutor, said.

Had he understood that he needed to repay outstanding debts, Rivers says he wouldn’t have cast a ballot. He can’t afford to repay the thousands of dollars he owes – he is out of work and has eight children. His driver’s license is suspended and he had to rely on his lawyer to get to and from court on Tuesday.

“I can’t give what I don’t have,” he said.


At the end of the trial on Tuesday, the seven-member jury – three white women and four white men – deliberated for around an hour and a half. It had little trouble reaching consensus, said Janet Heern, a 64-year-old retiree who served as the jury foreperson.

When it came to registering, they believed Rivers was genuinely confused. The language on the voter registration form wasn’t clear and they took Rivers at his word when he said that he believed it to be an application that would be rejected if he was ineligible. She also said Rivers should have been able to rely on guidance from Pyche, who was in a position of authority.

But when it came to actual voting, the jurors were less forgiving. After he pleaded guilty to the April felony, Rivers was on house arrest. It wasn’t plausible to Heern and the other jurors that he would continue to think he could vote.

“I vote all the time and I take it seriously. It’s a right but you have to have some responsibility too,” Heern said. She added that she didn’t think Rivers should have been prosecuted in the first place. If prosecutors were going to go after Rivers, she said, they should also bring charges against the supervisor of elections.

After the verdict, Colaw turned to figuring out a sentence. On the one hand, he was concerned that Rivers had been acting at the request of the office of the supervisor of elections. On the other hand, Rivers had a lengthy criminal history and had repeatedly violated his probation.

Earlier in the trial, Marguiles dismissed the suggestion that Pyche and Barton bore responsibility for registering Rivers. “Poor TJ,” he said. “He was trying to do a good thing for the community.”

Barton said she still thought her office did a good job running the program, even though 10 people had been charged with voter fraud. When she was asked whether her office would continue the jail outreach program, she took a short pause before saying softly: “I think I will.”

Ultimately, Colaw sentenced Rivers to two years of supervised probation, requiring him to check in with a probation officer every month, as well as 50 hours of community service.

Rivers, who had been stoic for nearly all of the trial, quietly wiped away tears as Colaw read the sentence. It wasn’t the worst possible punishment. But in the lead-up to the trial, prosecutors had offered him an even better deal – one year of unsupervised probation – if he pleaded guilty to one of the charges. Rivers refused.

“I wasn’t going to get rolled over this time,” he said.

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