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The now-dropped charges of voting fraud against Marsha Ervin were probably the result of a dubious 2020 registration campaign

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    Published October 18, 2023 at 4:59 PM EDT

    The voting fraud charges against a 69-year-old Tallahassee woman have been dropped. The reason: there was little proof Marsha Ervin intended to vote illegally.

    Ervin was still on probation when she registered to vote in 2020. That meant she had not completed all the terms of her sentence—which are part of the requirements for felons to regain their voting rights. But Ervin’s attorney, Mutaqee Akbar, says Ervin was under the impression everything she did was correct, because she received a registration card.

    “Her thoughts were, ‘I can vote’ and clearly it’s okay because they sent me my [registration] card, they sent me this mail in ballot, nobody stopped me from voting.'"   

    Leon Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley says Ervin may have been registered by a third- party group. During the 2020 election cycle, at least one organization was blanketing Florida and the rest of the nation with official-looking registration forms. Those forms were sent to eligible and ineligible voters, dead people, even children and some pets.

    Speaking to NPR in 2020, Clay County Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambliss said of that effort: "All of that snowballs because you then start getting into the conversation of 'Well if this isn't accurate, I wonder if my vote's accurate?"

    Chambliss said at the time of that report that the third-party group was muddying the waters for real election officials and voters, because "some voters think the letters have come from his office, not an outside group."

    In court documents related to the dropped charges, State Attorney Jack Campbell wrote:

    "The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did an exhaustive investigation into this case. However, since the arrest was made, the undersigned has spoken to two key witnesses. The first is the defendant’s probation officer. She provided the State two forms that review the conditions of probation with the Defendant. One was signed on October26, 2022, and explicitly explains that that the offender could not legally vote while on probation. The other was signed on November 28, 2018, and does not show this language. The voting incidents were between these two dates and there is no indication that she has voted since being provided this information.

    "More problematically, the undersigned has spoken to Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley. Mr. Earley indicated that upon his review of the submitted registration forms, he believes that this was an innocent mistake. Apparently, there is a group that sends persons like Ms. Ervin forms indicating how that can re-register to vote. These forms appearance is such that many would believe them to be coming from the Supervisor of Elections Office. The Defendant’s application seems to be one of these forms. Hence, the evidence is there is no witness who can testify to the defendant being told that she was ineligible to vote and some evidence to corroborate her assertions that she believed she could lawfully vote. This office cannot proceed with a fraud prosecution with such a lack of evidence to establish intent."

    Akbar says the ongoing disconnect between the Florida Department of State (which is responsible for the overall administration of elections), local elections supervisors (who are responsible for their counties) and the state courts system (which possess the proper records) continues to be a problem for felons who are looking to have their voting rights restored.

    There is no centralized database of eligibility, leaving it up to those seeking to register to vote to ensure they're legally able to do so. But navigating multiple systems that don't interact with one another is hard. Akbar also faults the organizations that advocated for the amendment—saying they didn't do enough voter education after the campaign for Amendment 4 was over.

    "I think the ball was also dropped by all these organizations that advocated for and fought for—including some I was involved with—not continuing to educate people about what does this mean? How can we educate people about going out to vote and it not be considered voter fraud?...Making it clear about what you're allowed to do, who is actually eligible to register as well," said Akbar, who is President of the Tallahassee Branch of the NAACP, one of several organizations that backed 2018's Amendment 4.

    Ervin was arrested at 3 a.m. in the morning in late September, after law enforcement officers knocked on her door, stating there was a warrant for her arrest. The arrest, and the timing of it, drew widespread outrage. Ervin was released from prison in 2018 after being convicted of charges stemming from the 2015 death of her mother. At the time of her original charges, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that Ervin stated that her mother hadn't seen a doctor in 15 years because of the family's religious beliefs.

    Earley, who is past president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections Association, says there haven't been any substantial talks between the state, local supervisors and clerks of courts since earlier this year. He supports Akbar's idea of adding additional language to voter registration forms that ask people to identify whether they have a felony and if they'd like to receive an advisory opinion on whether they can vote. In the absence of any centralized system or long-term solution, Earley believes that may be the best option.


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