Nine Election-Related Arrests In Florida: A Case Of Voter Fraud Or Voter Suppression?

As soon as Judy Ann Crumitie answered the banging on her door one November morning last year, police officers and FBI agents streamed into her home, some with their guns drawn and trained in her direction.

They barked, Did she have any weapons, Crumitie recalled.

The next thing she knew officers were rushing through her house searching for who knows what. She'd know soon enough.

"I was just trying to help the people vote," Crumitie, 51, told the Huffington Post's Black Voices.

Crumitie, of Madison, Fla. -- along with eight other people -- was arrested and charged with voter fraud in connection to a local school board election in 2010. The incident came just months after a new law was passed in Florida that made it illegal for absentee ballots to be sent anywhere other than a voter's registered address.

Lawyers for Crumitie would not elaborate on the circumstances of her arrest or the charges. But they said that the incident and the way officials handled the investigation and ultimately her arrests -- including entering her home with guns drawn and without a search warrant -- are part of a broader political movement across the state and country to suppress poor and minority voters.

Madison County, a rural county not too far from Tallahassee, is more than 40 percent black, and, according to reports, Democrats outnumber Republicans three to 1.

"I think that through the nation this past year we have seen a lot of laws that are aimed at disenfranchising African American voters," said Jasmine Rand, a lawyer representing Crumitie. "This is just another one of those laws that falls in line with the other laws passed under the guise of voter protection, but the true aim is voter suppression."

Last year a number of state legislatures, including Florida -- led mostly by Republicans -- introduced or passed a series of stringent new voter identification laws. In some cases the laws eliminate early voting, restrict third-party voter registration drives, or require voters to show government-issued identification at the polls.

Democrats accuse Republicans of using the laws to disenfranchise key Democratic voting blocs, particularly racial minorities, the poor and the elderly, in advance of the 2012 presidential elections. Republicans claim the new laws are needed to prevent voter fraud, though there seems to be little evidence such fraud is taking place.

In Florida last year a law was also passed that limited early voting, which begins begins 10 days before an election and ends on the third day before any state or federal election. But the law also limited voting on the Sunday before Election Day, when, historically, a disproportionate number of Democrats, blacks and Latinos vote.

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, more than 32 percent of those who voted early on that last Sunday before Election Day in 2008 were African American, and nearly 24 percent were Latino. Moreover, according to a report released by the Florida State Senate, 52 percent of people who voted early in the 2008 election were registered Democrats.

The Justice Department has also weighed in, blocking new voting laws in South Carolina -- where the next GOP primary will occur on Saturday -- and eyeing laws passed in other states with a history of voter suppression among minority groups, such as Texas, where GOP candidate Rick Perry serves as governor.

While lawyers for Crumitie and the others arrested in Florida -- a group that came to be known in local civil rights circles as the Madison 9 -- declined to give details of what their clients allegedly did, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said the charges were clear cut.

Crumitie was charged with four felony counts of voter fraud and one count of providing a false report to law enforcement authorities, according to the FDLE.

Crumitie is now fighting the fraud charges and suing the FDLE in what her lawyers described as an "offensive approach to prevent other voters' rights from being infringed upon."

Rand would not elaborate on Crumitie's involvement in the 2010 election because of the criminal charges against her, but said that her client was not aware of the new voting laws at the time and that she was not part of an organized voter registration organization.

"She had no clue," Rand said. "She simply wanted to help people vote."

Crumitie, who is African American, choked back tears during a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon, in which she described her feelings simply as "devastated."

"That really shook me," Crumitie said. Since the episode, she said she is reluctant to cast a vote at all.

In the 2010 Madison County school board election, which Crumitie and the others were arrested in connection with, the winning candidate, Abra Hill Johnson, won with what officials described as an "extraordinarily disproportionate amount of absentee votes."

According to a story by the Sunshine State News published just days after the arrests, the investigation was launched after Johnson defeated Ricky Henderson 675 votes to 647 votes in a runoff election.

Henderson then filed a complaint with state's division of elections, which contacted the FDLE.

Henderson, who is white, took a 53 percent majority among voters in the runoff election, while Johnson had 72 percent of the absentee votes, according to the Sunshine State News account pulled from an affidavit for Johnson's arrest.

The story went on to say that a poll worker told investigators there were several instances where voters arrived at the polls only to find out they had already voted. And another voter who arrived to find that he had already cast a ballot told investigators that "Tina Johnson had brought him a ballot and helped him vote because he didn't understand it."

According to the FDLE, the investigation revealed that Johnson, her husband and others approached prospective voters and asked them to sign an absentee ballot request form. Then an alternate address, one other than the person's own, was written on the form without their consent. The ballots were never mailed to the registered voters, the FDLE has said.

The Johnsons retrieved the ballots from the third party locations, brought the ballots to the voter, waited for the person to vote, and then returned the ballots to the Supervisor of Elections, according to a release on the FDLE website. In some instances, it said, the voters were only presented with the absentee ballot signature envelope to sign and never received the actual ballot to cast their vote.

Johnson, 43, was charged with 10 counts of fraud in connection with casting votes, and two counts of absentee ballots and voting violations. Her husband Ernest Sinclair Johnson, Jr., 45, was charged with 11 counts of fraud in connection with casting votes, one count of corruptly influencing voting, and one count of perjury by false written declaration, according to the FDLE. Jada Woods Williams, 34, Madison County Supervisor of Elections, was charged with 17 counts of neglect of duty and corrupt practices for allowing the distribution of these absentee ballots, contrary to Florida state statute.

Christy Gordon, a spokeswoman with the FDLE, said that because of the active criminal investigation against Crumitie, Johnson and the others, the agency would not give further detail on exactly what Crumitie's crimes were or comment beyond the information found on its website regarding the case.

"We're going to refer all other questions to the State Attorney's office," Gordon said.

State Attorney William Meggs said that he doesn't know anything about any nefarious partisan or racial motives behind the charges, just that the law requires a ballot to be sent to a voter's home address and nowhere but their home address.

When Meggs was asked for clarification of the charges against Crumitie and the others, he declined.

"I'm not going to give you more clarification. That's what we do in court," he said.

Robert Augustus Harper, a lawyer for Johnson, said something about the charges and arrests seem amiss.

"Well it's a mess and it has the smell of the 60s and 50s in it," Harper said this morning. "It's strange the only wrong-doers that could be found were African Americans."

Harper, who also would not elaborate on his client's alleged role in the fraud, said of the new law, "I think everyone is confused."

"I don't see the correlation between the facts as I know them and the charges as I see them," Harper said. "Their claim is that she violated this code, this elections code and I don't want to get into litigating the case on the telephone or in the newspaper so I don't want to go in much deeper."

Meanwhile, he said Johnson is "trying to get on with her life."

"You charge people with fraud who are very much trying to do the right thing and the most fundamental element of a Democracy, voting, and get charged with a crime because they exercised their most fundamental right in a Democracy," Harper said. "It's disconcerting to say the least."

Rand said the other eight people arrested as part of the investigation got similar treatment as Crumitie, her client: guns drawn and officers with the FDLE and the FBI storming their homes without search warrants. Some of the women arrested were "pillars in their community," but have since lost their jobs.

During an interview yesterday, Crumitie seemed genuinely perplexed about the whole thing.

"I was trying to help the people vote, for Martin Luther King and the civil rights that they fought for us to do, and we done just that," she said. "When they came to my house to arrest me they come to my house and they had guns drawn on me. I didn't know it was against the law to vote."