Voting while paroled
Edward Jefferson’s participation in last year’s recall election could earn him six years in jail
“Why is voting even a criminal act?” asked Edward Jefferson, a local musician, signature gatherer and law-enforcement lightning rod. His question, in response to a 2004 criminal suit accusing him of four felony counts of voter fraud, has attracted the attention of ACLU and NAACP representatives who met Jefferson in legal clinics as he began to prepare his defense.
While local voters’-rights advocates ponder whether voting while on parole should be a jail-worthy offense, Jefferson characterizes this case as punishment brought on by a series of previous scuffles with law-enforcement officers, one of which landed him in jail already, in 2003.
Carrying a stack of files, complete with references to election codes and past legal cases upholding citizens’ rights, Jefferson, the founder of Up from the Roots, a Latin-music ensemble, claimed that all he was doing on November 25, 2003, was collecting signatures when deputies told him to move his table out of sight—a request he attributes to a simple wardrobe decision.
On November 25, Jefferson put on a T-shirt reading “Danger: Educated Black Man.” On parole at the time for drug possession and intent to sell, he said, he’d been handing out voter-registration cards and getting signatures of petitions in front of a courthouse for weeks, with the permission of an assistant courthouse commander who since has left his post. But all of a sudden, said Jefferson, his table, his proximity to the door and his very presence irritated sheriff’s deputies. A number of deputies tried to convince him to move farther from the entrance, and when he refused, Jefferson said, a dozen deputies participated in his arrest.
Lt. Joe Doupe, the current assistant commander for the courthouse, could not immediately recall the details of Jefferson’s detention, but he did claim that law-enforcement officers “had many problems with Mr. Jefferson blocking doors. … He set up his table directly in front of the entrance doors.”
According to Jefferson, after nine days in jail without arraignment, and with only the vaguest idea of the charges, he was released.
Although Jefferson thinks his arrest was inappropriate, an article from the California State University, Sacramento, newspaper The State Hornet, dated November 19, 2003, suggested that Jefferson had been involved in prior law-enforcement confrontations. The article claimed that Jefferson had filed a complaint against the university for depriving him of his freedom-of-speech rights by forcing him to move his table and other materials away from the doors of a university building. According to the article, Jefferson’s complaint also demanded $3,300 in payment.
After being released from jail in November, Jefferson continued to set up a table, collect signatures and register voters—but at other locations. At the same time, the county launched an investigation into Jefferson’s criminal background. On June 10, 2004, Jefferson was arrested again, this time outside the William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse, and the charges were clear: voter fraud.A January 2004 investigation report from the secretary of state’s office stated that Lt. Leslie Brown of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department had filed a complaint with the election-fraud investigation unit. She had heard that Jefferson—who was requesting permission to set up his table at the Ridgeway courthouse—was a parolee arrested at the county courthouse in November. The fraud unit’s investigation confirmed that Jefferson had “registered to vote in Sacramento County on three different occasions within the last six months. It was also discovered that Edward Jefferson had voted in the Statewide Special Election on 10/07/03.”
The report went on to detail an interview with Jefferson: “Mr. Jefferson said that he thought it was only an infraction, similar to a jaywalking ticket if you register and vote while on parole.”
Having completed his parole for drug offenses in January 2004, Jefferson now finds himself facing much more than a ticket. If the case goes to trial, he could be sentenced to a maximum of six years. He is now considering a settlement for one year’s court probation and a month of community service, which Deputy District Attorney Doug Hamilton characterized as a “very, very favorable offer.”
Seemingly invigorated by the legal wrangling, Jefferson lightheartedly admits that he signed three separate voter-registration cards—one for each address, because he moved multiple times—and that each card asked him to confirm that he was not on parole for a felony.
Asked why he registered in spite of knowing that it was illegal, he said simply, “I wanted to.” As a civic-minded individual, Jefferson said he just wanted to participate in the election process.
“The question isn’t whether I knew it was against the law,” said Jefferson. “The question is: Why are they coming at me with the intensity they are?”
Jefferson’s case does appear to be unusual in the California courts, a fact confirmed by numerous attorneys and Hamilton, the deputy district attorney who filed the case. In 10 years, he said, he’s only seen one other voter-fraud case.
Peter Brixie, a criminal-defense attorney who heard about Jefferson through his work with a local legal clinic, said that he’d only seen one such case in almost 20 years of criminal law, and that one had ended in acquittal. “It sounds incredibly petty for [the district attorney’s office] to do such a thing,” he said.
James Schwab, a board member of the Northern California office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), likely would agree. According to him, disenfranchising parolees and those in prison is the last vestige of an outdated Jim Crow system limiting the opportunities for African-Americans to participate in the legal process.
In California, convicted felons are eligible to vote once they’re off parole, but currently, 32 states, including California, deny the right to vote during the actual parole period. Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project claimed in his 1999 book, Race to Incarcerate, that 8.7 percent of California’s African-American males were unable to vote because of disenfranchisement laws.
David DeLuz, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also finds Jefferson’s case extreme. “My concern is, with all the other crazy things going on, we’re prosecuting someone for registering to vote. … Here’s a guy on parole, but he’s trying to do something right.”
Both the local NAACP and ACLU chapters are looking for ways to assist Jefferson if he decides to take his case to trial. If Jefferson is found guilty in trial, both organizations may submit letters to the court to help reduce his sentence.
In the meantime, Jefferson, who’s still angry about the original arrest and the law-enforcement officers who’ve kept him from setting up his table at various public buildings, has filed a civil-rights suit in federal court against the sheriff’s department and various deputies. He’s asking for half a million dollars in damages for false arrest, denial of due process, “denial of free-speech access and discrimination.”
While federal Judge Kimberly Mueller reviews his complaint, Jefferson is mulling over whether to accept the district attorney’s offer of one year’s probation.
“I’m not too proud to say I want this case dismissed,” said Jefferson.