Questionable arrest

Crump joins call to drop charges against Tallahassee woman

With Martha Ervin (right) at his side, civil rights attorney Ben Crump called for voting violation charges against her to be dropped.
Photo courtesy Ben Crump Law
Attorney Ben Crump (left) consoles Martha Ervin.
Photo courtesy Ben Crump Law
Marsha Ervin was arrested in the wee hours on Sept. 29.
Photo courtesy Ben Crump Law

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Confusion has reigned since the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a law about how the constitutional Amendment 4 will be carried out.

The law, which is intended to allow formerly incarcerated individuals to register to vote after they’ve paid financial obligations related to their cases, was overwhelmingly approved by 65 percent of Florida voters in 2018.

The who-can-vote confusion hit close to home on Sept. 29 when 69-year-old Marsha Ervin was arrested for voting twice during a two-year span. The charges of false voter registration and voting as an ineligible elector against Ervin have invoked a call from civil rights leaders, including attorneys Ben Crum and Mutakee Akbar, for the charges to be dropped.

Akbar and Crump will represent Ervin in her appeal to have the charges dropped.

Ervin was also in attendance at a press conference last Tuesday just outside of the office of state attorney Jack Campbell in the Leon County Courthouse. 

Both of the charges against Ervin are third-degree felonies. Investigators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Ervin told them last October that she would not have voted if she knew it was illegal.

The outrage over Ervin’s arrest has made national headlines, as the latest in a series of arrests by the state Office of Election Crimes and Security. That office was set up last year as part of voting reform laws backed by DeSantis.

“For this to happen to her, it tells you it could happen to any of us because this is about voter intimidation,” Crump said. “This is about instilling fear in people in our community to say ‘I don’t want to get into any trouble so I’m not going to come and vote.’

“We will not yield. We will make sure that everybody in our community can engage in the most basic democratic process in America and that is the right to vote.”

Twenty four people were arrested on election charges last year. Ervin is the latest.

“As these arrests continue, we see a pattern of selective enforcement,” Brad Ashwell, state director of All Voting is Local, said at the press conference. “If you look at those who were initially arrested they were all one complexion. If you look at Miss Ervin you’ll see a similar complexion. This is clearly a way for the state to discourage voters from voting. It’s textbook voter intimidation.”

In addition to Akbar and Crump speaking out against Ervin’s arrest, which took place on Sept. 29 at 3 a.m., Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor sent a letter to Campbell, requesting that the charges be dropped.

Proctor contends that Ervin didn’t act alone to obtain a voter registration card, which she showed at the press conference. Voting records show that Ervin fell off the roll while she was incarcerated. However, she was allowed to register in 2020 and that year she voted in the general election. Two years later, she voted in the primary.

In part, Proctor said, the charges against Ervin should be dropped because she “didn’t trick the state out of a card.”

He added that “you can’t prosecute this lady and you aren’t going to prosecute the people that gave her the card. You’ve got to prosecute everybody.”

The saga began for Ervin in 2016 when she was arrested on a charge of aggravated neglect of an elderly person. She served almost two years but on her release on probation, records show at the time that the state’s Department of Corrections didn’t inform her of her status on voting.

The confusion goes back to a law passed by the Legislature, following approval of Amendment 4 by voters in 2018. Since then, advocates led by Florida Rights Restoration Coalition for restoration of ex-felon’s voting rights, have been calling for a database to clarify who are eligible to vote.

Without a database, Proctor said, voting eligibility for ex-felons will remain a murky situation that is “is vague, arbitrary (and) capricious.”

The one clear portion of the Amendment 4 law says that individuals who commit murderers or have a felony sex offense are not eligible to vote.

Proctor argued that Ervin’s committed a non-violent offense that doesn’t deserve an arrest in the wee hours.

The burden of proof, said Akbar, is on the supervisor of election and secretary of state. 

Both should admit that “they dropped the ball,” he said. “The onus is on them to make sure that people who are not eligible to vote do not get this voter registration card like Miss Ervin got.”

Rev. RB Holmes, president of the local chapter of the National Action Network, praised organizers of the press conference for “their bold and courageous leadership in these matters.”

Holmes also used the stage to reiterate DeSantis’ ongoing attack on Blacks.

“Mister Governor, under your leadership, Florida is where racism will die,” Holmes said. “You can dismantle diversity, you can dismantle inclusion, you can dismantle equity; why not dismantle the wicked office of Election Crime and Security?

“This is shameful. This is voter oppression and suppression. We cannot live in a state where Florida becomes the model against voting rights, against immigrants, against the gay community, against vaccine (and) against Medicaid.”

As if to agree that Blacks are targeted, Crump said Ervin’s case isn’t one to give up on.

“If we don’t stand for Miss Marsha God help us,” he said. “It’s Miss Marsha today, but it will be all of us tomorrow.”

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