North Florida absentee ballot fraud case unravels for prosecutors

The state’s case alleging absentee ballot fraud in a North Florida county continues to crumble as a judge has dismissed all 17 counts against a former supervisor of elections.

Leon County Court Judge Augustus Aikens Jr. threw out all misdemeanor charges Thursday against former Madison County elections chief Jada Woods Williams, making her the seventh of nine defendants in the case to be cleared of wrongdoing.

The case of the “Madison Nine” is now the “Madison Two.”

Williams was suspended from office by Gov. Rick Scott after a year-long investigation by FBI and state law enforcement agents. They charged her with willful neglect of duty for overseeing a school board election in which the winning candidate reaped a disproportionately large number of absentee votes. The defeated candidate, Rickey Henderson, said he was the victim of absentee ballot fraud and notified authorities.

Williams had mailed absentee ballots to addresses other than those on file for voters. Investigators said 80 absentee ballots had been sent to nine different addresses and that elections employees gave more than two absentee ballots to a nonrelative of a voter in violation of state law.

In a court motion, Williams’ attorney, Matthew Foster, successfully argued that no evidence showed that she committed “willful neglect” or that she failed to carry out her duties as election supervisor.

Williams’ motion noted that in 2011 as part of a rewrite of election laws (HB 1355), the state Legislature changed the law to allow an absentee ballot to be sent to any address a voter specifies. The old law required absentees to be sent to the voter’s mailing address on file with the elections office.

“She (Williams) believed that if you received written authorization by a voter to send them an absentee ballot to an address specified by them, your duty as supervisor of elections was to honor the request of the voter, which is what (she) did,” Foster argued. “At most, (Williams) committed an honest, well-intentioned mistake.”

The defendants refused plea deals and each had requested a separate trial.

State Attorney Willie Meggs in Tallahassee, whose office had been prosecuting the case, faulted the Legislature for making it too easy for people to vote absentee in Florida.

“We have, as a state, tried to make it so easy for everybody to vote, whether they vote honestly or not,” Meggs said. “There is so much room for abuse.”

With Williams exonerated, the lone remaining defendants in the Madison case are Abra “Tina” Hill Johnson, who won the school board election by 28 votes, and her husband, Ernest Sinclair Johnson Jr.

An elections bill awaiting a final vote in the Senate (SB 600) would continue the practice of allowing voters to receive absentee ballots at an address other than their voting address, as long as the request is made in writing and signed by the voter.