Did this Republican congressional candidate cast an illegal vote? Florida can't tell
In mid-December 2011, future congressional candidate Jason Mariner broke into a Delray Beach property and stole approximately $20,000 worth of paintings by the legendary Florida Highwaymen, and other local painters.
The Highwaymen are some of the most revered artists in Florida history. The loose collective of Black artists painted vivid landscapes across the state and sold them for dollars on the roadside in the mid 1900s. Today, their paintings sell for thousands of dollars at auction houses.
Mariner took the stolen paintings to a secondhand shop and sold many for a total of $400. After police investigated, Mariner was arrested and found guilty of felony grand theft, among other charges. He received a sentence of up to 14 months imprisonment for the bundle of charges he faced at the time.
As the Republican nominee for Florida’s 20th congressional district, Mariner has been up front about his past run-ins with the law.
“I’ve been addicted to drugs, I’ve spent time in a cell. Multiple times. I’ve had a knee on my neck. I know what it’s like,” he said in a campaign video.
But as questions have swirled about his ability to run for Congress without having applied for clemency or restoration of his rights from the state, WLRN has identified a different issue relating to his felony convictions: Mariner might have voted illegally in the 2020 presidential election.
The complications surrounding that question speak to the ongoing questions and issues surrounding how the state of Florida determines voting eligibility for people with felony convictions.
Those concerns were at the center of a federal lawsuit last year, which held up a controversial voting rights law that passed in 2019.
Under Florida’s Amendment 4, which was passed in 2018, anyone with a felony conviction would automatically regain the right to vote upon completing “all terms of the sentence” related to that felony conviction.
On the heels of Amendment 4 passing, the subsequent SB 7066 law specified that this includes the payment of all fines, fees and restitution related to felony convictions.
The Case of the Stolen Paintings
For the Highwaymen paintings case, court records show Mariner paid outstanding fees and court costs in order to reinstate his driver’s license. The license was suspended after Mariner initially did not pay those costs.
Yet for that one case alone, Judge Stephen Rapp in 2012 ordered Mariner to pay $14,500 in restitution to the victim of the theft, according to court records.
In an email, Mariner told WLRN that he believes he paid off the restitution as part of a work release program he participated in after being released from prison.
“Work release meant I had a job and it also meant that the vast majority of the pay I received from the job was taken by the state for restitution,” wrote Mariner. “Upon final exit and completion of work release, my final payment was complete.”
But in a phone call, the victim of that crime told WLRN that she had not received any restitution payment for the loss of her paintings.
Many of the paintings were recovered after police identified the secondhand art shop to which Mariner sold the paintings.
Yet several are still unaccounted for.
“He does owe me restitution for them. And I remember giving the detective the estimate for how much they were worth at the time,” said the victim, a 79-year-old retiree who lives in Delray Beach.
She did not want to be identified in this story to protect her privacy.
“Son of a gun,” she told WLRN. “They’re worth a heck of a lot more now than they were in 2011.”
Legal Fights, Election Laws and a Lack of Records
Nevertheless, Mariner cast a vote in the 2020 election, which fellow Republicans across the nation have claimed — often without evidence — was riddled with widespread fraud.
The Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections office verified to WLRN that Mariner cast a vote in the 2020 election.
After more than two weeks of trying to get confirmation on whether Mariner indeed paid his court ordered restitution or not, neither the Florida Department of State nor the Florida Department of Corrections was able to deny or confirm that restitution payments were made.
In an event in early November in Palm Beach County, Governor Ron DeSantis called for the passage of new election laws that would bring increased scrutiny of alleged illegal activity at the ballot box, potentially to investigate these kinds of eligibility questions.
“We’re going to create a separate office at the state level solely dedicated to investigating and prosecuting election crimes,” said DeSantis. “We’ll have sworn law enforcement officers involved in this, we’ll have investigators, we’ll have a statewide prosecutor that’s able to bring cases.”
The name of the proposed new office is the Office of Election Crimes and Security.
“Election integrity is a top priority for Governor DeSantis and for me,” said Secretary of State Laurel Lee in a video released in November. “We’ve worked hard to ensure our elections meet the highest standards for integrity and security.”
Mariner registered to vote in Palm Beach County on March 16, 2020, at a time where there was widespread confusion about whether hundreds of thousands of Floridians with a felony conviction could register to vote. A federal lawsuit against the state law SB 7066 was ongoing at the time, and momentum seemed to be shifting in favor of letting someone vote, even if they owed restitution.
A few weeks before he registered to vote, a federal appeals court ruled against the state of Florida, finding no one should be barred from voting if they were “genuinely unable” to pay what they owed.
But that ruling only applied to the seventeen plaintiffs in the case, and was a temporary ruling.
Advocates at the time argued that Florida’s lack of a centralized records system — along with a confusing law and lengthy legal battle — made it nearly impossible for regular people to know where things stood. At several points during the long court battle, voting rights were expanded and contracted, depending on whether someone paid all the money they owed or not.
In the end of the lawsuit process, a federal appeals court ruled that anyone who owes fines, court fees, court costs or restitution connected to a felony conviction cannot legally vote in Florida elections.
The state government, in the meantime, admitted it was largely unable to help people understand their own voting eligibility. Florida Division of Elections director Maria Matthews said at trial that the state could often not find that information.
There is no state database that tracks restitution payments, so often the only way to verify payment is directly with the victim of the crime.
The penalty for registering to vote and casting a vote when you are not eligible is a felony criminal offense.
'It affects everybody. It affects all Floridians'
The confusion of whether Mariner cast a valid ballot or not in 2020 comes back to the flawed 2019 law SB 7066, said Kara Gross, legislative director for American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
“It didn’t create any way for people to figure out whether or not they were eligible or not, and it is very difficult for individuals to figure that out on their own,” Gross said.
That a Republican nominee for Congress could be caught up in the undertow of the controversial state law some likened to a “poll tax” shows what a broad spectrum of Floridians are impacted, said Gross.
Restitution is required by state law to be paid, and yet there is virtually no way for the state, individual voters or the general public to verify if those payments have been made, or if money is still owed.
“It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue. It affects everybody. It affects all Floridians,” Gross said.
In the event that Mariner still owes restitution and that he did cast an illegal ballot, Gross said his case serves as a reminder of the cruelty of that state law.
“This is a person who served their time, returned to society and is now a successful business owner and now civic leader. And there’s no reason that he shouldn’t have had his voting rights restored automatically as Amendment 4 was designed to do,” she said.
The victim of the theft of the Highwaymen paintings was surprised when she learned Mariner was running for Congress.
“Are you serious?” she asked WLRN.
The main thing she continues to be concerned about is the potential of either getting her paintings back, or being compensated for them in some way through restitution. She started buying the Highwaymen paintings when they were sold for just a few dollars in the Fort Pierce area decades ago.
Today, the paintings are treated like family heirlooms.
“I kept a few for my grandchildren,” she said. “They’re getting older now and I’m giving one to each of them when they get married. It would be nice to get them back.”
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