When Regina Traylor cast her votes for Barack Obama and Al Franken on Nov. 4, 2008, she says she did so because “I wanted to see a change happen.”
Tuesday afternoon, nearly two years later, Traylor learned that in this nation of laws, a couple of things never change: the long arm of prosecutors and the protracted nature of the court system.
Those enduring truisms placed Traylor, 36, in Courtroom 1159 of the Hennepin County Government Center to face an unusual charge. She pleaded guilty to a felony she said she wasn’t aware she had committed; Hennepin County prosecutors believed otherwise.
Here was her crime: Traylor registered on Election Day and then voted in a north Minneapolis ward. But that vote was cast illegally. She had lost her right to vote because she was still on probation for a 2007 check forgery charge. It is against the law to knowingly vote if one is a convicted felon and has not completed her probation.
She told Hennepin County Judge Peter A. Cahill Tuesday — and a MinnPost reporter afterward — that she didn’t know on Nov. 4 that she was ineligible to vote, but she wound up pleading guilty to the charge anyway. Prosecutors had some documented proof. She became an example.
A pleasant, but nervous, mother of two, Traylor sat in the front row of what’s known as Property Drug Court, a sort of cattle call of a courtroom. She watched and waited as about a dozen other defendants had pre-trial hearings, pleaded guilty to charges of relatively small drug possession or credit card fraud or stealing a rug shampoo machine from an equipment rental agency, or had their bail — some as low as $300 — reduced.
In most cases, the defendants — on this day all men, save for Traylor — were brought in wearing bright orange prison jumpsuits and were placed inside a glass-enclosed holding cell in the front of the court room.
From there, they spoke via microphone to an extremely patient Judge Cahill. From there, through a vertical slit in the glass booth, they interacted with their lawyers, public defenders all.
The scene of Traylor’s hearing and plea was a far cry from the solemn and marbled venues of the State Canvassing Board and election contest trial of 2008 and 2009 triggered by the Norm Coleman-Al Franken U.S. Senate recount. But the reason the felon voting issue has continued as a statewide issue has its roots in that election contest, which ended with Franken winning by 312 votes.
Last June, a conservative group called the Minnesota Majority — still unhappy with Franken’s victory, which was affirmed by Minnesota’s Supreme Court — issued a report (PDF) that alleged that hundreds of folks whose voting rights were suspended actually voted in the 2008 election.
The implication from Minnesota Majority — unproven then and now — is that those alleged voters could have tipped the U.S. Senate election. That presumption has its fuzzy math and other flaws.
Another implication was that felons leaned towards Franken. Also not necessarily true, as a case in Roseau County suggested.
A further piece to the Minnesota Majority was an attack on Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the DFLer up for re-election. But it was actually Ritchie who for two years fought to tighten the tracking system of ineligible voters and sought to improve notification of felons about their rights; those bills were vetoed for a while by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
And as Chief Deputy Hennepin County Attorney Pat Diamond told MinnPost last month, the more county officials investigate alleged ineligible felon voters, the more difficult it is to prove that alleged felons voted, and — more importantly — that these folks who had lost their right to vote knew they were ineligible to vote when they did. Sometimes, unlike Traylor, they are not fully informed by probation officers.
So far, Diamond said, four ineligible voters in Hennepin County have pleaded guilty as charged. More are likely. Of those four cases, none was generated by the Minnesota Majority study. Traylor’s violation was discovered by the county’s elections department in the course of doing their post-election work.
In July, Ritchie estimated that his office sent about100 names of potential violators to counties. And county elections officials have gathered other alleged violations. In Olmsted County, a recent report said the county attorney was looking at six cases.
Her hearing was set for 2:30 p.m., but Traylor, her public defender Constance Ebert and prosecutor Pat Diamond spent time in the hallway outside the courtroom negotiating a plea.
Meanwhile, the men in orange jumpsuits kept moving in and out of the glass holding area as Traylor sat and watched.
At about 3:45, with all the other cases heard and all the other bails set, Traylor was the lone remaining defendant. She was supported by her fiancé, Robert Collins, and another friend.
“Page 15 of the afternoon calendar, Regina Traylor,” the court clerk declared, and Traylor stood and approached the counter in front of Cahill, with Ebert at her side. Diamond and County Attorney student intern lawyer Jesse Sater stood on the left.
The lawyers told Cahill that a deal had been struck, that Traylor would plead guilty to the charge of voting while ineligible and that she would be required to serve 24 hours of community service.
“Ms. Traylor, do you understand that negotiation?” Cahill asked.
“And do you agree to it?”
“Ms. Traylor, how do you plead to Count Two, Voting By One Who is Ineligible to Vote … guilty or not guilty?”
“Guilty,” she said for the clerks to record in an otherwise empty and silent courtroom.
Ebert then talked Traylor through the plea, explaining she had a right to a jury trial and to confront witnesses.
But the proof seemed to be there. On Nov. 4, Traylor filled out a voter registration card at her polling place on which she certified that she was eligible to vote. However, during its investigation, Hennepin County obtained a “probation contract” from Ramsey County that Traylor signed stating that she couldn’t vote, hold office or serve on a jury until “discharged from the sentence,” that is, until her 10-year check forgery probation was lifted.
So, Ebert went on for the record, because of that probation, Traylor wasn’t entitled to vote on that day in 2008.
“Yes, that’s correct,” Traylor replied.
Cahill interjected from the bench.
“And you knew you couldn’t vote because of your probation status, is that correct?”
Traylor: “I was not sure at that day.”
But Ebert said, wanting the plea to move forward, Traylor did sign the probation contract, yes?
“So,” Ebert said, “while there is some confusion, the confusion itself does not rise to a legal defense, is that right?”
“Yes,” Traylor admitted.
Soon after, Cahill found her guilty. He stayed the sentence for two years. Thus, the voting charge will not violate her Ramsey County probation. If she completes probation on the voting issue, the matter will be reduced to a misdemeanor. She was fined $78 in court costs and another $50 and was given the community service.
This was her fifth time at the courthouse for this matter, Traylor, who is a stay-at-home mom, said. The entire hearing Tuesday to resolve the matter took eight minutes.
Traylor, accompanied by lawyer Ebert, raced to the Government Center’s eighth floor, and the probation office, where she needed to fill out forms. As she did, a man sitting in the waiting room was greeted by two county sheriffs. He was handcuffed and escorted away.
Soon, Traylor emerged, and she reiterated that when she voted she didn’t know she couldn’t vote. No one told her she couldn’t. But, yes, she signed that probation contract, and so, yes, ultimately, she understood the charge.
But, “Like many people do, I signed it and you overlook things,” she said.
Traylor recommended that election officials statewide post a list of all convicted felons and those on probation whose voting rights haven’t been reinstated. Then everyone could check and know their status. Then, no one would vote accidentally. (Prosecutor Diamond, by the way, believes that Traylor knew she was ineligible, which is why he charged her, he said.)
“They should post [the names] everywhere,” Traylor said, “like a handicap sign, then people would know they can’t vote when they get there.”
Regina Traylor was asked if this entire matter was fair or not. She thought about the question.
“I would say it’s fair,” she said. “I’m going to stay with that, and just say it’s fair and go on with my future.”
She then walked into a crowded courthouse elevator, probation papers in hand.