VERNON — Despite their ideological differences, the chairs of Jennings County’s two main political parties shared the belief that North Vernon resident Mike Marshall would not have to spend time behind bars for pleading guilty to three counts of felony voter fraud.
So Republican Mark Holwager and Democrat Karen Snyder were surprised Wednesday when Jennings Circuit Court Judge Jon Webster gave an 18-month sentence to the 61-year-old former state representative and longtime Democratic Party worker. Marshall must serve nine months in jail, but the other nine were suspended.
“I thought he’d get probation,” Holwager said. “The sentence was more than I thought he was going to get.”
Marshall was indicted by a grand jury on Oct. 20, 2011, on 20 counts of voter fraud, 12 counts of forgery and 13 counts of perjury. Under a plea agreement, all charges were dropped in exchange for Marshall’s three guilty pleas, each a Class D felony.
Marshall served in the Indiana General Assembly from 1983 to 1984 and is a former president of the North Vernon Utilities Service Board. He admitted in court that he filled out three applications for absentee ballots during the 2010 fall campaign for his son, a Marine stationed at the time in California, his brother, who lives in Georgia, and for a former roommate who no longer lives in Jennings County.
While reading a statement to Webster, Marshall admitted that he made a mistake in failing to follow the law. However, he said he “let his guard down” because the three people for whom he filled out the applications were counting on him.
“I’ve helped tens of thousands across the country to vote, and they’ve never questioned me,” Marshall said. “This has caused great personal anguish and stress to my family. But they have found it easier to forgive me than I’ve been able to forgive myself.”
Webster said he took into consideration Marshall’s community service, letters of support and lack of a criminal record and weighed them against the offenses to determine the sentence.
“Those who tinker with the election process are undermining the basic process of democracy,” Webster said, adding that he believes voter fraud leads to political apathy and distrust of government.
Webster’s sentiments were earlier echoed in court statements made by both County Clerk Mary Kilgore and County Recorder Lisa Jines-Plessinger. Both elected officials stressed what they felt was the seriousness of Marshall’s crimes, and asked Webster to include jail time in his sentence.
This case dealt with the
integrity of the voting process, Holwager said.
“If I lose a race, it should be because I didn’t put out the best candidate. Not because I didn’t go out and cheat enough to win the race,” he said.
The judge denied two defense requests. One would have reduced the three felonies to misdemeanors. The other would have provided Marshall with a form of alternative sentencing, such as house arrest.
Defense attorney Jim Voyles said the felony conviction could jeopardize Marshall’s liquor license, which he needs to operate his business, Christopher’s Pub on Fifth Street in North Vernon.
Indiana’s highest-ranking election official commented on the sentencing.
“(Wednesday’s) conviction of Mike Marshall for vote fraud sends the message that Indiana takes seriously election security and underscores the need to continue to fight for integrity in Indiana’s election administration,” Secretary of State Connie Lawson said in a news release. “For years, Mike Marshall was credited with turning out large numbers of absentee ballots to rig elections and his conviction should bring up questions from the voters he defrauded by tampering with the electoral process.”
Lawson called absentee ballots critical to the election process, saying many Hoosiers would be disfranchised from voting without the ability to cast an absentee ballot.
“It is my hope Mr. Marshall’s conviction will restore confidence in the voting process in Jennings County. We must protect the precious right to vote by ensuring the process is secure. I applaud Judge Jonathan Webster’s decision and Dearborn County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard and all those who worked to bring Mr. Marshall to justice,” Lawson said.
The grand jury that indicted Marshall also indicted two other Jennings County residents. John Cook, who served on the Utility Services Board with Marshall, eventually, received an 18-month suspended sentence after pleading guilty to one felony count of perjury. Michael Marshall’s son, Chris Marshall, pleaded guilty to aiding in deception in order to obtain property, a Class A misdemeanor.
All other felony charges against Cook and Chris Marshall were dismissed.