DeSantis touted their arrest. But ex-felons say they weren’t told they couldn’t vote.

DeSantis said 20 people across the state were arrested for voter fraud. Those arrested worry what it’ll do to their livelihood.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference Thursday at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference Thursday at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. [ AMY BETH BENNETT | South Florida Sun-Sentinel ]
Published Aug. 19, 2022|Updated Aug. 19, 2022

When Romona Oliver registered to vote in early 2020 at the Hillsborough Tax Collector’s office, she was asked if she had a felony conviction. She said yes.

The women helping her with the form submitted it, Oliver said. She said she was never asked specifically if her right to vote had been restored.

Oliver, a Tampa resident, had recently been released from a women’s prison in Florida after serving a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder.

In the last few months of her time in prison, Oliver said she’d read about Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment approved by about 65% of Floridians in 2018, which restored the voting rights of most felons who had completed all terms of their sentence.

No one told her she didn’t qualify under Amendment 4; the law doesn’t apply to those with sex offenses or murder charges. She registered as a Democrat and got her voter card in the mail.

In the 2020 presidential election, she voted. It was the first time Oliver, 55, ever did.

“It was exciting for me because I felt like after all that time, I want to get out and try to do the right thing,” she said. “Give back to the community.”

On Thursday morning, Oliver was arrested on a charge of voting as an unqualified elector and false affirmation. That afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis touted the arrests of 20 people, Oliver included, who had voted despite having a felony conviction for murder or a sex offense. Those arrested spanned five different counties: Hillsborough, Orange, Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.

“That is against the law and now they’re going to pay the price for it, so they will be charged,” DeSantis said.

Five of those arrested Thursday on voter fraud charges told the Times/Herald they believed they were able to vote and had faced no issue registering. They said they would not have voted had they known their previous convictions made them ineligible.

DeSantis credited the arrests to the state’s new Office of Election Crimes and Integrity, an office lawmakers approved from his idea to broadly investigate voting irregularities. The office began work on July 1.

Oliver, like four others arrested, is from Hillsborough County and was removed from the voter rolls in the spring.

The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office was notified by the state in late 2021 and early 2022 that the voters had felony convictions and their rights were not restored, spokesperson Gerri Kramer said. Such notifications are part of a regular process, she said.

Kramer said the county elections office makes sure registration forms are filled out correctly, and then submits them to the state for review.

“It’s not our role to verify the information,” she said.

A few weeks ago, Oliver said she found a Florida Department of Law Enforcement business card in her door frame. She called and was told officers had found something fraudulent on her account.

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She thought they meant her bank account. When the officers came to her job and asked if she had voted in 2020, she said yes. Oliver still didn’t understand what was wrong when the police came to her door Thursday morning and put her in cuffs.

“I ain’t done nothing but go to work and come home,” she said.

Oliver and others were charged with a third-degree felony, which can result in up to $5,000 in fines and up to five years in prison.

Oliver said she worries whether she’ll be able to keep her job as a seamstress with another felony conviction, or if she’ll have to return to jail. She worries about who will look after her husband and his bad heart.

Amendment 4 supporters argue that Thursday’s arrests are another sign that the current system for restoring votes for non-violent felons is broken.

Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said the felons’ stories reinforce a need for a statewide database that shows election officials whether a person registering to vote is eligible.

“We’ve been banging this drum for years,” Volz said. “If you can’t trust the government to tell you whether you’re eligible in the front end, how can you prosecute somebody in the back end?”

The rollout of Amendment 4 in Florida was marred by confusion and legal wrangling after DeSantis pushed state lawmakers to pass a bill that required felons to pay off all fines and fees and restitution before being able to vote, even though Florida has no central database to track court fees. A judge referred to it as an “administrative nightmare.”

Nearly two years after Amendment 4 was passed, only about 8% of Floridians with felony convictions had registered to vote, according to a Times/Herald analysis.

In 2020, former Secretary of State Laurel Lee said her office had at that point removed 6,000 felons from the voter rolls who had murder or sex offense charges.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was a sponsor of the bill that revised the requirements for felon voter restoration.

He said when it comes to those who were arrested, intent matters.

“I think it’s really up to law enforcement and state attorneys to exercise a level of grace and mercy where they believe that their intent was not to defraud,” Brandes said.

Leo Grant Jr., a 55-year-old resident of South Bay in Palm Beach County, said he was unaware that he was breaking the law by registering to vote in April 2020. He said that Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators showed up at his home about a week ago, interrogated him and left.

They didn’t come back for any follow-ups or warn him there was an active warrant for his arrest. Instead, officials showed up at his home on Thursday morning, arrested him and took him to jail.

“I don’t really understand, how did I commit fraud?” Grant said. “I don’t understand any of this stuff.”

The arrest is even more confounding, he said, because he said he was never asked about the nature of his charge, sexual battery against a child under 16, when he registered to vote.

Palm Beach County’s election records show that Grant, who registered with no party affiliation, voted by mail in both the primary and the general election in 2020.

“They [state officials] know what I was charged with, right? Why would you send me the voter card?” Grant said.

Grant paid a $200 bond Thursday to get out of jail — a figure he said he couldn’t really afford. He said he now has to appear in court on Sept. 13.

“I ain’t got no damn money for no lawyer,” Grant said.

About 10 minutes after he was brought to the West Palm Beach County Jail, Grant said another man who lives in nearby Belle Glade, Robert Simpson, 64, was brought in on the same charges. According to Palm Beach election records, Simpson registered as a Democrat and voted early in the 2020 general election and in the special primary and general elections for Florida’s Congressional District 20.

That election was won by just five votes.

Simpson, who said he had been previously convicted of second-degree murder, had never voted before in his life.

Nathan Hart, 49, said he fears losing his house, his car, his livelihood and the visitation rights he has for his teenage daughter after being arrested Thursday for voting crimes.

Hart registered to vote in 2020 when he went to renew his driver’s license. A man doing voter registration in the lobby of the Ruskin office struck up a conversation with Hart, he said, and told him he could vote even with a felony conviction.

Even then, Hart said he was skeptical. He doesn’t remember if he told the man he had been convicted of a felony sex offense, but Hart knows he pushed back — and still, he said he was told it was OK.

He registered as a Republican, records show, and voted in the 2020 general election.

“I can see charging someone if I was gathering peoples’ names from the cemetery,” Hart said. “One individual guy voting when he thought he could is hardly voter fraud.”

Two weeks ago, officers with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement showed up at his door. Hart said he thought it was a residence check to confirm that people on the sex offender registry had up-to-date information.

Hart said the officers asked when he voted and asked if he was discriminated against because of his status. It was one question among many that didn’t seem to especially matter, he said.

“Until they showed up yesterday and I found out that was the question that mattered,” he said.

Miami Herald Information Services Director Monika Leal contributed to this report.