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…
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.