Florida's effort to charge 20 people with voter fraud has hit some roadblocks
Back in August, Florida officials announced they were charging 20 people with alleged voter fraud. It was the first big set of cases investigated by the state's new election crimes unit, which was created at the urging of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The statewide prosecutor recently secured one conviction through a plea deal. But at least three other cases so far have been dismissed on procedural grounds. And attorneys representing those who were charged say Florida's cases face a tough road — even if they make it to trial.
The state's effort has been a controversial one. Many of the individuals charged with voting illegally in 2020 say they thought they were eligible to vote, despite past felony convictions, because the state had given them a voter registration card.
What those charged have said
Twenty years ago, Romona Oliver was convicted for second-degree murder, said Mark Rankin, a criminal defense attorney representing her. When she got out of prison, Florida voters had approved a ballot measure, Amendment 4, that automatically restores voting rights to most people who had a prior felony conviction.
And Oliver, Rankin said, thought that included her.
"She was approached at a bus stop by people who were trying to register voters," he told NPR. "She told them that she was a felon and was told, 'That's not a problem. You can apply. And if you are eligible and your rights have been restored they will send you a voter registration card.' "
After filing out her registration form, Oliver's local election official sent her a voter registration card. So, when the 2020 election came up, she cast a ballot.
But what Oliver didn't know at this point, Rankin said, was that she actually was exempt from Amendment 4. The measure doesn't extend voting rights to anyone who has been convicted of murder or a felony sex offense.
And that's why earlier this year, law enforcement showed up at her door and arrested her.
"It was just a very stressful situation," Rankin said. "And it was confusing to her because she believed she was eligible to vote when she voted."
According to police body cam footage obtained by The Tampa Bay Times, many of the individuals arrested, including Oliver, were shocked to hear they were being charged with voter fraud. Most if not all had received a voter registration card from government officials ahead of the 2020 election.
Roger Weedon, who is representing two individuals charged for alleged voter fraud, says he thinks there is even a case to be made that the state entrapped these voters. He says the state could have created a system where local election officials and formerly incarcerated people could see if they're eligible to vote.
"The government shouldn't be able to prosecute cases in which they are almost co-conspirators by sending the registration cards and allowing them to vote," Weedon said.
Weedon says he's working to get the cases against his two clients dismissed. So far, three cases out of the initial collection of charges have been thrown out. The state has appealed at least two of those dismissals.
One of the dismissed cases involved a man named Ronald Lee Miller. His attorney, Robert Barrar, said that since his client only voted in one place, the statewide prosecutor was the wrong person to charge him. Barrar said a statewide prosecutor only has jurisdiction if crimes are committed in multiple judicial circuits.
"What that means is whoever the accused was would have either had to have been involved in a conspiracy to commit the crime with someone in another judicial [circuit] or committed acts leading to the crime in two judicial circuits," he said.
Larry Davis is a criminal defense attorney representing Robert Wood, who also had his case dismissed on these procedural grounds. Davis said that if a judge rules against his client in an appeal, he is going to take the case in front of a jury.
"We believe it will be very difficult for people to agree that Mr. Wood had any intent to break the law," Davis said.
Most defendants in these cases have been advised by their attorneys not to give interviews before adjudication.
Their legal defense is almost entirely pro-bono. Many of the attorneys say they took these cases because the state is clearly in the wrong, and that it would be difficult for the state to prove these individuals intended to commit fraud.
But that depends on how hard defendants want to fight the charges.
Weedon said one of his clients, Peter Washington, is confident that he did nothing wrong and will prevail in court. But his other client, Michelle Stribling, has been struggling.
"For Ms. Stribling it's been very, very stressful for her," Weedon said. "Not knowing what lies in your future — she spent a lot of years in prison. And she's been the person who has been most impacted emotionally."
A plea deal with no punishment
This pressure is why at least one of these defendants — Oliver — recently took a plea deal. Her lawyer, Rankin, said the state gave her an extremely attractive plea offer she just couldn't turn down. He said they allowed her to plead "no contest," which means she did not admit that she did anything wrong. Prosecutors also dropped one of the charges.
"And she had zero punishment in her case," Rankin said. "She had no jail time, no fine, no community service, no cost of prosecution or investigation — which usually apply — no probation. She just completely walked away."
In a statement to NPR, the statewide prosecutor, Nick Cox, said "each case is unique" and that Oliver's particular case stems "from a negotiated plea bargain."
"The Office of Statewide Prosecution is pleased to secure the felony conviction on illegal voting," Cox said.
His office said because other cases are still pending it cannot comment any further.
Rankin said he thinks a lot of these individuals who are charged, if their cases move forward, will get a similar offer. He said even if an attorney is confident they will prevail in court, a plea bargain like Oliver's is very attractive to someone who just wants to be done with their legal issues.
"It puts these defendants in the position where they just want to make it go away," Rankin said. "And then the state, as they did in Ms. Oliver's case, can say to the media, 'Oh we got a conviction for illegal voting.' "
The state might not have much of a choice. Because a lot of these cases are similar, attorneys say they might have to offer a similar deal to avoid disparities in sentencing.
Either way, groups that have been helping fight these charges say they think this a drain on state resources.
Neil Volz, with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said taxpayer money and law enforcement could be better used elsewhere.
Volz says the system that tripped up these voters needs fixing, and he's working with some state lawmakers to create a database so people who aren't eligible because of a past conviction are not given voter registration cards anymore.
"This is a real sign for all of us to be careful when we begin to criminalize voting," he said. "We really need to focus on the voters. And in this case fixing the system so that we don't find ourselves in this kind of situation in the future."
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An earlier version of this story misspelled Romona Oliver's first name as Ramona.