Newly obtained police body camera video shows Tampa police officers arresting confused and stunned convicted felons for allegedly voting illegally in the 2020 election.
“I voted, but I’m not committing fraud,” Romona Oliver can be heard saying on a police body camera video obtained by the Tampa Police Department. “I came out. The guy told me I was free and ready to go vote or whatever because I had done my time,” she said. Oliver’s attorney says she received a voter registration card and thought she was entitled to vote.
The videos, first reported by The Tampa Bay Times, offer fresh insight into a far-reaching state operation earlier this summer to crack down on suspected voter fraud.
On August 18, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrested 20 people accused of illegally voting in the 2020 election. He revealed the charges at a celebratory press conference at the Broward County Courthouse, where he was flanked by law enforcement officers and State Attorney Ashley Moody.
“As convicted murderers and sex offenders, neither person was eligible to vote,” DeSantis said.
“They didn’t have their rights restored, and yet they went ahead and voted anyway,” DeSantis said at the time. “It’s against the law, and now they’re going to pay the price.”
Mark Rankin, a Tampa-based attorney who represents Oliver pro-bono, told CNN that Oliver served nearly 20 years in state prison for a second-degree murder conviction.
“She served her time and got out. And she got out around the time Amendment 4 was passed, which affected felons’ right to vote. Her understanding was that felons were getting their rights restored.”
Rankin says Oliver was approached at the bus stop one day on her way to work by a voter registrar and she told them she was a felon. The person then told Oliver that she could fill out the form and if she was eligible she would get a voter registration card and if she wasn’t eligible she wouldn’t get the card.
Oliver received a voter registration card in the mail. She went to the Department of Motor Vehicles office later to get a new driver’s license and was sent an updated voter registration card with her new address, according to Rankin.
“She was told twice by the State of Florida and the local Supervisor of Elections, ‘Here is your voter registration card. You are, as far as we are concerned, a legal voter.’ So she voted and she was shocked when she was arrested.”
“She was shocked and upset because she thought her rights had been restored with the amendment. She didn’t know any different. And the state of Florida, she thought, told her she was eligible to vote. And now she’s had the rug pulled beneath her. She never would have voted if she knew she wasn’t eligible,” Rankin said.
Oliver pleaded not guilty to the illegal voting charge and has a trial set for December in Hillsborough County. County records show she was released on her own recognizance the same day she was arrested.
The Tampa Police Department made the arrests on behalf of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the original agency for the investigation, a police department spokesman told CNN.
CNN also contacted the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which was involved in some of the arrests.
The arrests marked the first public demonstration by the Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security, a controversial new investigative agency created this year and championed by DeSantis to investigate voting irregularities. Created under a sweeping bill passed this year to overhaul Florida voting, the office was given a staff of 15 to launch investigations and allowed DeSantis to appoint 10 state law enforcement officers to help investigate election crimes.
But almost immediately after the state announced the charges, questions began to emerge about the arrests and whether the individuals knew they were breaking the law when they cast a ballot.
Under state law, the Florida Department of State’s job is to “identify those registered voters who have been convicted of a felony” and “notify the supervisor and provide a copy of the supporting documentation indicating the potential disqualification of the voter from registration.”
In the five counties where there were arrests, the local supervisor of the Office of Elections told CNN that the state did not inform the people arrested that they were not eligible to vote.
DeSantis continued to defend the arrests and, at a later news conference, blamed some local election offices who, he said, “just don’t care about election laws.”
But the Office of Election Crime and Security wrote a letter to an election supervisor that the people voted illegally “through no fault of your own.” The letter, obtained by CNN, was sent Aug. 18 by Pete Antonacci, who served as the first director of the Office of Election Crimes and Security until he died Sept. 23 after a medical episode at the Florida State Capitol.
The arrests, captured on police body camera footage, are also illustrative of the confusion that still surrounds a successful 2018 constitutional amendment in Florida to restore voting rights to some felons who had completed their sentences.
The constitutional amendment, overwhelmingly approved by voters in a referendum, said people convicted of murder and certain sex crimes were not eligible to have their rights restored.
But the law that implemented the constitutional amendment specified that an ineligible felon who falsely votes is in violation of the law if they “willfully submit false voter registration information.” State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican in St. Petersburg and sponsor of this legislation, has said on social media that most convicted felons do not intend to break the law.
After the Tampa Bay Times published the body cam video, Brandes tweeted from his confirmed account, “Looks like the opposite of ‘willing,'” and he suggested the state will fight to prove its case in court.
“I hope they have the courage to drop charges or go to court and present evidence of intent,” Brandes wrote.