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Encore: Prosecution against 20 people in Florida for voter fraud hits roadblocks

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Last year, Florida's new election crimes unit announced voting fraud charges against 20 people. But as NPR's Ashley Lopez reports, the prosecution of those cases has hit some roadblocks.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Romona Oliver is among those charged with alleged voter fraud. Oliver spent 20 years in prison. And right before she was released, she heard that voters had approved a change to the state's constitution that would automatically restore voting rights to most people who had been convicted of a felony. And according to her attorney, Mark Rankin, she thought that included her.

MARK RANKIN: She was approached at a bus stop by people that were trying to register voters. She told them that she was a felon and was told that's not a problem; you can apply. And if you're eligible, if your rights have been restored, they'll send you a voter registration card.

LOPEZ: So Oliver applied. Shortly after, her local election officials sent her a voter registration card. And when a big election rolled around in 2020, she voted. But what Oliver didn't know at that point was that the ballot measure didn't extend voting rights to anyone convicted of murder or a felony sex offense. Oliver had been convicted of second-degree murder, and that's why she was arrested.

RANKIN: It was just a very stressful situation. And it was confusing to her because she believed that she was eligible to vote when she voted.

LOPEZ: This is a common story across these cases. Attorneys say their clients did not have any intent to break the law, which could be a significant hurdle for the prosecution. Besides being controversial, these cases have also come across some legal hurdles. Courts have already dismissed three on procedural grounds. Even though attorneys think they're likely to prevail in court, what happens largely depends on how hard the defendants want to fight these charges. Criminal defense attorney Roger Weedon says one of his clients is confident he'll win his case, but his other client, Michelle Stribling, has been struggling.

ROGER WEEDON: For Miss Stribling, it's been very, very stressful for her not knowing what lies in her future. She spent a lot of years in prison, and she's the person that's been the most impacted emotionally.

LOPEZ: And this pressure is why at least one of these defendants, Romona Oliver, recently took a plea deal. Her attorney, Mark Rankin, says the state gave her an extremely attractive plea offer. She did not have to admit any wrongdoing, and Rankin says the prosecution also offered to drop one of her charges.

RANKIN: And she had zero punishment in her case - no jail time, no fine, no community service, no costs of prosecution or investigation which usually apply, no probation. She just completely walked away.

LOPEZ: In a statement to NPR, the statewide prosecutor, Nick Cox, said, quote, "each case is unique" and that the state is pleased to secure the felony conviction on illegal voting. His office says because other cases are still pending, they cannot comment any further. But Rankin says he wouldn't be surprised if a lot of these individuals get a similar offer.

RANKIN: It puts these defendants in a position where they want to just make it go away. And then the state, as they did in Miss Oliver's case, can say to the media, oh, we got a conviction for illegal voting.

LOPEZ: In some cases, the state might not have a choice. Because the circumstances are similar, attorneys will have grounds to ask for a similar deal to avoid disparities in sentencing. Either way, groups that have been helping fight these charges say they think this is a drain on state resources. Neil Volz, with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, says taxpayer money and law enforcement could be better used elsewhere.

NEIL VOLZ: This is a real sign for all of us to be careful when we begin to criminalize voting. Voting is a sacred right. It's an act that is, you know, such an integral part of our society.

LOPEZ: Volz says the system that tripped up these voters needs fixing. He says 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.

Ashley Lopez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.