Tampa woman takes plea deal in DeSantis voter fraud case

TALLAHASSEE — One of the 20 people arrested by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new election security force accepted a plea deal on Monday that allows her to avoid any punishment.

Tampa resident Romona Oliver, 56, pleaded no contest to a felony charge of voting during the 2020 election while ineligible. In exchange, statewide prosecutors dropped another felony charge of “false swearing” when she registered to vote.

Oliver was sentenced to credit for time served; she spent a few hours in the Hillsborough County jail on Aug. 18, the same day that DeSantis held a news conference announcing the first arrests for his new Office of Election Crimes and Security.

Oliver did not receive probation, was not assigned to community service and did not have to pay the typically mandatory court fees such as the cost of prosecution or the cost of the investigation, said her Tampa attorney, Mark Rankin.

“Essentially, zero consequences except for all the stress she’s been under for the last three months,” Rankin said.

She was facing up to five years in prison each for two separate felony charges. Pleading “no contest” is not the same as pleading guilty, and Rankin maintains Oliver didn’t do anything wrong.

“As much as I, as a lawyer and citizen of Florida, wanted to fight this and take it to trial, I don’t blame her,” Rankin said. “She wanted to get this over with and move on with her life without this stress.”

Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox said in a statement that “each case is unique.”

“The Office of Statewide Prosecution is pleased to secure the felony conviction on illegal voting,” Cox said.

As someone previously convicted of second-degree murder in 2000, Oliver was not eligible to vote, even under the terms of 2018′s Amendment 4.

That constitutional amendment, approved by Florida voters, restored the right to vote to all people convicted of a felony except for those convicted of murder and felony sex offenses, and those who hadn’t completed “all terms” of their sentence.

But the amendment led to mass confusion, and when Oliver registered to vote, on Feb. 14, 2020, the Department of State — which reports to DeSantis — cleared her to receive a voter ID card.

The voter registration form required her to attest, under penalty of perjury, that she was not a felon, or if she was, her right to vote had been restored. State law says that a voter has to “willfully” commit the crime — a hurdle that has forced some prosecutors in the past not to charge ineligible voters.

When police went to arrest Oliver in her driveway on her way to work in August, police body cameras captured her confusion.

“Voter fraud?” she said. “I voted, but I ain’t commit no fraud.”

The Department of State is required by state law to identify and remove ineligible voters from the rolls, a task it has struggled to complete. The department didn’t notice this year that Oliver was still on the voter rolls, months after she was arrested. Another person was issued a new voter ID card nearly a month after his arrest.

DeSantis, facing pressure from the right over his refusal to audit the 2020 election, pushed the Legislature to create the first Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State this year. The arrests on Aug. 18 were its first actions, and DeSantis received cheers and applause when he held a news conference that morning.

“That is against the law, and now they’re going to pay the price for it,” DeSantis vowed at the time.

So far, none of the 20 people arrested have received prison time. Last week, statewide prosecutors dropped charges against one of them. In Miami last month, a judge dismissed charges against another, which statewide prosecutors have appealed.