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Confusion follows the Florida arrests of convicted felons accused of voter fraud

Democrats increased criticism of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic .
The News Service of Florida
Governor Ron DeSantis in August announced the first arrests by the new Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security for violations of the state's election laws.

Video obtained by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald shows the confusion from both law enforcement officers and people who were being arrested in August as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis' crackdown on voter fraud.

They were among 19 who were arrested — through the newly formed Office of Election Crimes and Security — as officers informed them that, as convicted felons, they had voted illegally in 2020 after they obtained voter registrations.

If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

In an interview with NPR's A Martinez during Morning Edition on Wednesday, reporter Lawrence Mower said those arrested did not know they were violating the law.

"They were arrested because they're accused of basically, by Gov. Ron DeSantis, of voting illegally, basically knowingly violating the state voter fraud law," Mower told Martinez. "You know, and when, obviously, these people were clearly confused about why they were being arrested in the first place."

In 2018, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that restores voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences.

Those arrested, however, were previously convicted of murder or felony sex offenses — an exception to the 2018 amendment.

Referring to bodycam video showing the arrest of Tony Patterson, Neil Volz — deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and a convicted felon — told Lisa Mullins during an interview Wednesday on Here & Now that the voting system is "broken."

"I think the video is very clear that it's putting a human face on a broken system, a system that we can fix by focusing on the verification process on the front end," Volz said. "If we followed other states and had a system in which people could get verified as eligible voters on the front end, nobody would be arrested on the back end.

"And that's what we're encouraging people to look at and and know that there is a way for us to fix this problem, so that we don't have to spend all this money on law enforcement and see the pain of people like those that we see on these videos."

One video shows a woman, Romona Oliver, saying "Oh my God, I voted, I voted, but I ain't commit no fraud," to which an arresting officer responded, "That's the thing. I don't know exactly what happened with it, but you do have a warrant. That's what it's for."

Mower said some officers themselves don't quite understand why the arrests are being made.

He recounted the arrest of Nathan Hart, who was encouraged to apply for a voter ID even though he's a registered sex offender.

Hart "said that when he went to go change his driver's license, presumably at the DMV, the person at the DMV told him, 'Hey, why don't you sign up and register to vote?' " Mower told Martinez. "And he said, 'I'm pretty sure I can't, because I'm a felon.' And the person at the DMV presumably said, 'Well, hey, if you can vote, they'll let you vote. You know, just fill it out anyway. And if you can't vote, they won't let you vote.' "

Mower also said an officer told Hart that it "sounds like a loophole" and that he's "never seen these charges before in my entire life."

Volz likened Hart's story to a 13-year-old who would be granted a license and then arrested after they being told they could drive legally.

"Nobody would stand for that situation," Volz told Mullins. "We just believe that we should expect that we can know who's on the rolls and that people can have assurances when the government gives them a voter ID card that they are in fact eligible. If you can't trust the government to tell you whether you're eligible or not, who can you trust?

"Each individual needs to be able to take responsibility for filling out forms and knowing what their background is. At the same time, the state has the final responsibility for determining eligibility."

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Carl Lisciandrello is digital news editor of WUSF Public Media.