Monday, July 12, 2004

Florida drops felon-voter list

Florida election officials are scrapping a widely contested plan that could have banned thousands of voters from the polls in November, after the state admitted it made a huge error.

Miami Herald
July 11, 2004

State drops felon-voter list

TALLAHASSEE - Florida election officials conceded an enormous mistake Saturday and abandoned the controversial list the state was using to remove convicted felons from the voter rolls.

After defending the list against mounting criticism as late as Friday evening, the state made an about-face. The reason: a flaw in a database that failed to capture most felons who classified themselves as Hispanic.

Secretary of State Glenda Hood announced at 1 p.m. Saturday that an ''unintentional and unforeseen discrepancy . . . related to Hispanic classification'' had forced the agency to eliminate the entire list from further consideration this year.

The announcement was an embarrassment for top state officials from Gov. Jeb Bush down, and it was enthusiastically lauded by voting rights advocates -- and those on the list.

The Division of Elections had created the list of registered voters with possible felony convictions. It then directed local elections supervisors across Florida to identify convicted felons whose voting rights had not been restored and remove them from the rolls.

Yet of the nearly 48,000 names, just 61 were classified as Hispanics, in a state where Hispanics comprise 8 percent of the population.

''We are deeply concerned and disappointed that this has occurred,'' Hood said in the statement. `` . . . We will be reviewing the issue to determine how it could have occurred and why it was not recognized until now.''

The result of the flaw: The state will now allow individual county election supervisors to create their own system of removing ineligible voters. The Florida Constitution requires that ex-felons be prohibited from voting unless the right is restored.

Gov. Bush, in Miami at an event honoring military personnel, said the failure to list Hispanics in the screening process ``was an oversight and a mistake and that's why we're pulling it back.''

''This will give us the proper amount of time to make sure that the database for screening felons will be a useful tool for supervisors,'' he said.


Ralph G. Neas, president of People For the American Way Foundation, who was co-counsel in a lawsuit challenging an earlier 2000 purge list, said: ``This smells to high heaven. It strains credulity to think that Hispanics were somehow left off the list, while African Americans remained on the list.''

Hispanics in Florida register Republican more often than Democratic. By contrast, more than 90 percent of the nearly one million black voters in Florida are Democrats.

The state's sudden decision surprised some civil rights advocates, who last week called the list ``infirm.''

In a letter written just Friday to the Florida Justice Institute and obtained by The Herald, an attorney for the state wrote: 'If your request to withdraw the `entire list' was implemented, the Division of Elections would be in violation of Florida law.' ''

Yet, a day later, the state changed course.

''It's unfortunate it took this long to come to the realization that the list was just fraught with errors and it wasn't meant to be,'' said Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute. ``But it's a good thing that they realized the error of their ways.''

This is the third time in recent weeks the state has been confronted with major flaws in the list.

Last week, The Herald reported that more than 2,100 Florida voters -- many of them black Democrats -- were on the list even though their civil rights had been formally restored by the state. The paper then reported that 1,600 of those cases involved felons who won clemency after they registered to vote.


At the time, Hood called The Herald account ''factually incorrect,'' saying many names were appropriately on the list because state law requires felons to re-register after being granted clemency.

On Wednesday, under fire from local elections officials burdened by the bureaucratic paperwork, the Division of Elections said the 1,600 voters would be taken off the list, along with hundreds of others.

The state also acknowledged that clemency records for former felons did not include some individuals whose rights were restored prior to 1977. The New York-based Brennan Center for Justice had raised that question last month, only to be initially rebuffed by the state.

''We just found one problem after another with the list,'' said Jessie Allen, associate counsel at the Brennan Center.

Of the 47,763 potentially ineligible voters, a Herald analysis found that 59 percent were Democrats, 19 percent were Republicans and 22 percent were listed as ``other.''

Gov. Bush's administration has repeatedly denied there was any partisan motive in the way the list was developed. Critics, however, say there was no room for error in a state that delivered the White House to Bush's brother George by just 537 votes in the 2000 presidential election.


The state countered that the method was laid out in a 2002 settlement between the state and the ACLU, NAACP and People For the American Way.

The civil-rights groups had filed a class-action lawsuit against the state and seven counties alleging that the 2000 election disfrancised minority voters because of errors in the state's voter database.

The settlement was meant to ensure that only truly ineligible voters would be taken off the rolls. It requires the state to match law enforcement records with lists of registered voters.

But the database of felons supplied by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement does not list Hispanics as an ethnic group, ''believe it or not,'' said Nicole DeLara, spokeswoman for the secretary of state. ``We have not been able to determine why this wasn't caught.''

Floridians whose names appear on the list say they're pleased that the state changed its mind but that the mistake will make them suspicious of any future attempts to purge the rolls.

''They were trying to sneak this thing by us until someone pulled the cover off it,'' said 53-year-old Walter Gibbons of Miami Gardens, a Vietnam veteran and ordained minister who has voted repeatedly since he received clemency nearly 30 years ago for a drug conviction.

Democratic state Rep. Chris Smith, whose overwhelmingly black Fort Lauderdale district was among those hit hardest by the list, was considering suing the state next week to keep supervisors from purging anyone from the voter rolls.

''I'm extremely excited the state of Florida decided to do the right thing,'' he said. ``That saves me some legal time.''

But Smith, the incoming Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, will continue to pursue a constitutional change to make it easier for felons to register to vote once they've finished their sentences.

''This will give me a lot more momentum to file legislation to finally get rid of this antiquated process,'' he said.


Florida is one of just six states that continue to ban felons from voting even after they've served their time, unless those felons regain their voting rights.

Florida's push to scrub the voting rolls of felons has repeatedly failed.

The Legislature ordered the first purge in 1998, but lists of potentially ineligible voters were riddled with errors and most election supervisors ignored them.

The state distributed new lists in the months before the 2000 presidential election, but again there were errors.

Now, with the state's decision to abandon the present list, local election officials were breathing easier.

''We had reservations about the accuracy of the list,'' said Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore, working Saturday. ``The timing just wasn't good.''

In Broward, which had more names on the list than any Florida county, Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes said the decision will allow her to shift staff to other duties.

''There are a whole lot of pieces in preparing for an election, and this is a piece now that we won't have to delegate time and resources to,'' said Snipes, also working Saturday.

Herald staff writers Gary Fineout and Karl Ross contributed to this report.