Florida officials back down on voter purge list
Jenny Brown
July/August 2004

Just eight days after a circuit judge ordered elections officials to make the list public, Florida Department of State has withdrawn their list of over 47,000 ex-felons they wanted removed from the voter rolls. The list was so flawed that Supervisors of Elections across the state were asking why they should use it. People around Florida were finding their names on the list when they had committed no felony or had long since gone through the onerous process of getting their civil rights restored. On July 9, Florida Department of State officials announced that they were withdrawing the list because a database error meant they failed to purge voters with Latino surnames who they claimed had committed a felony.

At first, the state of Florida had refused to release the list to the public. Then, when the Leon County Circuit Court ordered them to release it, the press, civil rights groups, and public officials started to actually check the list to see whether the people on it should be eligible to vote or not. Many were stunned to discover that the State of Florida had targeted them for disenfranchisement.

"I have never seen such an incompetent program implemented by the DOE [Department of Elections]," Leon County supervisor of elections Ion Sancho told the Miami Herald shortly after state officials released the list. On July 2 the Herald wrote that "2,100 Florida voters--many of them black Democrats--could be wrongly barred from voting in November because Tallahassee elections officials included them on a list of felons potentially ineligible to vote, a Herald investigation has found." The Herald found that at least 2,119 of the 47,000 names "should not be on the list because their rights to vote were formally restored through the state's clemency process." ("Thousands of eligible voters are on felon list," Miami Herald, July 2, 2004.)

"Of the 2,119 people who obtained clemency [but who were on the purge list], 62 percent are registered Democrats, and almost half are black," noted the Herald. "Less than 20 percent are Republican."

For the 2000 elections in Leon County, the Supervisor of Elections could only verify 34 actual felons out of a list of 694 names provided by the state.

Tallahassee City Commissioner Andrew Gillum contacted people on the new Leon County list of 820 and immediately found people who should not be on the list, including Sam Heyward, who has voted since he received clemency in 1986. His crime? Buying furniture he knew was stolen at age 22. He served a year in a work camp. Now 45, Heyward told the Tallahassee Democrat that he was shocked when Gillum contacted him to say his name was on the list. "How many other names of people in the state are on that list, and they don't even know they're on the list or what to do to get their names cleared?"

Commissioner Gillum, who had obtained the list before the court decision as a public official, also wrote Governor Jeb Bush, pointing out that 72 percent of the people on the Leon County list are African American and asking Bush to make the list public. ("Who's on the List?" Tallahassee Democrat, June 27, 2004.)

A Gainesville civil rights attorney, looking at the list on the People for the American Way website, found her own sister on the list, although her sister has voted in Florida for years and never had a felony conviction in the state.

Until the list was withdrawn, Supervisors of Elections for each county were instructed to investigate whether the people on the list were actually eligible to vote. If they could not find proof that they were, they were to send them a registered letter. If the letter comes back the Elections Supervisors are to publish the names in the newspaper. If there is no response, the person is to be purged from the voting rolls.

If the Florida Department of State had had their way in court, the list would never have been released to the public and thousands of eligible voters, mostly Democrats, would've been illegally blocked from voting, again. On July 1, after the Leon County Circuit Court ordered the list to be released to the public in CNN vs. Florida Department of State, People for the American Way placed the entire list on their website (www.pfaw.org) It seems that if these errors had been honest mistakes, the state would have welcomed scrutiny of the list rather than fighting in court to keep it secret.

Déjà Vu
Greg Palast, a BBC investigative reporter, discovered that in preparation for the 2000 elections the State of Florida had hired a private firm, Choice Point, to purge the Florida voter rolls of felons. Choice Point was instructed by the Florida Department of State, then headed by Katherine Harris, to declare names a match even if the date of birth was different, or the middle initials were different. They were even instructed to create a list based on names of felons with records in other states. Choice Point managers pointed out that the list thus generated would create a lot of false matches. They were told to go ahead.

Palast even obtained an email in which Choice Point technicians point out to Florida state officials that if you commit a felony in another state, and your civil rights are restored there, you ARE eligible to vote in Florida. Choice Point suggested that these people should not be included in the list of voters to purge. Florida officials wrote back that they wanted all those people on the list, despite the fact that it would be illegal to prevent them from voting. When Palast confronted a Department of Elections official about this little detail, the official abruptly ended the interview. According to Palast, as a result, over 50,000 eligible voters, mostly African American, were scrubbed from the voting rolls in the 2000 election. (www.gregpalast.com)

This appalling state of affairs should lead us to conclude that the felony disenfranchisement law in Florida should be ended immediately. In addition to the racist content of the law, what the felony disenfranchisement law does is make it possible for the state to create 'purge lists' in the first place. It's a good example of Dr. Martin Luther King's statement, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Florida is one of only six states that deprive all felons of voting rights after they've served their time (it's joined on this rarified list by Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Iowa and Kentucky). Seven more states have some restrictions on felon voting. Most states (35) restore the vote automatically after punishment and two don't see why committing a crime should have anything to do with voting rights: In Maine and Vermont, prisoners can vote while they're locked up. (These numbers are provided by the Sentencing Project, www.sentencingproject.org)

Opponents of the felony disenfranchise-ment law have launched a petition drive to change the Florida constitution to automatically restore felon's voting rights upon completion of their sentence. The group heading the petition drive, the Committee to Restore Voter Dignity, needs to collect more than 480,000 signatures of registered voters to place the measure on the ballot. According to sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, more than 80% of Americans support restoration of voting rights upon completion of a sentence.

Locking up the vote

Source: The Sentencing Project, www.sentencingproject.org

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