Florida's Rush to Disenfranchise Felons Before the 2004 Election
By David M. Reutter
After George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes in the 2000 election, an uproar arose when it was learned that election supervisors, using a list compiled by an Atlanta firm, had mistakenly identified voters as felons and purged them from voter rolls. Some supervisors mistakenly allowed actual felons to vote or turned away legitimate voters as suspected felons. Florida is one of six states that imposes a lifetime civil and voting rights ban on anyone convicted of a felony.
It is unknown how many valid voters were disenfranchised, but the resulting outcry led to the purchase of new voting machines and the reform of Florida election laws. The new process requires election supervisors to send certified letters to suspected felons. If they do not respond, they are removed from voter rolls. Civil groups lament the unfairness of putting the burden of proof on the voter.
In mid-May 2004, the state provided county election supervisors a list of 48,000 possible felons. Those supervisors are trying to develop safeguards in addition to the certified letters. "We have to identify a proper procedure to ensure that anyone removed is actually a felon," said Ion Sancho, the Levin County elections supervisor, who added that he had already found mistakes in the list for his area.
Elections supervisors are considering a plan that would require officials to first verify the convictions of felons and then make sure their voting rights had not been restored. Several thousand felons apply each month for restoration. During Governor Jeb Bush's first three years in office, 1999 through 2001, the state restored the rights of an average of 1,550 people a year. The beacon focused on Florida's felon disenfranchisement laws after the 2000 election resulted in that number jumping in the last two years: 6,649 felons had their voting rights restored in 2002, and 14,828 in 2003 according to the Florida Parole Commission.
If a voter does not receive the suspected felon certified letter, that voter will have no ability to be aware of being on the purge list. State law prohibits the distribution of the list of suspected felons. In early June, 2004, CNN sued the state for access to that list, and Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida joined that suit.
On June 7, 2004, the head of the State's Elections Division, Ed Kast, resigned with a brief letter that said, "I find it necessary to tender my resignation." It is suspected the recent criticism of the purging process was a factor. "The timing is terrible," said Mr. Sancho. "But the election system is under a micron microscope at this point. Can you pay somebody enough to take this kind of pressure?"
A 2001 report by a University of Minnesota sociologist counted more than 600,000 disenfranchised felons in Florida, not including those in prison. That report also found more than one in four black men may not vote. Despite buying new voting machines and enacting election reform laws, critics predict Florida will still have problems with the accuracy of the voters' rolls and election machinery.
Source: New York Times.
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