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Florida’s Felon Disenfranchisement “Mess”

Since George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election by prevailing in Florida by a razor-thin margin of 537 votes, intense scrutiny has been focused on Florida’s election laws and procedures.  Civil rights activist have kept the focus on the disenfranchisement of felons, which it has been estimated to reach 600,000 persons in Florida alone.  Blacks represent the highest proportion of the disenfranchised.  They are also usually Democrat voters.

Florida is one of seven states that bans felons from voting.  Florida’s ban has been enforced by election supervisors using a list of felons supplied by the state when purging voters from the rolls.  For the 2000 election, Florida contracted with Atlanta based DBT, which was later bought by ChoicePoint, to compile the felons list.  A day after the elections, voters caused an uproar because that list caused a larger number of non-felons to be prohibited from voting at the same time felons were allowed to vote.

In July 2004, ChoicePoint spokesman Chuck Jones said state election officials were advised in 1998 that the list to purge felons from voter rolls would have a glitch.  The glitch involved Hispanics not appearing on the list if they identified themselves as Hispanic.  Because the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s database does not have Hispanic as a race option, as they are considered “white,” an identical match was not made for race.

In May 2004, the state put out a list of 48,000 potential felons for election supervisors to purge their rolls with.  The Hispanic glitch appeared again.  A Miami Herald investigation found 2,119 Florida votes – many of them black Democrats – were improperly on the list because their rights to vote were formally restored through the state’s clemency process.

Some people were not even on the list.  “Weird.  I’ve never been arrested for felonies,” said William Miller, 50 of Tampa.  Miller has no criminal record and is a registered voter.  Apparently, he was confused with a man who has the same first and last name, plus the same birthday, but has a different middle name and a criminal record.

After the resulting uproar in mainstream media about these problems with Florida’s felon list, Secretary of State Glenda Wood scrapped the list.  She ordered her inspector general to review how the database was designed to make corrections to produce a new list.  The new list is being compiled to include Hispanics and exclude those who had their charges reduced or were granted clemency.

Felons in Florida must file an application for clemency and a hearing before Gov. Jeb Bush and his cabinet.  Some felons automatically have their voting rights restored, which is dependant upon the crime’s severity.  Roughly 85 percent of felons must go through a hearing.

Hearings are held four times a year, at which about 50 cases are heard each time.  As PLN previously reported, the process proves humiliating at times. Currently, 8,000 applications are backlogged.

Gov. Bush is not attempting to help restore rights, and has refused to provide applications to those being released from prison or probation.  The state was ordered 2003 to review 125,000 cases included in a lawsuit filed on behalf of felons released from prison between 1992 and 2001, who were not assisted in filling out the form to restore rights, as required by Florida law.  Bush announced on June 17, 2004, that the review was completed.  22,000 were automatically restored; the others must apply for a hearing.

Despite the order, Florida officials remained obstinate in refusing to help felons apply for their civil rights to be restored.  Florida’s First District Court of Appeal unanimously ruled corrections officials are not following state law that requires assisting prisoners in filling out the application.  In response to that ruling, Gov. Bush said, “If the requirement is there be assistance to fill out the form, that’s what we’ll do.”

One week later, Bush did an about face.  He eliminated the form.  Now, the names of felons being released from prison or probation will be forwarded to the Office of Executive Clemency, which will determine if felons qualify for automatic restoration.  Those who do not qualify will be advised by letter they need to apply for a hearing.  Critics say that most felons are transient and will never receive the letters.

“I think the governor thumbed his nose at the court and showed disrespect for the rule of law,” said Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute.

“Jim Crow is very alive in Florida,” says the Rev. James Phillips, who is a member of the Florida Rights Restoration Committee.

“Both parties are to blame for what we are experiencing,” said Courtney Strickland, who directs monthly voter restoration workshops for felons in her capacity as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project.  “The rules of executive clemency determine what will make the process harder or easier.  Gov. Bush could eliminate that bureaucratic hurdle, and he refuses to do it.”

“We’ve got a mess down here in Florida,” says State Sen. Mandy Dawson (D-Ft. Lauderdale).  Dawson is behind a proposed ballot initiative that would remove the lifetime voting rights ban against felons who have completed their sentences.

Courtney Strickland summed it up best.  “This system off sets up degrees of citizenship.  This doesn’t look like a democracy.” 

Sources:  Miami Herald, The New York Times,

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