Felon Follies

A problem that marred the 2000 ballot is back

One of the most intriguing mysteries of the whole Election 2000 debacle is this: How many Florida voters improperly lost their voting rights because of a statewide effort to scrub felons from voter rolls? This question was at the heart of a post-election lawsuit filed against the Department of State and others. The lead plaintiff, the NAACP, brought the class-action suit because more than half of those on the scrub list were black.

The good news is, all of those lawsuits are now settled. The private company contracted to perform the purge, Atlanta-based ChoicePoint (which in 2001 merged with the original contractor, West Palm Beach's Database Technologies, or DBT) has agreed to more closely scrutinize the names on the lists it sent out before November 2000 and identify those voters who should never have been removed in the first place. The supervisors of elections who wrongfully removed these voters from the rolls will then reinstate them.

The bad news? This unknown number of nonfelons (dozens? hundreds? thousands?) won't be back on the rolls in time to vote Tuesday. Some of them might already have been reinstated, and those who show up at the polls can cast a provisional ballot. But the original wrong -- the improper removal of their franchise -- has yet to be righted.

The NAACP brought the suit in January 2001 in federal court in Miami, alleging not only that the voter purge lists were flawed but that other violations of the federal Voting Rights Act had occurred in November 2000. The defendants were then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, DBT/ChoicePoint, and the supervisors of elections from seven counties, including Broward and Miami-Dade. Leon County settled first, in April 2002. Then came Broward in May, DBT/ChoicePoint in July, and Duval, Miami-Dade, and Volusia in August. The others settled the first week of September, on the eve of trial.

"The state was holding up the rear," rues Thomasina Williams, a Miami attorney who worked as co-counsel with the coalition of civil rights groups representing the plaintiffs in the NAACP case.

Was the Jeb Bush administration dragging its feet? "I'm reluctant to use the word delay," says attorney Elliott Mincberg of People for the American Way, one of the groups representing the plaintiffs. "Let's just say they litigated the case very aggressively, and there's no question that was a factor that stretched out the process."

Though the job won't be done until spring 2003, a second run through the original purge lists has arrived at a stunning conclusion. On July 29, ChoicePoint filtered its list of 94,282 potential or possible felons through more exacting criteria, including complete Social Security numbers. The number of possible felon matches: a mere 2,563.

This number is shockingly low. Was the list that DBT sent to the state actually 97 percent inaccurate? Probably not: The State of Florida does not routinely ask for Social Security numbers as part of the voter registration process. Still, Mincberg says his clients' expert was prepared to testify at trial that 70,000 of those 94,000 names were inaccurate -- roughly a 74 percent rate of "false positives."

Mincberg is generally pleased with the settlement terms, but he has reservations. "With respect to those who were improperly purged, that's not going to happen [in time for the 2002 election]," he says. He points out that the agreements, like all changes to election procedures in Florida, will have to be "pre-cleared" by the U.S. Justice Department before they are implemented. According to the Florida Attorney General's Office, the part of the settlement agreement that pertains to the felon lists was submitted September 26. As of press time, the Justice Department had not approved the agreements.

Florida is one of eight states that denies people convicted of felonies the right to vote and is the only state to include this denial in its constitution. This prohibition has had a clearly discriminatory effect: 27 percent of black men in Florida cannot vote.

A felon can ask the state to restore his or her voting rights. Not so long ago, the clemency process was almost automatic. In 1986, under Democratic Gov. Bob Graham, some 15,000 felons had their voting rights reinstated. In 2000, the last year for which figures are available, that number was 927. According to the Florida Parole Commission, there is a current backlog of some 26,500 applications for restoration.

The old system for maintaining accurate voter rolls went as follows: After checking with the Bureau of Vital Statistics and the Clerk of the Courts in his or her home county, each supervisor of elections would monthly strike the dead and the felons from the list, then send correspondence to counterparts in the 66 other counties noting the removals. This system was far from airtight, as the 1997 Miami mayoral election demonstrated. The most memorable lowlight of that mess was the fact that a dead man voted.

It was the state's attempt to rectify the Miami debacle that led to the most egregiously discriminatory aspect of the statewide debacle in 2000. The 1998 law established a central voter file and ordered the state to contract with "a private entity to compare information in the central voter file with available information in other computer databases, including, without limitation, databases containing reliable criminal records and records of deceased persons."

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