July 15, 2004 – Although the Florida Division of Elections decision last weekend to scrap a controversial purge list of felons is considered a victory for civil liberties advocates, concerns about voting rights still abound. Saturday, state election officials abandoned the list of "potential felon matches" who would be banned from voting, after a news source revealed major inaccuracies in that list.
While local election officials are now compelled to ignore the state list, they will continue to review court information every month and, based on that data, purge convicted felons from local voting lists. Come Election Day, those who believe they have been inadvertently removed can use a provisional ballot that will be checked later for admissibility, according to the Associated Press.
On July 1, a Tallahassee judge forced the state to release a copy of the list. The Miami Herald had already obtained a copy and reported on the same day that over 2,100 people on the list had already been granted clemency and therefore had the legal right to vote.
Last Wednesday, the Sarasota Herald Tribune first reported that the list of 48,000 names, the result of two merged lists with mismatching racial categories, contained only 61 Hispanic names, in a state where Hispanics make up almost seventeen percent of the population, according to the Miami Herald. "Why this was not caught earlier is a question I think we are all asking right now," Nicole de Lara, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood, said in the Sarasota Herald Tribune. De Lara maintained that the people who created the list were "very qualified and talented individuals."
Reacting to the error, Ralph G. Neas, president of the People For the American Way Foundation, a group active in challenging the existence of the purge list, told the Miami Herald: "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."
According to the Miami Herald, while 90 percent of the nearly one million African Americans in Florida are Democrats, Hispanics in Florida overwhelmingly register and vote Republican.
The collapse of the list again raises questions about Accenture, the $14 billion company hired to help Florida generate the master purge list.
According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Accenture was once known as Andersen Consulting, which was a division of Arthur Andersen, the major accounting firm that audited Enronâ€™s books. In 2001, Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture to avoid being caught up in the scandal surrounding Arthur Andersenâ€™s accounting practices. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found that for the 2003-2004 election cycle, Accenture has given approximately almost $335,465 to Republican candidates or causes and $124,000 to Democrats running for office.
Last month, members of Congress cried foul when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) gave a $10 million contract to Accenture to design a system to track foreign visitors entering and leaving the United States. They cited Accenture's location in Bermuda, which they suggested the company might use to evade taxes. Under the DHS contract, Accenture will be working with Titan Corporation, another major government contractor whose employees have been embroiled in the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal.
Although Florida Governor Jeb Bush officially backed the decision to drop the list, some speculate that it may hinder the chances of his brother, President George W. Bush, in his bid for re-election. The decision, according to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, means that 28,000 registered Democrats who might have been purged can vote this November. Only 9,500 names on the list were registered Republican.
Bob Waechter, co-chair of the Bush/Cheney campaign in Sarasota County, told the Sarasota Herald Tribune, "I'm disappointed that the list is being scrapped. It seems to me that the right to vote is something that is conferred on us, and we lost it if we don't act properly and we have to earn it back."
But this is where civil liberties advocates disagree. Many object to the purge lists at all. "Why should we keep people from voting after we spent all this money rehabilitating them?" Representative Kendrick B. Meek, a Miami Democrat, said in the New York Times. "Why stand in judgment on whether they should vote or not?" He added that politicians were trying to play the role of moral judge.
Florida is one of seven states in which felons are stripped from the voting rolls unless their rights have been restored by approval of a clemency board. Dating back to 1868, the prohibition was initially created to disenfranchise ex-slaves. Voting rights groups have repeatedly tried to amend the state Constitution to restore voting power to felons after they have served their sentences.
Wired News reported that, while the purge lists have been shelved for this year, Florida plans to restore them -- as part of the Florida Voter Registration System -- during the 2006 election cycle.
"If the governor and his cabinet members were serious about helping former felons rehabilitate their lives and become productive tax-paying members of society," Howard Simon, executive directory of the ACLU of Florida, told Wired, "they would have done what most states in this country do -- and that's automatically restore people's rights after they have been released from prison and completed their supervision."
Other activists advocate that convicted felons should never lose their right to vote. Currently, only two states -- Maine and Vermont -- allow felons currently serving time to vote. Critics say not letting prisoners vote is racist and disproportionately affects people of color.
"The issue of disenfranchisement is really about power," Lumumba Bandele, a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging New York State's disenfranchisement laws, said in Focus, the public policy magazine for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "As the 'prison industrial complex' grows, one of the results is an increase in the number of people of color who are not allowed to participate in the electoral process."
Over 4 million Americans will not be able to vote in this year's election, according to the article's author, Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes reduced reliance on incarceration to deal with crime.
In Florida, which has some of the strictest rules for convicted felons seeking to regain their voting rights, felons must apply for re-enfranchisement of their civil rights after they have completed their sentences. Some must appear before the governor and his cabinet and plead their case not only to restore their right to vote, but also to serve on a jury, hold public office and, for some, qualify for certain state-issued professional licenses, like nursing or contract licenses. The hearings, according to an article in the New York Times, include questioning about the felon's drinking habits and anger-management.
John Eason, one felon denied clemency -- and with it an opportunity to get his contractor's license -- criticized the system. "The government thinks they're doing society a favor by showing that it's still convicting the bad people," Eason told the Times. "But how does it benefit society to keep me down in this way?"