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Civil Rights Groups Criticize Renewed Florida Felon Voter Purges

by NewStandard Staff

Florida election officials are set to purge convicted felons from voter lists again, and civil rights groups question why voters who were illegally removed in 2000 have not been reinstated.

May 11, 2004 – Election officials in Florida have ordered local election supervisors to once again begin purging convicted felons from voting lists. The move, which comes just six months before a presidential election expected to be very close in Florida, has angered civil rights groups. They say state officials have not yet reinstated the voting rights of all the people who were illegally kept from voting in 2000 and they warn of another election fiasco in the works.

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"Here we go again," said Ralph G. Neas, President of the People for the American Way Foundation "Even before they have corrected the mistakes of four years ago, before they have restored the rights to the people who were wronged in 2000, they’re starting this process yet again. It’s mind-boggling." Neas’ organization is a nonprofit civil rights group working to strengthen democratic institutions.

In what state election officials say is an attempt to comply with Florida law, which denies convicted felons the right to vote, the Florida state Division of Elections sent a memo to local election supervisors directing them to take convicted felons off the voting rolls, reports the Miami Herald.

"As part of our quality assurance testing, felon and clemency information was run against a copy of the current voter registration database and has identified over 40,000 potential felon matches statewide," wrote Ed Kast, director of the state Division of Elections, in a the memo, according to the Herald.

In the 2000 presidential election, thousands were purged from voter registration lists at the order of then Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was also at the time George W. Bush’s Florida election campaign director. Investigative journalist Greg Palast estimated that as many as 90,000 people, a disproportionate number of them black, Hispanic and Democrat, were illegally denied the right to vote.

Rights groups charged that many people were purged for having the same or similar name as a convicted felon. Additionally, more people were wrongly taken off voting lists because they had committed felonies in other states, and had moved to Florida after having their voting rights restored to them.

The Supreme Court declared Bush the winner of the 2000 election, in spite of the purges, which along with other voting irregularities in Florida, resulted in George Bush leading Al Gore by just 537 votes in the state.

Following the 2000 election, civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and People For the American Way Foundation, brought a class action suit against the state of Florida alleging the state’s disparate and unfair voting practices resulted in the invalidation of a disproportionate number of black voters and established unjust barriers to black voters during the 2000 presidential elections.

As part of the settlement of that suit, Florida agreed to identify and restore the voting rights of eligible voters who were purged illegally and create a Central Voter Database to prevent such errors in the future. The settlement did not, however, address the disenfranchisement of ex-felons, which unequally affects people of color.

In a press release about the new round of purges, People for the American Way said the process of reinstating voters has not been finished.

State elections officials are defending their recent directive, saying the new list of felons and the process for notifying people who are subject to removal so they have a chance to appeal has been improved. The Associated Press reports that Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood, said the list has been approved by both the US Department of Justice and the NAACP. "We feel confident that the same mistakes made in 2000 will not be repeated," Nash told the AP.

But the Florida political action chair for the NAACP expressed skepticism at how election officials will handle the upcoming election. Anthony Viegbesie told the Orlando Sentinel that his group was giving state officials "the benefit of the doubt," but he said he did not believe the process will work better than it did in 2000.

The ACLU is also questioning the new procedures and is reportedly considering a suit against state officials. According to the Sentinel, the civil rights organization says the information used to compile the list of felons is unreliable. Additionally, they say the state policy, which mandates that officials send letters to and publicly publish the names of people who will be purged, unfairly places the burden on the voter. Under the plan, people on the list will have 30 days to contest or their names will be dropped from voter rolls.

"Putting the burden on the voter is wrong and unjust," Florida ACLU Executive Director Howard Simon told the Sentinel. "That's a defect in the state law… If you've moved, or if you didn't get the letter, it's considered consent."

According to the New York Times, 48 states have laws barring convicted felons from voting. Florida is one of only seven states that deny felons the vote even after they have completed their sentences. Nationwide, an estimated 4.7 million people are currently barred from voting due to felony convictions, according to Right to Vote, a coalition of 16 civil rights groups seeking to restore the voting rights of felons. A disproportionate number of those are African American and Hispanic, groups that tend to favor Democratic candidates. While one in 43 adults cannot vote, one in thirteen African American adults is barred from voting.

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