Potential felon voter list includes dead, pardoned
By Robert P. King and William M. Hartnett, Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 3, 2004
The dead and the pardoned are among the 47,763 potential felons whom the state wants purged from Florida's voting rolls.
The list, made public Thursday by the state Division of Elections and posted on the Web by activists, is the state's latest attempt to keep ineligible voters from the polls.
But so far, the purge isn't escaping the controversy that torpedoed the last such effort in 2000, which became part of the lore of that year's bungled presidential election.
A preliminary analysis of the data by The Palm Beach Post found some people on the list who seem to have had their voting rights restored after the state granted them clemency or pardons as well as some who have died. Full figures were unavailable Friday.
Combing erroneous information from the list is now the job of the state's 67 county elections supervisors. But some say they may have trouble finishing the task before the Aug. 31 primaries.
"We will try, but I doubt it very seriously," said Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore, whose staff has 5,255 potential felons to scrutinize. "We will not take anybody off unless we are 100 percent sure that they should be."
Rather than receiving the entire list on CD-ROM, as news organizations did following a court order Thursday, LePore said her staff must log onto a special Web site and verify each name one by one.
LePore said her staff will check all names against the state's clemency records. Her office also will send two letters to each voter it intends to remove, then will publish their names in the newspaper before holding hearings.
"We're being very deliberative about it," said Gertrude Walker, supervisor of elections in St. Lucie County. "We want to make sure we don't disenfranchise anyone or even notify someone they are a possible felon unless we have confirmation of it."
Walker said she is considering hiring a company to finish going through the 909 names from St. Lucie County. "But I haven't gone to the county commission to ask for the funding because this is quite costly, and I didn't budget for it."
In Martin County, Elections Supervisor Peggy Robbins said her office hasn't yet purged any felons from its list of 345.
Four years ago, LePore was one of several elections supervisors who refused to use a state contractor's list of 173,142 potential felons and other ineligible voters.
That list included nearly 8,000 Floridians who were wrongly tagged as out-of-state felons, even though they had been convicted only of misdemeanors. It also incorrectly branded innocent people including the mayor of a rural North Florida town who merely had the same name, birth date, race or height as convicts.
State lawmakers ordered the purge in 1998 after a Miami mayoral election in which felons and dead people voted while vagrants received $10 payments to cast ballots.
But the 2000 effort, overseen by then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris, drew attacks from critics who called it an attempt to keep Democratic-leaning minorities from voting.
After George W. Bush won the presidency by 537 votes, the purge launched a host of conspiracy theories. It even receives a mention in Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.
After the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued in 2001, the state changed its methods for compiling the list. One result is greater exactness in matching voters' names to felons, said Elliot Mincberg, vice president of the activist People for the American Way Foundation.
But Mincberg said the new list still includes people it shouldn't. For instance, the foundation says people who registered to vote, committed crimes and then received clemency should be allowed to cast ballots. But the Elections Division says they must re-register.
"The state is not operating with the presumption in favor of the voter, with doing everything they can to make sure voters who ought to be allowed to vote are allowed," Mincberg said.
The foundation posted the entire list on its Web site, www.pfaw.org.
Gov. Jeb Bush refused to answer questions about the felon list Friday, brushing past reporters on the steps of the Florida Supreme Court before attending a swearing-in ceremony for Chief Justice Barbara Pariente.
Although an aide said he would answer questions after the event, Bush hurried to a basement garage as soon as the ceremony ended.
In a statement Friday, Secretary of State Glenda Hood accused critics of misunderstanding election law and announced her office will hold tutorials to "educate" reporters.
"Once again, this is a list of potential felons and is being rigorously reviewed by our Supervisors of Elections and by the Division of Elections," Hood said.