Civil rights panel says disenfranchisement of voters was deliberate
BY ERIKA BOLSTAD
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON - (KRT) - The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said Thursday it will ask the Department of Justice to investigate whether Florida's use of a flawed database to remove felons from the voter rolls was a deliberate attempt to block some voters from casting ballots.
Commissioners, who heard Thursday from the architects of the database as well as its critics, want to know whether the overwhelmingly Democratic and blacks voters on the list were targeted for removal.
"If it was intentional, it may well have been a criminal violation of the Civil Rights Act,'' said Commissioner Christopher Edley Jr. ``It's not just about a sloppy database, it's not just about bureaucracy strapped for resources. It's about the deprivation of a fundamental civil right.''
The state scrapped the felon list Saturday after media reports uncovered a flaw in a database that failed to capture most felons who classified themselves as Hispanic. State election officials were already under fire for the list by civil rights groups after The Herald reported that it included people - many of them black Democrats - who have had their right to vote restored.
Florida is one of six states that ban felons from voting even after they've served their time, unless the ex-convicts regain voting rights.
The Commission on Civil Rights, which met Thursday in Washington, called on election experts to discuss Florida's felon list and electronic-voting problems.
``Why is this happening in the state of Florida?'' asked U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, who stopped in at the commission's hearing. ``The stakes are high, because of Florida's 27 electoral votes that very well may determine the outcome of a national presidential election, again.''
Gov. Jeb Bush has repeatedly denied any partisan motive in how the list was developed. Bush spokeswoman Jill Bratina said Thursday that the governor was concerned about the felon list's failure to include Hispanic felons and has asked Secretary of State Glenda Hood to do an audit. Hispanics in Florida tend to lean Republican.
``Our No. 1 goal is to have integrity in our elections, to have a smooth and fair election process,'' Bratina said. ``There are people out there who have an agenda, and that agenda includes eroding confidence in Florida's elections.''
The rights commission has a contentious history with Florida leaders, especially former Secretary of State Katherine Harris. After the 2000 presidential election, commissioners released a draft assessment of the election in Florida that called Harris and Bush ``grossly derelict in fulfilling their responsibilities.''
The commission toned down its language in the final report, but Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry made it clear Thursday that she hasn't forgotten - or forgiven - recent history.
``The whole reason why we're having these proceedings is to keep alerting the country to the fact that there are problems, and to try to put people's feet to the fire to make sure they try to solve the problems,'' Berry said. ``So far what we have from Ms. Hood is just a sliding away from the problems.''
Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for Hood, said the secretary of state was ``disappointed with the partisan tone'' of the commission meeting. Hood sent a letter to the commission detailing the state's decision on the felon list, but did not attend.
``If they're going to investigate, we would welcome the Department of Justice and work diligently with them,'' Nash said. ``We feel that we have followed the law and what the Florida statutes mandated.''
The commission also called on Accenture, the company that helped develop the database of potential felons, to defend its work.
The state paid the firm nearly $2 million to develop the central voter file and to create a way to screen rolls for felons who haven't had voting rights restored.
Accenture took on the contract after a similar list released before the 2000 election removed thousands of voters from the state rolls. An NAACP lawsuit helped establish new list guidelines.
Accenture executive Meg McLaughlin said the company was unaware of the flaw that failed to spot potential Hispanic felons.
She also said that state officials were well aware that the list could be flawed. That's why individual county election supervisors were ultimately given the task of vetting the list, McLaughlin said, and her company's job was merely to help develop the database.
``Our system does not add or remove citizens from the voter rolls,'' she said.
Although the list now won't be implemented before the November election, civil rights commissioners said they're concerned that the state has now left it to individual election supervisors to create their own system of removing ineligible voters.
In the Bush v. Gore decision that decided the 2000 presidential election, Edley pointed out, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that different recount procedures in each county violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Procedures for purging voters from the rolls are now different, said Edley, a professor at Harvard Law School.
``With all due respect to the secretary of state in Florida, it's simply not sufficient to toss up your hands and say `the counties will take care of it,' '' Edley said.
That was impossible, said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, who traveled to the hearing. In three weeks of inspecting the 850 potential felons on his county's list, his three clerks processed 60 names.
``The Division of Elections did not even realize the burden they were placing on supervisors of elections, or if they did, it was immaterial to them.''
Sancho was joined by Sam Heyward, a Tallahassee voter with a past felony conviction whose name wrongly appeared on the list.
``I've voted in the last four presidential elections and most of the local elections,'' said Heyward, who showed a letter proving his rights were restored. ``Why are they trying to take my voter rights now, after all this time? I hope, that come Election Day, I once again can express my right to vote.''