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'Mess in Florida'

From Some Florida voters could be stopped from voting because they were incorrectly placed on the state’s new purge list of 47,000 “ineligible” voters who are ex-felons.
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Florida politics too often have been birthed in outrageousness and burped by shamelessness.

The notoriously controversial Florida presidential vote count of 2000 is on its way to a sequel as the Miami Herald revealed last Friday that 2,100 eligible voters, mostly black, could be barred from voting because they were incorrectly placed on the state’s new purge list of 47,000 “ineligible” voters who are ex-felons.

Just weeks before this disclosure, the newly appointed head of the state’s elections division resigned after just five months following inquiries over how the list was compiled.

An analysis of the 2000 election by author Greg Palast revealed that then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris (now a congresswoman) wiped 8,000 Floridians who committed misdemeanors off the voter rolls after she counted them as felons.

She also ordered the names of 173,000 “convicted felons” purged from state voter roles, using a database that included the names of ex-felons from 36 states that supposedly “matched” the names of Floridians, Palast writes in his book, “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.”

Critics argue that George W. Bush, who won Florida by 537 votes, only did so because this list canceled out many Florida voters whose name only approximated that of out-of-state felons. For example, an Illinois felon, say John Michaels, was linked to a legitimate Florida voter, named John, Johnny, Jonathan or Jon R. Michaels, who would be deemed ineligible to vote. After the election, it was determined that about 90 percent of those scratched from the voter rolls were innocent and the overwhelming majority was African American.

When asked about the high proportion of blacks on the purge list, Harris’ office responded: “Well, you know how many black people commit crimes,” Palast   said in an interview.

“We’ve got a mess down here in Florida,” says State Sen. Mandy Dawson (D-Fort Lauderdale). Dawson, who serves in a majority Republican Senate which has killed her pro-felon legislative petitions, is now seeking 500,000 signatures statewide for a ballot initiative that would remove the lifetime voting rights ban against felons who’ve completed their sentences.

“We’re not getting any help in money or resources from the Democrats or the labor unions, either nationally or locally,” complains Dawson.  “I guess neither party wants to see too many black folks voting.”

Randy Berg, lead counsel for the Florida Justice Institute, says Florida has the highest number of people disenfranchised, and “the numbers are building and accumulating each year.”

He says that 85 percent of nearly 125,000 convicted felons released between 1992 and 2001 have to go before the Clemency Review Board (composed of Gov. Jeb Bush and his cabinet) to have their rights restored.

But the review board only convenes quarterly and, as the Florida ACLU’s Courtenay Strickland points out, “Last March, the board met with 55 people,” about .04 percent of those waiting for a review. A determination on their rights restoration may take up to a year or longer, and most, if not all (according to Berg), will be denied.

“These men and women can’t get jobs and feed their families because an employer finds out they can’t vote and won’t hire them.  These people continue to be punished.  They’ve served their time, so they ought to be free,” Berg says.

Strickland agrees: “This system sets up degrees of citizenship.  This doesn’t look like a democracy.”

Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood, says that since 2002 there have been modifications in the law that “will prevent [voter role] omissions due to mistaken identity this time around.”

Says Nash: “We have more stringent [felon] matching criteria, such as only Florida convictions can be used for those on the list.”

But many critics contend that “the fix” already is in for this year’s Florida presidential election sweepstakes.

Just weeks ago, state officials sent a new purge list of 47,000 names to county election supervisors around the state.  When pressed by the media for the names on the list, the state refused to comply, resulting in a lawsuit by CNN demanding release of the names.   Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D), says, “The list should be open to the public.” He has filed a friend-of-the-court suit on behalf of First Amendment advocates.

The head of the state’s elections division, Ed Kast, resigned in June amid reports of political heat blowback that caused him to wilt following the flap over the new purge list.

“Jim Crow is very alive in Florida,” says the Rev. James Phillips.  Phillips is a member of the Florida Rights Restoration Committee, one of many local groups taking to the streets and courts in an attempt to win voting rights for felons.

But as recently as June 23, the Republican National Committee indicated that it’s in no rush to extend such rights, blasting the rival party for even allowing ex-offenders to pass out election flyers.

“It is disturbing that the voter mobilization arm of the Democratic party is proudly hiring felons convicted of sex offenses, assault and burglary to go house to house [distributing campaign literature]…,” says RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie in a statement. “Democrat voters should be leery of opening their doors.”

Labeling the statement both “unfair” and “racist,” Robin Templeton, director of the New York-based Right to Vote Campaign, says the issue is simply that “the people who have the most to gain in the voting process are the very ones spreading the word about our civic duty to vote.”

Templeton says, in effect, they should be commended – not denigrated – for what they’re doing, “because no one is breaking a law here; their sentences are up.”