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No telling if voter rolls are ready for 2004

In 2000, some people were mistakenly labeled felons and denied voting rights. Despite three years of reform efforts, inconsistencies and obstacles remain.

ADAM C. SMITH
Published December 21, 2003

David Murry had regularly voted for 20 years, so the mechanic didn't think twice when he showed up at his Seminole precinct in November 2000 to vote for president.

But poll workers wouldn't let him cast a ballot.

Murry was a felon, they said, and they brushed aside his protests that their records were wrong. The apologetic letter he later received from the Pinellas County elections office acknowledging the mistake offered little solace.

"This was a presidential election. It was very important," Murry recalled last week. "I never did anything to deserve it, but they denied me my constitutional right to vote."

How many voters were incorrectly removed from voter rolls before the 2000 election remains unclear. The controversy spawned conspiracy theories, lawsuits and election-reform efforts, including a more accurate method for flagging illegal voters.

But less than a year before Floridians vote again for president, the election system remains bedeviled by inconsistencies, red tape and potential obstacles to prospective voters:

The state put together a list of 12,000 people - 41 percent of whom are African-American - who may have been misidentified as felons and denied the right to vote in 2000. But after completing the list, elections officials acknowledge it is inexact and still may include felons who should not be allowed to vote in 2004.

The counties have been told to deal with inconsistencies in the list as best they can. Some are returning to the rolls any voters who the county can't prove are felons. But others are making voters prove they aren't felons in order to vote next year.

Despite a legal settlement to make it easier for felons to regain their voting rights, the backlog of former prisoners who have applied to restore their rights has grown to nearly 39,000. That's a six-fold increase since 2001, yet the state earlier this year cut the number of Parole Commission staffers who handle applications.

In 2004, could Florida voters again be wrongfully denied their voting rights?

"I don't know that I can answer that," said Secretary of State Glenda Hood, whom Gov. Jeb Bush appointed to succeed Katherine Harris as the state's top elections official.

Attorney Cara Fineman of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, one of several groups that sued the state for disenfranchising minority voters in 2000, said "I don't think any of us would feel comfortable saying it's fixed. I think the Division of Elections is moving in the right direction."

The problems exposed in the 2000 election prompted the state to ease off its aggressive purge of suspected illegal voters for the 2002 gubernatorial election. But state elections officials say they're employing a better process with more stringent rules for identifying felons who are registered to vote and will be ready for the Aug. 31 primary.

"There's still a bit of testing to go through, but we're very, very close to having it fixed," said Division of Elections director Ed Kast.

Some local elections administrators are skeptical.

"What we got in 2000 was a mess. It was a free-for-all," said Indian River County Supervisor of Elections Kay Clem, who heads the state association of elections supervisors. "I don't know what it's going to take to make a lot of us feel comfortable with it this time."

An overzealous effort

Tracing what went wrong with Florida's purge of suspected felon voters requires going back 135 years. That's when state leaders included in the Florida Constitution a lifetime voting ban for felons unless they are granted clemency by the state.

Today, Florida is one of just seven states denying all felons the right to vote unless they seek to regain their civil rights, a complex procedure that can take years.

Until recently, the state did not aggressively screen its voter registration rolls to remove felons. That changed dramatically after Miami's 1997 mayoral election was overturned amid evidence of voter fraud. The Miami Herald won a Pulitzer Prize for an investigation that found, among other problems, that more than 100 felons had improperly voted.

State lawmakers responded in 1998 with a sweeping reform bill aimed at avoiding another Miami election mess. The law called for tougher scrutiny of voter rolls to remove people who were registered to vote in more than one county or state, as well as felons who had not had their rights restored.

The effort proved to be overzealous.

The Department of State awarded a $4-million contract to Boca Raton-based Database Technologies Inc. (now ChoicePoint Inc.) to find improperly registered voters in the state's database. Database Technologies cross-checked voter lists with federal and state databases to find illegal voters by matching names, birth dates and other characteristics.

Mistakes were rampant.

Some conviction dates were in the future; others suggested that the voter had committed a felony as a toddler. Some elections staffers were incorrectly listed as felons. At one point, the list included as felons 8,000 former Texas residents who had been convicted of misdemeanors.

Internal e-mails and testimony since the 2000 election revealed that Database Technologies had warned state elections officials early on that their loose matches would produce many "false positives" on the purge list.

"Obviously, we want to capture more names that possibly aren't matches and let (local election) supervisors make a final determination rather than exclude certain matches altogether," attorney Emmett "Bucky" Mitchell, the state's point man on the felon purge effort, said in a March 1999 e-mail to the company.

Mitchell now handles elections issues as a staffer with the state House of Representatives. He sees little that state elections officials could have done better.

"It's a monumental task trying to assimilate four or five different national and state databases," Mitchell said last week, noting that even an improved system will never guarantee that no voter will wrongly lose the right to vote and no felon will wind up voting.

Many counties sent letters in 2000 warning some voters that they were suspected felons and would be removed from the rolls unless they could prove otherwise. More than 4,500 voters appealed, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that about half were not felons.

Some voters learned on Election Day that they had been tagged as felons and that their right to vote had been eliminated.

One was the Rev. Willie David Whiting of Tallahassee, whom the state had erroneously linked to another person who was a felon. Whiting did vote, but that did not ease the shock that someone had tried to stop him.

"I felt like I was slingshotted back into slavery," Whiting testified to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2001.

System still has flaws

George W. Bush won Florida and the White House by 537 votes. Many Democrats say the state's botched voter purge made the difference for Bush because African-American voters, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, were disproportionately purged.

African-American residents make up less than 15 percent of Florida's population, but more than 40 percent of the voters the state suspects may have been purged by mistake are black.

Much has changed with Florida's election system since 2000. Punch cards, chad and butterfly ballots are gone. Voting technology has been upgraded. Voters who insist they are legitimate now can cast provisional ballots when confronted with questions about their eligibility at the polling place, and elections officials will sort out the issue later.

The state spent $1.6-million to hire another private contractor, Accenture, to improve the state voter database that will be used next year. Elections officials expect to spend at least $8-million for an even better system for 2006.

The system is steadily improving, Secretary of State Hood said, but it won't ever be perfect: "There are just too many opportunities for a mistake to be made."

Some of the improvements in the purge system stem from lawsuits filed by the NAACP and other civil rights groups alleging systematic disenfranchisement of minority voters in 2000.

The parameters for matching registered voters with felons are much tighter today. Under the NAACP lawsuit settlement, the state agreed to filter its old felon lists through new, stricter match standards and send the new lists to the counties.

That exercise produced a list of 12,023 Floridians pegged as possible felons in 1999 and 2000 who would not be flagged and removed from the voter rolls under today's rules. That includes 956 voters in Pinellas County, 917 in Hillsborough, 314 in Pasco, 77 in Citrus and 32 in Hernando. In Pinellas and Hillsborough, more than one in three is African-American.

Many of these people, under the old screening method, may have been valid voters who were wrongly prevented from voting in 2000. But the new method also could enable some felons to slip through and vote in 2004.

The state recently sent all county elections supervisors the new list of questionable felon matches and instructed them to review the lists and return to the rolls any voters found to be legitimate. But how counties process those lists depends on the county.

In Hillsborough, elections officials next month will send letters to more than 700 people who may have been erroneously removed from the rolls. Those with verified addresses who don't respond will be presumed to be valid voters and restored to the rolls.

"Our view is to put them back on unless they say, "No sir, you're right: I am a felon,' " said Chuck Smith of the Hillsborough elections office.

In Pinellas, Pasco and many other counties, elections officials say people who don't produce evidence that they aren't felons still will be barred from voting. In some cases, that would require fingerprint checks.

"I know it's almost like you're guilty until proven innocent, but we will help you prove your innocence," said Pasco Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning.

A backlog of applications

Meanwhile, the system for helping felons regain their voting rights is being flooded.

Gov. Bush and the Legislature continue to oppose automatic restoration of civil rights after a sentence is completed, arguing that it's a long-established piece of Florida's justice system. But Bush says he's working to streamline the process for restoring civil rights.

"The backlog has dropped dramatically. So if it's an issue, it's probably to praise the process here," Bush said.

While applications are getting processed faster, the number of pending applications increased from 6,407 in July 2001 to 38,793 last month, according to the Florida Parole Commission. Much of that is due to a big increase in civil rights restoration applications since the 2000 election.

Monica David, chairwoman of the Florida Parole Commission, said the agency is requesting an additional 20 staffers at a cost of more than $1.1-million in next year's budget. She said that should eliminate the backlog within five years.

"I really think we've done a great job as far as making an effort to get those cases taken care of," David said, noting that more than 221,000 people have applied to get their rights restored in the past three years.

Since 2001, more than 20,000 felons have had their civil rights restored, including 12,385 so far this year.

The process remains a bureaucratic maze that is increasingly expensive and controversial to civil rights advocates. One coalition of civil rights groups is pushing a ballot initiative for automatic restoration of civil rights. Last week, a federal appeals court let proceed a constitutional challenge to the process.

"The cost of this is astronomical," Miami attorney Randy Berg said, referring both to the bureaucratic expenses and to prisoners barred from certain jobs because of loss of rights. "Here is a governor who prides himself on wanting to lessen the governmental burdens on people, and yet he refuses to repeal" the complex restrictions for regaining civil rights.

Berg, who is suing the state over the process, is focused on helping more felons regain their rights. Elections officials faced with deciding who should and should not vote are just trying to avoid mistakes.

"From an elections administration standpoint, it would be much easier on us if we knew once you served your time, paid your restitution, it was an automatic restoration of your civil rights," said Browning, the Pasco elections supervisor. "It would be so much easier for us."

- Computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg and staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

Restoring rights

A growing number of felons have been applying to get their civil rights restored since the 2000 election. While state officials say they have streamlined the process, critics say it remains too onerous.

Pending applications

7/01: 6,407

7/02: 38,277

7/03: 43,335

11/03: 38,793

Applications received

12 months ending 7/01: 19,896

12 months ending 7/02: 67,837

Through 11/03: 133,367

Floridians regaining their voting and other civil rights

2001: 1,392

2002: 6,483

2003: 12,385 (to date).

Source: Florida Parole Commission.

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