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Florida scraps felon vote list

The list of 47,000 people is too flawed to be used to strike felons from voting rolls. County election supervisors express relief.

By MATTHEW WAITE
Published July 11, 2004


Nine days after making the names of more than 47,000 potential felon voters public, state officials have scrapped the entire list, saying it was too flawed to be trusted.

County supervisors of elections were told Saturday not to use the list of people the state believed had committed felonies and illegally registered to vote.

Florida is one of seven states that bars felons from voting unless their civil rights have been restored.

Counties were supposed to verify the information, contact the voters, and eliminate felons from their voter rolls, though few had started.

The state had tried to keep the list a secret. It fought a lawsuit aimed at opening the records to the public. A series of errors emerged once a Tallahassee judge rejected the state's arguments and released the records on July 1.

The error that proved final - and garnered national attention - was that Hispanics were largely overlooked because of glitches in how the state records information about race and ethnicity.

The list was created by cross-checking voter registration and criminal records. Of the more than 47,000 voters on the potential felon list, Hispanics made up one tenth of 1 percent - this in a state where nearly 1 in 5 residents is Hispanic.

Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood issued a written statement Saturday saying the exclusion of Hispanics was "unintentional and unforeseen."

"We are deeply concerned and disappointed that this has occurred," Hood said.

Many Hispanic voters vote Republican. That they were largely omitted from a list disproportionately weighted with Democratic-leaning blacks has fueled theories that voter rolls were being manipulated for political motives. State officials said it was data errors, not politics, that excluded Hispanics from the list.

"Not including Hispanic felons that may be voters on the list . . . was an oversight and a mistake. . . . And we accept responsibility and that's why we're pulling it back," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who was in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday at an "African-Americans for Bush" rally in support of his brother's re-election as president.

Scrapping the list for the 2004 election came as a relief to local supervisors of elections, who have openly been wondering how they were going to accurately verify information on the list with few resources and no training.

Late Friday night, Pasco Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning sat in his office wondering what would happen if he did nothing with the list. On his desk was an unsigned $14,000 contract to a Melbourne company to verify the list.

To his relief Saturday, Browning had left the office without signing the contract.

"It was a lose-lose situation," Browning said of the potential felons list. "The reality of it was there seemed to be too many things creeping up that were not thought out, or thought about."

"I think it's a good decision," Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said Saturday afternoon. "Especially this year when we know that the state is going to be so closely scrutinized about everything we do, relative to the election."

Bush's communications director, Jill Bratina, said the governor's goal was fair and smooth elections. "The governor spoke with the secretary this (Saturday) morning. She informed him of the decision, and he was supportive of it," she said.

Democrats and voting rights advocates at once claimed victory and commended the state for dumping the list.

"This is clearly a victory for the Democratic Party," Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox, "but it is more so a victory for democracy. Democrats, Republicans and independents alike will benefit from the ability to exercise their constitutional right to vote instead of being erroneously purged by this administration."

State Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, viewed the decision with cautious optimism.

"I'm very happy they decided not to use this list," Miller said. "My concern is, what's next? Does this mean this list will not be used anymore, period? Or is this something that they're going to look at next week, where we'll have to come up with a different definition of how they're going to try to purge people from that list?"

Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization was preparing to ask Hood on Monday to order supervisors to stop using the list. He said the errors discovered so far were more than enough to justify the state abandoning it.

"It appears the information on this list is not sufficiently reliable to deprive anybody of their right to vote," Simon said. "We haven't even begun to scratch the surface of other errors."

And errors had been piling up.

The first was a group of more than 2,500 people who had their rights restored but found themselves on the list. They were put on the list because they registered to vote before they got their rights restored, a move the state insisted made them ineligible to vote.

But on Wednesday, faced with the threat of lawsuits, the state reversed its stance and cleared those who had received clemency to vote, regardless of when they registered.

Then, a St. Petersburg Times analysis of a random, representative sample of 5,529 names on the potential felons list in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties found the state's list to be substantially accurate. But as many as 220 names on the list - or about 4 percent - were wrong, based upon incomplete or incorrect information.

If the Times local estimate of 4 percent were applied statewide, the list of incorrect entries would reach more than 1,800.

Last weekend, the Sarasota Herald Tribune noted that Hispanics were nearly nonexistent in the potential felons list, despite representing nearly a fifth of the state's population. The state admitted there could be a problem, but said Hispanics were not omitted for political gain.

The reason Hispanics were being overlooked is that state criminal records and voter registration rolls do not account for race and ethnic categories in the same way.

The state's criminal database, used to find the names of felons, did not have "Hispanic" as a category. Voter registration rolls do. When the two lists were matched, the Hispanic discrepancy made an accurate count impossible.

"This is a very complex process and the more I looked at it, the more complex it got," Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said. "The way the information is developed, the entire system was complicated."

Johnson's office was gearing up to verify the list - office space in the Hillsborough County court clerk's office had been set aside - when the clemency problems made them wait.

In Citrus County, Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill had to call an employee in the office on Saturday working on the list to tell her to go home. The end of the list came as a relief - and a surprise - to both.

"There's just too much controversy about this," Gill said. "If the list isn't right, we shouldn't be using it."

- Times staff writers Jay Cridlin, Joni James and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press. Matthew Waite can be reached at waite@sptimes.com or 727 893-8568.