They acknowledge using flawed databases, but say they are sounding alarm.
By JONI JAMES, JAMIE THOMPSON and SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
Published October 29, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Republican Party said Thursday that more than 900 felons already have voted illegally or requested absentee ballots, triggering another controversy over the party's aggressive efforts to identify Floridians who might be unqualified to vote.
Using two controversial and flawed state databases, Republicans also said they identified an additional 13,568 felons expected to vote by Election Day, based on their participation in the 2000 or 2002 elections or their recent registration as a new voter.
The list of 921 felons who have already voted includes 65 names from Hillsborough County; 36 from Pinellas County; 11 from Hernando; three from Citrus; and one from Pasco. The party plans to give all its information to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for investigation.
"We believe this is simply the tip of the iceberg and there could be potentially additional felons who have registered," said Mindy Tucker Fletcher, spokesman for the Florida Republican Party.
But within hours of the Republicans' announcement came indications that the GOP list may suffer some of the same problems that caused Secretary of State Glenda Hood to scrap her controversial list of 47,763 suspected felon voters in July.
Reporters for the St. Petersburg Times quickly found two Tampa Bay area individuals on the GOP list who say they have had their voting rights restored.
Records show Neal D. Bolinger, 57, of St. Petersburg had his rights restored in 1974, two years after his conviction for grand larceny, and has been voting ever since.
He used an absentee ballot last week to vote straight Republican.
It's the second time in four years his name has been flagged. He had to convince Pinellas County election officials in 2000 that he was qualified.
"If every four years I come up on the list and have to have myself reinstated, that will become a problem, and I'll have to start shaking some trees," he said.
Tampa resident Jeffrey Arnold, 44, said he received his clemency more than a dozen years ago and has been voting ever since. The exact status of Arnold and others could not be confirmed Thursday by the Times.
Fletcher acknowledges the GOP's list started with flawed data.
Besides the state's controversial felon voting list, it relied on a Florida Parole Commission clemency list, updated through Oct.14, that has proven inaccurate in the past because it does not include many felons whose rights were restored under Gov. Reubin Askew in the 1970s.
"We felt it was important to see if supervisors (of elections) had done their jobs and cleaned their list when some admitted they hadn't," Fletcher said. "We wanted to see if the law was being broken across the state systematically."
But some supervisors countered that the list came from the same database Hood had ordered them not to use.
"Why would they use a list that is determined to have errors?" asked Pinellas supervisor Deborah Clark. "If their real objective is to keep ineligible voters from casting ballots, why didn't they give the list to supervisor of elections right away? No one from the Republican Party has contacted me."
Hillsborough Supervisor Buddy Johnson sounded a similar theme.
"I don't have the same information," he said. "I'm not removing anyone off any voter list until I have ascertained that they are in fact a felon."
Democrats and civil rights advocates charged that Thursday's announcement was a Republican maneuver aimed at suppressing Tuesday's vote and Sen. John Kerry's odds at winning Florida's 27 electoral votes.
The mere threat of an FDLE investigation into questionable cases could chill turnout among qualified voters, they contend.
"This is just one more attempt to intimidate, harass and disenfranchise voters," Florida Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox said.
The potential impact of the Republican effort is unclear, since there is no mechanism before Election Day to challenge votes that have been cast.
"You can't take a vote back out of the box," said Florida Deputy Secretary of State Alia Faraj.
But the state GOP has not ruled out using the information on the remaining 13,568 suspected felons to challenge voters at the polls on Election Day, Fletcher said.
Under state law, such a challenge could force the would-be voter to cast a provisional ballot, which must be accepted by the county canvassing committee before it is counted.
Democrats were careful to say Thursday that they did not want anyone breaking the law.
"If, in fact, some people on this list should not be registered to vote, by all means they shouldn't be voting," said Christine Anderson, spokeswoman for the combined Democratic and Kerry-Edwards campaigns in Florida.
Some on the Republican list acknowledged Thursday they may not have been qualified to vote.
Gino Vonia, a 47-year-old St. Petersburg man, has a criminal record dating back to 1974 and has been arrested more than 20 times on multiple felonies, mostly involving sale and possession of drugs. He has been sent to state prison three times and was released in 2002.
But Vonia said that the justice system failed him and that he should be allowed to vote.
"If I had money, and wasn't black, I would have been found innocent," he said. "If they check my records, they'll bring it all out, and see I was innocent of the crime."
He sent off his absentee ballot a few days ago, voting for Kerry.
Daniel Sheldon, a 47-year-old Clearwater man, was convicted in 2003 of a felony charge of resisting an officer with violence. He, too, has cast a ballot this year, voting for Bush.
He said he received a notice on Oct.20, saying he was not allowed to vote. But Sheldon says he was wrongly convicted and should be allowed to vote.
"Theoretically, I broke the law," he says, "but people are seldom prosecuted. ... I'm going to gamble."
Indeed, Florida rarely enforces its ban on felon voting, which carries a maximum penalty of $5,000 and five years in prison.
Twice, frustrated state lawmakers have ordered the state elections division to create a database of illegal felon voters to help county election officials cull their rolls. Both times, the exercise has run into huge problems due to inconsistent databases.
Hood scrapped the state's second attempt in July, after critics had exposed numerous flaws. Among the problems: Few Hispanics were listed on the roles and at least 2,500 people who had been given clemency were included.