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Felon list troubling for some voters

Thousands are forced to prove their innocence before being allowed to vote. Lawmakers may reverse that burden of proof.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001

TAMPA -- Being the wrong color, for Roosevelt Lawrence's generation, sometimes put a padlock between you and the voting precinct.

Last June, the 66-year-old black Baptist deacon got a letter from the Hillsborough elections office saying he once had been convicted of a felony and that his right to vote in the presidential election was in jeopardy.

Lawrence was sure he had never been a felon. Prove it, elections officials told him.

He made phone calls. He hunted through microfiche at the courthouse. He got fingerprinted to verify his identity. He enlisted the help of Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Pam Iorio. He unearthed the threadbare report, buried in Tampa police archives, that showed his supposed crime:

In 1960, when he was a 26-year-old sewing machine operator at Quaker Oats, police said he threw tacks on the street while he walked a picket line. But there was no mention of a felony.

"It took me through hell to get my voting rights restored," said Lawrence, who spent $75 to clear his record. "I don't know how many people would do what I did."

In America, the presumption of innocence is the bedrock of the justice system. The state must prove a person's guilt. But for Lawrence and thousands of other innocent Floridians who found their names on the state's flawed list of felons last year, that cherished

premise was turned on its head. Unlike some other states, Florida forbids felons from voting unless their civil rights have been restored.

The tainted list has become a wellspring of bitterness and conspiracy theories. The list, some are convinced, tipped the election to Republican George W. Bush, who won Florida's electoral votes -- and thus the White House -- by a margin of 537 ballots.

In a lawsuit, the NAACP claims the list disenfranchised black voters in lopsided numbers. On many levels, the suit alleges, various people didn't go far enough to verify the list's accuracy: not Database Technologies Inc., the private company paid to compile names of felons; not the state Division of Elections, which divvied up the list among the state's counties; not the county elections supervisors who used the list to banish people from voter rolls.

"It is this felon issue that is at the core of African-Americans' discontent, and as you begin to peel back the layers, you see why," said Iorio, the Hillsborough elections supervisor.

State elections officials acknowledge the list had problems, but blame the trouble on the language of the law they had to follow.

"It may not have been the wisest or the most well-crafted legislation, but it's the law nonetheless," said elections chief Clay Roberts. "There was no conspiracy I know of."

* * *

Prompted by the fraud-ridden Miami mayoral race of 1997, Florida legislators decided to require the Division of Elections to provide each county with a list of registered voters who had been convicted of a felony but had not had their civil rights restored.

It has become the duty of local elections supervisors to try to verify the felony status of people on that list. If they cannot, the law tells supervisors to remove such people from voter rolls.

In other words, the list is presumed right, and the would-be voter presumed guilty.

"That's why it's so important the list be accurate, and it has not been," said Pinellas Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark. "We have to find a way to make sure the list is accurate before we send it to voters."

In the months before the presidential election, thousands of voters were removed from the rolls because they didn't respond to letters notifying them they had been tagged as potential felons.

The Division of Elections now supports legislation, to be considered by lawmakers this session, that would reverse the burden, making officials confirm felony status before barring people from polls.

Another proposed measure would create online voter registration with instant criminal checks, while a third would automatically restore felons' voting rights a year after they complete prison and probation sentences, rather than make them face the sometimes arduous clemency process.

How flawed was the felon list the state used last year? Of about 5,000 people who went to the trouble of challenging the inclusion of their names, Florida Department of Law Enforcement researchers could find no felony convictions for half of them. They were put back on voter rolls.

In some counties, like Broward and Palm Beach, elections officials decided the list was too untrustworthy to be used. That too invited criticism: In some cases, felons got to vote.

How badly did the list hurt black voters, who are overwhelmingly Democratic? The two largest counties that used the list provide a glimpse. In Miami-Dade, black voters made up 20 percent of registered voters, yet made up 66 percent of the felon list; in Hillsborough, the list was 54 percent black, while the voting pool is only 11 percent black.

Compounding the confusion, elections officials told many Floridians with out-of-state felonies they had to apply for clemency here in order to vote, even if their rights had been restored in other states. That is contrary to case law.

Database Technologies, the company that compiled the list, says it technically made no errors. It simply did what the state asked: Cast a wide net for potential felons, which was expected to snare some who had no record.

"If the decision was made to cast a narrow net, possibly the division would have been criticized for not following through on the legislative mandate to get felons off the rolls," said Roberts, the elections chief.

* * *

For many black voters, the list felt like a throwback to the days of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures designed to bar them from the polls.

A St. Petersburg Times survey published in February found that 40 percent of the state's black voters were convinced there was some kind of coordinated government effort to thwart their votes.

"There certainly is that very strong feeling, and perception, of course, is 90 percent of people's reality," said Demetria Merritt-Bell, a voting rights advocate who mobilized black voters in Tampa. She thinks the state used the list to try to limit the black vote.

Asking people to establish they are not felons is "an awful burden to put on people, especially considering how hard it is to get records," she said. "What's the average person going to do? Take off work and go stand in line and prove something?"

For many who challenged their inclusion on the list, getting off proved as simple as alerting the local elections office to the mistake. But for Roosevelt Lawrence, the deacon who had to fight to get back on the voting rolls, the experience stripped away some of his faith in the political system.

Lawrence remembers going to a voting-rights rally in the days of segregation and listening to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak of the ballot as an engine of change.

"While it has changed, it has a long way to go when it comes to include you," Lawrence said. "They'll still exclude (you)."

Laughlin McDonald, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer involved in the NAACP's lawsuit against elections officials, said that for the purposes of the suit, it is not necessary to establish that the errors stemmed from racist intent. "All you have to show under the Voting Rights Act is there's a clear differential voting rights impact, and I think that clearly does exist."

Beyond the list, McDonald pointed to the need to improve voting machines and to make sure poll workers have access to master lists on election day to confirm a voter's eligibility.

"There are all kinds of things that need to be reformed that have nothing to do with motives," he said.

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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