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All but one part of new election law okayed

The U.S. Justice Department allows the state to implement everything but the statewide voter database.

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2001

The U.S. Justice Department allows the state to implement everything but the statewide voter database.

TALLAHASSEE -- The U.S. Justice Department has given its approval to all but one part of Florida's new election law.

In a letter received Tuesday, Joseph D. Rich, the chief of the voting rights section at the Justice Department, approved Florida's new "Voters Bill of Rights" and a planned provisional ballot that voters would cast if their credentials were in question.

Rich, however, withheld Justice's blessing of a new statewide voter list.

Under the election law signed by Gov. Jeb Bush, the state plans to create a statewide database of voters and to purge convicted felons from the rolls. Rich has asked Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth to furnish the details of how the state plans to create the database and how it will identify and notify the voters who would have their names purged from the rolls.

Until the Justice Department approves the final segment of the law, the state will not be able to remove any disqualified names from voter rolls. But it can proceed with all other changes in the election law, including the purchase of new equipment to replace outdated punch card systems.

Because of past racial discrimination in five Florida counties, the state must have any changes in election laws approved before they can take effect.

The Voters Bill of Rights will be posted at precincts. The provisional ballots will be given to voters whose eligibility cannot be immediately determined. Poll workers would verify the eligibility before their votes would count.

The Justice Department's decision to okay most of the law disappointed attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit against the state over changes in the election law.

"We're obviously disappointed," said Miami lawyer JoNel Newman.

But the ACLU is also concerned about the voter database being prepared by the state and will continue to pursue its civil lawsuit against the state.

Assistant Attorney General George Waas said he is pleased that federal officials have now approved most of the 78 new provisions of the election law. He said officials at the state Division of Elections will help compile a response to the new questions and file it as quickly as possible.

The central database sparked complaints last year from voters who were told they could not vote because their names were included on a list of felons. Some of those on the list did not have felony records because the company that put the list together made mistakes.

Legislators ordered Secretary of State Katherine Harris to use the state's 67 court clerks to help develop the new database without using an outside consultant. But talks between Harris and the clerks broke down, and Harris has steered the work to yet another outside company.

State elections director Clay Roberts says the company, Accenture, will provide the state with the design of a new system that will allow election officials to match a list of eligible voters against criminal history files maintained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Roberts said the new questions raised Tuesday will not delay efforts to put the list together but could delay any action if the Justice Department has not ruled on the issue by June.

"I don't think we'll have any problem answering the questions," Roberts said.

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