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Another Florida Election Fiasco Possible, ACLU Warns

by Marty Logan and Lisa Vives

GOP Has Election Advantage Because Felons Can't Vote

(IPS) NEW YORK -- The Florida division of the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the state’s Division of Elections to ensure that thousands of Floridians are not denied their right to vote as occurred as in the last election of four years ago.

Blacks in Florida were nearly 10 times as likely as whites to have their ballots rejected in the American presidential election in 2000, according to the US Commission on Civil Rights.

The Commission found that 54 percent of votes that were rejected came from black voters, who make up only 11 percent of the state's population.

"The right to vote in Florida is once again at stake," warned Howard Simon, Executive Director of the Florida ACLU in a letter sent to 67 county elections supervisors. The letter was co-authored by Courtney Strickland, Director of the ACLU of Florida's Voting Rights Project.

"State election officials have admitted that they cannot guarantee the accuracy of the data used to purge more than 40,000 people from the voter rolls," said the ACLU official. "Yet state officials sent a memo to all county election supervisors instructing them to begin the felon purge process without also reminding county officials of their responsibility to ensure that the possible felons are, in fact, ineligible to vote."

Among the various initiatives being set up by the ACLU, is a toll-free hot line to assist people with past felony convictions in the process of restoring their civil rights, including the right to vote. For citizens requiring one-on-one assistance, four Rights Restoration Advocacy Centers have been set up in Miami, Homestead, Tallahassee and Pensacola.

And in what resembles a reprise of the historic Freedom Rides of the 1960's Civil Rights era when students from all around the country took buses down to Southern states to support African-Americans trying to vote, the ACLU effort has garnered support from law students from local and out-of-state colleges including the University of West Florida, Florida State University, and Columbia University in New York.

The NAACP is also taking an active role, joining with the ACLU as part of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), a non-partisan statewide coalition of nearly 40 local, state and national organizations that is currently collecting signatures in support of a ballot initiative to secure an amendment to the Florida Constitution that restores ex-felons' voting rights after completion of their sentences.

"The mass disenfranchisement of ex-felons is the overriding civil rights problem in our state," said ACLU director Simon. "It is high time for the Governor and the Clemency Board to recognize that, in the name of fairness, an individual's civil and voting rights should be automatically restored after completion of all punishment. Until automatic restoration is achieved, we will continue to help people run the gauntlet that lies between them and their most fundamental right as citizens – the right to vote."

Four times a year, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of President George W. Bush, and three other members of the Board of Executive Clemency hold hearings in which some of the 600,000 Florida residents who have lost their civil rights after being convicted of a felony can apply to have them reinstated.

Florida is one of seven U.S. states where convicted felons who have served out their sentences must apply to have their rights restored.

About one-half -- 28 -- of the March 18 petitioners were successful, leaving roughly 35,000 more who have applied for restoration and are awaiting a reply or notice of a hearing, Strickland pointed out.

According to early estimates, another 40,000 residents risk losing their voting privileges before November's presidential election. That is the number of former felons on a list distributed by Florida elections officials to supervisors who are responsible for compiling local voters' lists in the state's 67 counties.

A newly formed coalition of groups said this week it is particularly worried about: the complex voter registration and identification requirements; the possibility of malfunctioning voting machines; and the chance of inaccurate counting of ballots cast by voters who may be voting in the wrong local districts.

Led by the League of Women Voters and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the coalition wants states to provide complete lists of registered voters to each precinct so that local officials can deal with eligible voters who turn up in the wrong precinct.

It is also pressing for better training for volunteer poll workers on registration and identification rules and on how to use voting machines.

The coalition is not even delving into the controversial area of electronic, touch-screen voting, which one expert who evaluated systems used in 37 states likened to "Swiss cheese."

Thanks to the Florida Election Reform Act of 2001 that state is now blocked from contracting out the compiling of the electoral rolls -- which resulted in a number of lawsuits against the state following the 2000 election that was finally decided by the Supreme Court.

"Even if the (state's own) list is more accurate this year, I think we run a real risk of having just as many folks removed erroneously because of this whole new statutory process," Strickland told IPS.

The new process includes using certified mail to warn potential "purged" voters that they are in danger of losing their rights.

In an interview with National Public Radio, elections supervisor Buddy Johnson, defended the election board’s efforts. "My personal intent is to look at every single opportunity that I have to keep a person on the voter registration rolls," said Johnson, supervisor for Florida's Hillsborough County. "We're very serious, very cautious and very deliberate in this determination," he told NPR.

Those people who arrive at the polls and see their name is not on the list can also vote using a provisional ballot. "We take great pride in our process of keeping people on the rolls," Johnson added.

But Strickland says the law, not good will, now requires that local voting supervisors do their utmost to verify the information they receive from the new central database, which is collected from a number of other sources, but that the state's elections department has not made that clear.

The ACLU has written voting supervisors, "asking them to independently verify the data, meaning that John A. Smith is not being confused with John B. Smith, for example (or that) someone who has withhold of adjudication (when an offence is not entered on their permanent record) is not confused with (having) an actual conviction."

Strickland says voting rights should automatically be restored to felons who have served their sentences -- as they are in most U.S. states -- and adds that the ACLU is pushing to change the state's constitution.

"Basically the whole process places the burden on the voter to prove that he or she is eligible to vote, rather than placing the burden on the state to prove that the voter isn't eligible. In a country where you're innocent till proven guilty, placing the burden on the voter sort of goes against that entire concept," she adds.

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Albion Monitor June 2, 2004 (

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