Mon, Jul 12, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Florida's list of felons is flawed

VOTER ROLLS Many say that the state wrongfully prevented large numbers of blacks from voting in 2000, and it seems that more shenanigans are under way this time

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Florida election officials used a flawed method to come up with a listing of people believed to be convicted felons, a list that they are recommending be used to purge voter registration rolls, state officials acknowledged Friday. As a result, voters identifying themselves as Hispanic are almost completely absent from that list.

Of nearly 48,000 Florida residents on the felon list, only 61 are Hispanic. By contrast, more than 22,000 are black.

About 8 percent of Florida voters describe themselves as Hispanic, and about 11 percent as black.

In a presidential election battleground state that decided the 2000 race by giving George W. Bush a margin of only 537 votes , the effect could be significant: Black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, while Hispanics in Florida tend to vote Republican.

Elections officials of Florida's Republican administration denied any partisan motive in use of the method they adopted, and noted that it had been approved as part of a settlement of a civil rights lawsuit.

"This was absolutely unintentional," said Nicole de Lara, spokeswoman for the Florida secretary of state, Glenda Hood, an appointee of Governor Jeb Bush, the president's brother. "The matching criteria were approved by several interested parties in the lawsuit, and the court. I don't know how it got by all those people without anyone noticing."

Jill Bratina, a spokeswoman for Governor Bush, said: "The governor is complying with the law and complying with the settlement. Recognizing now that there is a discrepancy, the Department of State is looking into the options."

Anita Earls, one of the lawyers for plaintiffs in the civil rights suit, said state officials had not given them the kind of access to data that might have uncovered the flaw.

The method uses race as one of several factors in determining whether a felon has registered to vote. If a voter's first name, last name and date of birth are the same as those of a convicted felon but the race is different, the name is not put on the list for potential purging.

But the database of felons has only five variables for race: white, black, Asian, Indian and unknown. And a voter registered as Hispanic whose name and birth date matched a felon's would be left off the purge list unless his race was listed as unknown.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Kristen Perezluha, said the felon database used FBI criteria for judging race and so never listed Hispanic.

Florida undertook a similar purge of voter rolls in 2000, but that list was shown to include the names of many who were not felons. The new effort at such a purge, begun by Governor Bush's administration in May, was supposed to be free of those problems. But after a state judge last week ordered the release of the current list, it became clear that thousands of felons who had been granted clemency were still on it.

Democrats said Friday that the latest disclosure should be the last straw. "Either this administration is acting incompetently in regard to voters' rights," said Scott Maddox, the Democratic state chairman, "or they have ill will toward a certain class of voters. Either way, it's unacceptable."

"The honorable thing to do," Maddox added, "is throw the list out and not purge people erroneously on the eve of election."

Some county election supervisors have said they are reluctant to use the state's list to purge the names of any voters. The law leaves that responsibility to the county officials, but it is unclear how many will use it.

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