July 20, 2004
With another presidential election looming, Florida's felon purge procedure is again at the center of controversy. And it again threatens full voter participation.
In 2000, many of the state's African-American voters were denied unfettered access to the electoral process. The fiasco triggered a lawsuit and widespread, national embarrassment following the presidential election.
Felon disfranchisement laws are state statutes that deny the right to vote to individuals with felony convictions. They currently disqualify nearly 5 million voters nationwide. The names of individuals who have been convicted of felonies are eliminated from voter registration lists by a process called felon purge procedures.
Unless election officials have accurate information about such individuals and use procedures that are adequate to verify information, there is a danger of erroneously striking the names of fully eligible individuals from the rolls -- which is what happened in Florida in 2000.
In the election, the state used inaccurate criteria and methods to create its felon purge list, thereby disqualifying nearly 400,000 individuals from voting. At least 2,000 of those individuals had been convicted in other states but had already had their voting rights restored by law in those states. However, they were scrubbed from Florida's voting rolls when they shouldn't have been.
Worse yet, some individuals who were included on the list had never been convicted of a crime. A disproportionate number of those incorrectly listed were African-American.
In 2001, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, the organization I work for, along with a coalition of other civil-rights organizations, filed a lawsuit challenging, among other things, the criteria used to determine the ineligibility of people on Florida's felon purge list as a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The NAACP v. Harris case led to a settlement that required Florida to include only those names on the felon purge list that were adequately verified by matching both name and race.
It now comes to light that, at the time, Florida did not reveal that its Department of Law Enforcement database did not collect race information for Latinos. As a result, the state's felon purge list was under-inclusive and inaccurate, at least to this extent.
Moreover, Florida's felon purge practices continue to fall most heavily on the black community. Nearly 48,000 of the state's roughly 9 million registered voters were listed as potential felons on the state's most recent purge list. However, black voters, who comprise only 11 percent of Florida's electorate, accounted for more than 40 percent of the names on the list.
Florida has finally agreed not to use its flawed state felon purge list in the upcoming presidential election. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has asked the Justice Department to investigate the state's felon purge practices, and Florida's Secretary of State Glenda Hood has ordered an audit of the statewide database.
The burden now falls on county election supervisors, who are still required by state law to remove persons convicted of felonies from the voting rolls.
With the election only three months away, most do not have the time or resources to independently verify the eligibility of information about prior convictions or, for example, to consider clemency data provided by other states.
Any ad hoc purge process implemented at this point will lack uniformity and reliability, and it may violate the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. It is impossible to reconcile the hasty, patchwork process that may now take place with the ideals of democracy that encourage and protect the right to participate in elections.
Alaina C. Beverly is assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (www.naacpldf.org). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.