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Democrats.com Exclusive: Florida Legislature Secretly Authorized A New Felons Purge
Paul Lukasiak

Democrats.com has learned that Florida has passed a secret new felons purge law for 2001. This law allows the Republican-controlled Florida Division of Elections to send lists of voters that it "believes" are felons to county election supervisors for purging. As before, the disenfranchised voters would be predominantly African-Americans. To make matters worse, the new purge law uses the state funds that were set aside to help counties buy new voting equipment - especially counties with large minority populations that use the error-prone punch card machines that disenfranchised so many voters in 2000.

The secret law [98.0975(5)] is separate and distinct from a new felons purge statute (FS 98.0977) that was passed as part of Florida's much-publicized Voting Reform Act (VRA). VRA repealed the statute under which the felons purge had been conducted for the last three years. To replace it, a new felons purge law (98.0977) authorized the Division of Elections to contract with the non-partisan Florida Association of Court Clerks to maintain the state's Central Voter File and to identify ineligible voters in that file. That new system is not scheduled to be operational until July 1, 2002.

This delay created a "felons purge gap" for the current fiscal year (July 1, 2001-June 30, 2002). The secret law filled the "felons purge gap" and authorized the Division of Elections to conduct its own felons purge during the current fiscal year.

The secret felons purge law [98.0975 (5)] was a last-minute conference committee add-on to a "must pass" appropriations implementation bill (SB2002) that was enacted at the very end of the Florida legislative session. The new law was passed so secretly that Pasco Supervisors of Elections Kurt Browning, who monitors legislation for the Florida Association of Directors of Divisions of Election, was not aware that it had been passed. Not even Democratic Florida State House of Representatives Minority Leader Lois Frankel was aware that the secret felons law had been passed, and is now in effect.

According to Frankel, "These things do not happen by accident, especially with appropriations implementation bills like this. Somebody had a conscious intent when they added this provision in the conference committee." Although she declined to speculate regarding that intent, she did agree that it was possible that the law was intended to fill the "purge gap" left when the Election Reform Act repealed the old felons purge law, and set up a new system that would not be ready for "felon purging" until July 2002.

Under Section 5 of the Federal Voting Rights Act, Florida must submit all changes in voting laws, policies, and procedures for "pre-clearance" by the Voting Rights Section of the Department of Justice. (Five Florida counties are covered under the pre-clearance laws because they engaged in discriminatory practices in the past.) But Florida never notified the Department of Justice of the existence of the secret felons purge law.

When the Justice Department was notified that the secret purge law was in effect, and had not been submitted for pre-clearance, the Justice Department did virtually nothing. The only action taken by the Justice Department was to call two Florida officials, Sara Jane Bradshaw (Staff Director for the Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee) and Florida Assistant Attorney George Waas. Neither of these officials is in any way involved with the administration of Florida election laws.

According to Voting Rights Division Attorney Amy Nemko, both Bradshaw and Waas told her that there were "technical reasons" that the law was not enforceable. But when called to confirm that these laws were in fact not enforceable, both Bradshaw and Waas refused to comment for the record. Bradshaw instead referred the issue to Division of Elections Director Clay Roberts.

When contacted, Roberts said that he does not believe that the law can be implemented, but is not sure about that. "From what I understand, because 98.0975 was repealed in full in the Election Reform Act, a subsequent amendment to that section cannot be enforced. But I'm not sure about that, and I'm checking with experts on statutory construction." Ominously, Roberts also said that if the new law can be implemented, that he would do so.

Nemko was contacted again, and notified that the individuals upon whom the Justice Department relied would not go on the record. She was also informed that Clay Roberts intends to implement the "secret purge law" if he can do so. Nevertheless, there is currently no indication that the Justice Department will take appropriate action to prevent implementation of the law.

Florida law prohibits people who are convicted of felonies from voting unless they have had their voting rights restored. In 1998, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed a bill authorizing the Republican-controlled Division of Elections to hire a private company to create lists of ineligible ex-felons by comparing various databases.

Since that time, Florida state election officials have been engaged in an aggressive campaign to rid the voter registration rolls of ineligible former felons - a vastly disproportionate number of whom are African American.

Because the databases were not reliable, it was impossible to create lists that contained all registered ineligible ex-felons without also including thousands of eligible voters who would be erroneously identified as ineligible ex-felons. Rather than miss a small percentage of ineligible ex-felons while protecting the rights of eligible voters, Florida state officials insisted upon "matching" criteria that ensured that the names of virtually every ineligible ex-felon would appear on the lists, knowing full well that thousands of fully eligible voters would appear on lists of "felons" who were targeted for removal from the voting rolls.

According to the Miami Herald, over 1,000 eligible voters, a disproportionate number of whom were black, were disenfranchised as a result of the Republican officials decisions. The only reason that thousands of additional eligible voters were not disenfranchised was that many county supervisors refused to obey the law that required them to remove people on the lists from the voter registration rolls because the lists were so inaccurate.

Although the Division of Elections does not currently have the capacity to compile brand new felons lists, it does have the capacity to resend the 2000 lists to those counties that refused last year to fully implement the felons purge law because the lists were so inaccurate.

Meanwhile, implementation of the new felons purge law (98.0977) has turned in a partisan direction. Negotiations between the Republican-controlled Division of Elections and the non-partisan Florida Association of Court Clerk concerning a contract for a new Central Voter File have broken down over the issue of money. Despite the fact that Clay Roberts negotiated a contract requiring far less work with DBT/Choicepoint for over $1,000,000/year, Roberts is now claiming that the Court Clerks' demand of $750,000 per year is too much money. (DBT/Choicepoint's contract involved only the comparison of various databases; the contract with the Court Clerks involves not only that, but also setting up and maintaining of the Central Voter File as a statewide database that is updated constantly.)

Roberts now plans to have the Republican-controlled Division of Elections maintain the new Central Voter File, as well as institute a brand new series of felons purges based on the new Central Voter File, starting in July of 2002 - just in time for the Jeb Bush's re-election campaign.