Florida’s Aggressive Purge of Voter Rolls
BETWEEN THE LINES Q&A from the nationally syndicated radio newsmagazine "Between The Lines" http://www.btlonline.org - A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints on national and international issues under-reported in major media For release June 18, 2001
U.S. Civil Rights Commission
Condemns Officials' Conduct During Florida 's Pivotal 2000
• Florida's aggressive effort to purge voter rolls cost eligible citizens their right to vote in the 2000 presidential election.
Some eight months after one of the most chaotic presidential elections in United States history, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report June 8 which examined irregularities in Florida's pivotal 2000 election. The commission concluded that Florida's African American citizens were nearly 10 times more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected. While African Americans comprised about 11 percent of all voters in Florida in the November election, blacks cast about 54 percent of the ballots thrown out.
The commission, which held three days of hearings, with over 30 hours of testimony from over 100 witnesses, also found that Florida election officials had wrongfully purged thousands of voters from the registration rolls. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who recently signed legislation reforming his state's electoral system, attacked the report for what he characterized as its "faulty analysis and political bias."
Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, one of several civil rights groups which have filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida for its disenfranchisement of minority voters. She assesses the U.S. Civil Rights Commission report and offers suggestions for overhauling the Florida's electoral system that go well beyond the simple upgrade of outdated voting machinery.
Penda Hair: To me, the issue is not who would have won or lost the election so much as who didn't even have a chance to cast a ballot. All of the news media reports on recounts were based on people actually making it into the polling place and being allowed to cast a ballot. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission report does an excellent job documenting how many voters were erroneously, wrongfully and in many cases, illegally, turned away from the polls without being allowed to even cast a ballot. So you never get to the question of whether those ballots are counted. Voters who were turned away were disproportionately African American, Latino, and Haitian American according to the Civil Rights Commission and the investigations that my organization and other civil rights organizations have done in Florida.
Between The Lines: The officials of the state of Florida -- Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother -- conducted a purge of the voting rolls that disproportionately took away the voting franchise from African Americans. Could you describe how the purge of the voting rolls took place and why it was, in your view and that of the Civil Rights Commission, unfair in particular to minority voters?
Penda Hair: Let me say at the beginning that there were several different purges that were conducted of the voting rolls. But probably the most notorious purge was purportedly designed to take ex-offenders, persons with felony convictions off the rolls. But the way that this particular purge was conducted by Florida officials resulted in large numbers of voters who did not have felony convictions, who had no interaction with law enforcement whatsoever being removed from the rolls without any notice of due process or opportunity to correct it.
Some of those people were removed because Florida adopted a process of matching names and birthdates on the voter rolls with names and birthdates, from various sources of persons who were reported to have felony convictions. Instead of saying there had to be a verification that these are the same people, they adopted rules that if the letters in the name and the birthday matched by as much as 80 percent, that those lists would be sent out to the counties and the counties would be told to verify whether it's the same person or not. The counties had no ability to verify. Sometimes the lists came in August and with the election in November they simply took the people off the rolls without any process for making sure that they had accurately identified voters who were not eligible.
In addition, I think it's important that your listeners know that the problems in Florida went beyond the purges and police checkpoints. We found many examples of voters who filled out registration applications before or by the deadline and nonetheless, when they went to the precinct to vote, they were not on the registration list and they were turned away. Another problem was that there were so many voters who were not on the list -- either because they had been wrongfully purged or because they had been put on what Florida calls an inactive list, which we believe was the result of some illegal action -- that the phone lines of the registrar of voters were jammed. So the election officials in many, many precincts were never able to get through to the central office to get information about whether a voter should be on the list or was in the wrong precinct.
Between The Lines: The Advancement Project and other civil rights organizations have a lawsuit pending against the state of Florida for violations of civil rights law in the November 2000 election. What do you hope to achieve by the lawsuit?
Penda Hair: We want to remedy the rest of the problems that are not solved by (recent Florida) state legislation (reforming their electoral law). In particular, we are focused on all of those voters that were wrongfully taken off the rolls. We think that at a minimum, you have to put the people back on who were wrongfully taken off.
In addition, we believe that the state and the counties should adopt a system where they can guarantee that people who file voter registration applications will in fact be registered and will be registered promptly. Another provision that the state put in its new law, is that people have to be purged on a daily basis. But there is no requirement in state law that people have to be added to the rolls in any kind of time frame once they fill out a registration application.
So what we have seen in Florida, is the most aggressive effort in the country to take voters off the rolls. And while all of us want the voting rolls to be accurate and we want people who are no longer living in the state, or have died, to be taken off the rolls -- you have to balance that with the notion that you can't take people off the rolls who belong on the rolls.
So we think that the state of Florida should be looking even beyond bringing itself into compliance with existing law. They should be looking to establish a 21st century sophisticated voting system that uses same day registration and other rules that actually welcome voters into the process.
Contact the Advancement Project by calling (202) 728-9557 or visit the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Web site at http://www.lawyerscomm.org
See related links and listen to an excerpt of this speech in a RealAudio segment or in MP3 on our Web site at: www.btlonline.org for the week ending 6/22/01.
Scott Harris is WPKN Radio's public affairs director and executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines, for the week ending June 22, 2001.
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