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Ex-Felon Laws Cost Florida Residents Vote

Thousands of Florida residents were struck from the voter lists because they were mistakenly identified as ex-felons, just months before what has become the closest election in US history. With Bush apparently leading Gore by only hundreds of votes, in a state with hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised voters, could similar errors be tipping the race?
 
 
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The cliffhanger in Florida may ultimately be decided by those who didn't vote. Hundreds or even thousands of Florida residents may have been erroneously crossed off the voter lists because they were mistakenly identified as ex-felons.

Felon disenfranchisement laws may have hurt Gore in two ways. With the result of the presidential election coming down to a handful of votes in Florida, the disenfranchisement of close to three quarters of a million felons and ex-felons in the state may well have made the difference between a Gore presidency and a Bush one. Considering that the majority of felons are poor, black and Latino -- that is, likely Democratic voters -- had fewer than two percent of the disenfranchised in Florida voted, Gore would have probably been elected president.

But even more disturbing is the possibility that a significant number of Floridians may have been wrongfully barred from voting -- perhaps enough to have tipped the race.

Just months ago, nearly 12,000 Floridians were informed by the state Division of Elections that they had lost their voting rights because of felony convictions in other states. But the company hired by the state to compile that list of names made a massive mistake and misidentified thousands of people, according to the Palm Beach Post and other Florida papers. In response to a barrage of complaints from irate voters, nearly 8,000 of those who had received the notices were subsequently reinstated on the eligible voter lists in time for yesterday's vote.

George Bruder, senior vice president of the Boca Raton-based company, Database Technologies, called the inaccurate lists "a miscommunication." Representatives of the company did not return calls inquiring as to whether the other 4,000 voters on the list turned out to be genuine felons or ultimately had their voting rights restored. Florida election officials also could not be reached for comment.

In a state with such a huge number of disenfranchised citizens, the possibility that other such errors have gone undetected is impossible to ignore. In fact, in a separate, similar incident in August, some 500 people in Miami had their voting rights restored after they turned out to either be non-felons or felons who had been given voting clemency, according to the Tampa Tribune.

In recent years, the Florida Division of Law Enforcement has moved aggressively to remove felons who had sneaked onto the voter rolls. In 1998, the state reported that more than 50,000 felons were voting in Florida. In an effort to crack down on these voters, state authorities provided lists of resident felons to each county; counties then sent out letters informing these people they were being struck from the voter rolls. The state left it up to each county to determine whether the voters they deleted from eligibility were indeed felons; some counties, in turn, placed the onus on individuals who claimed they were the victim of a mistake to prove it, according to local newspapers. At least one county gave citizens only 30 days to respond with a notarized affidavit challenging their disenfranchisement.

In some instances, it is possible legitimate voters whose names were being used as aliases by felons were struck off the voter rolls. In Martin County, for example, Elections Supervisor Peggy Robbins remembers that two people reported being sent the letters erroneously. One person said he had been wrongly disenfranchised several times. If the recipients didn't phone to challenge the letters, says Robbins, there would be no way to rectify the mistake.

How many people might be affected? "There might be one or two," in her county, Robbins believes. "In a great big county, there might be more." Small numbers, but Florida has 67 counties; if this race comes down to just a few hundred votes, such glitches could provide the Democratic Party with grounds for challenging the result in the courts.

The wrongful-disenfranchisement question joins a lengthening list of voting irregularities in Florida. In Palm Beach County, thousands of Gore voters may have mistakenly marked their ballots for Pat Buchanan, thanks to a confusingly laid-out ballot. ABCNews.com reports that thousands of other Gore votes may not have been counted because of a computer error in Volusia County. Officials of both major parties also reported that many voters were apparently turned away from the polls and that some precints ran out of ballots. Several papers reported that white state Highway Patrol officers set up a checkpoint near a balloting site in a heavily black district in Broward County, allegedly prompting state and federal officials to investigate whether the incident amounted to intimidation against African-American voters.

In almost any other election, the number of potential wrongful-disenfranchisement errors would be so small as to not matter. But, if a couple thousand -- or even a few hundred -- people who would have voted were wrongfully deprived of their right to do so, it is at the very least possible that the election of the most powerful man in the world will have been swung by bad information about eligible voters fed into computers.

MoJo Wire Senior Editor Vince Beiser and editorial intern Melissa Hostetler contributed to this report.