Jon Stewart of The Daily Show said it best: "If Florida continues to botch the election process, the country may have to consider having the state amputated." After endless arguments about recounts and hanging chads in 2000, many share Stewart's sentiment.
So what exactly is Florida doing to prove that it isn't the nation's diseased limb? And more importantly, can we trust Glenda Hood not to screw things up?
That depends on how much you trust Glenda Hood.
Florida is one of seven states that does not automatically restore voting rights to ex-felons who have served their sentences. Instead, they must go through a long, arduous process to regain their voting rights, a procedure that can take years.
In 2000, then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris paid a private company, Database Technologies, $4 million to formulate a list of potential felons that would be "scrubbed" from the voter rolls. We all know the results: Thousands of voters were wrongly turned away from the polls when their names appeared on the felon list.
No other state has ever paid a private company to furnish a purge list. (This time around, the Division of Elections and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are handling the list.) Furthermore, according to Observer of London columnist Gregory Palast, Database Technologies had strong Republican ties - a Republican director, a Republican power lobbyist in Washington and a president who, before his death in 1998, donated $100,000 to the Republican Party.SMELLS LIKE FOUL PLAY
How inaccurate was the 2000 purge list? According to the Concord Monitor newspaper, the mistakes constitute flagrant negligence. Their findings show that one voter was barred for a crime committed in 2007, one county's election supervisor (Linda Howell of Madison County) received a letter notifying her that she was a felon, one judge was on the purge list and one county that checked 694 names on the disqualified voter list could verify only 34 to be felons.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, "Katherine Harris made little effort to verify the list. Twenty elections supervisors ignored the list. But the rest simply purged their voter rolls without notifying the voters."
Chuck Smith, a Hillsborough County statistician studying the 2000 election, discovered that 15 percent of the 3,258 names on that county's purge list were there in error. He also found that the number of black voters on the list was high - 54 percent of the total - in comparison to the county's 11.6 percent of registered voters who were black.
And now the 2004 presidential election is rapidly approaching. According to the Miami Herald, only 33 of the 67 counties in Florida have responded to the state's request to report on the progress of restoring voters who were wrongly purged.
"Palm Beach County, the national joke in the last election, is among the counties that have not reported corrections," wrote Palm Beach Post columnist Stebbins Jefferson. "Those counties that have reported their findings to the state restored 679 voters' eligibility. George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes."
Adding to the controversy is the abrupt resignation of state elections director Ed Kast - an action that has done nothing to ease fears that Glenda Hood doesn't know what she is doing. Hood's office denied the rumors that Kast resigned as a result of the voting controversy, yet many are calling it "highly suspicious."NOW WHAT?
Now there is a new list, one that the state refuses to make public except to elections officials, politicians and political parties. Per Florida Statute 98.0975, the public can see the list but can't take notes or make copies.
"We have to protect the rights of all the people because we feel strongly that Florida voters do not want their names published if they aren't really felons," says Hood spokesperson Jenny Nash. "Public humiliation and harm to reputation is at stake."
But is privacy the real motive, or is the Department of State passing the buck to elections officials? "This list only shows matches for potential felons, so there are going to be some names that are incorrect Ã? it's up to the election's officials to verify the list," continues Nash.
News organizations and civil rights agencies are suing the state in an effort to decide which is more important: the right to privacy or the right to vote. CNN, the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Amendment Foundation and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson are parties to the suit, claiming that a private list is unconstitutional, and that it conflicts with Florida's public-access laws. Others are arguing that without a public list, the huge responsibility of verifying all 47,000 names before the August primaries rests unfairly on election officials.
The People for the American Way Foundation, a legal organization formed in the wake of the 2000 controversy, offered to help verify the list. But the law says they can't gain access to it.
"Unfortunately, this process places the burden on the voter to prove whether he or she has the legal right to vote in Florida," says PFAWF president Ralph Neas. "It's key that we begin reaching out to these people as soon as possible, to help them assess whether they have been wrongly tagged as felons. A challenge after the election will do no good."
Leon County circuit judge Nikki Clark will issue her verdict in the lawsuit after the two sides submit their written arguments in the next two weeks.
COWLES: NO MISTAKES
Out of the 47,697 potential felons statewide, Orange County accounts for 2,198 - the highest number in Central Florida. But supervisor of elections Bill Cowles is not panicking.
"Here's how it works: When we go through the names on the list, we send out a certified letter to each person telling them they've been identified as a felon and to contact us. If they haven't responded in 30 days, we will publish their names in the newspaper, giving them another 30 days to respond," says Cowles. (This despite Hood's stance that making names public violates privacy.) "This list is only showing potential felons ... we give them a chance to set the record straight."
Cowles is confident that there will be no mistakes for 2004. "We were very meticulous about sending out certified letters in 2000, and we had a very small number `of incorrectly listed felons`."
Of the 2,198 potential felons on the 2004 Orange County purge list, 500 have already been removed. "Our office has been working monthly to verify and move names from the list if they aren't supposed to be there. Names constantly get moved for one reason or another because it's a very transient list, and we've done a good job of staying on top of things."
Do they have enough time to fulfill their duties before the August primary? "This is just another layer `on top of our normal duties`, and we'll work it in," says Cowles.ROOM FOR OPTIMISM
In an effort to alleviate some of the mounting tension, all 67 of Florida's elections supervisors met in Key West early in June to discuss the issue in detail. The consensus was to err on the side of the voter.
"I think there is a reason to be optimistic," says ACLU executive director Howard Simon. "All of the supervisors said they are going to go slow, they are going to check every name, many of them are not going to purge without a hard-copy piece of paper which constitutes proof of a criminal history. The Association of County Supervisors of Elections passed a resolution not to send certified letters until a one-by-one examination is conducted."
But Simon still has reservations. "The complexity `of this issue` occurs in some part because we don't have a single system of elections in Florida," says Simon. "We have 67 counties in Florida and each county is a system unto itself, dealing with different technology, different procedures and different training. There's a lot of work that has to be done."
Simon also criticized the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's attitude toward the progress. "`At the Key West Conference` someone from the FDLE said with a great deal of pride that out of the 5,000 hearings they've had, half of the people were actually felons. It would have been equally accurate for him to say that half of the people were not felons. That's an error rate that any normal person would find embarrassing."
The only thing that needs to be "purged" is the felon law itself, says Simon. "All of this agony and concern about the wrongful purge takes place because we are governed here in Florida by a Civil War relic that prohibits ex-felons from voting after they have served their sentences. If we had a system like the majority of the country does, we wouldn't be talking about any of this."firstname.lastname@example.org