Florida Felon Purge: Here We Go Again

In the wake of the Florida Secretary of State’s order to evaluate as many as 40,000 “potential felon matches” to determine if they should be removed from the voting rolls, People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF) announced plans to contact county election officials to head off the massive voter disenfranchisement caused by a similar voter purge during the 2000 election fiasco.

“Here we go again. Why the rush to take more people off of the voting rolls when people who should not have been removed in 1999 and 2000 haven’t yet been reinstated?” asked Ralph G. Neas, President of the People For the American Way Foundation. “We want to make every effort to independently reach out to these voters, and do all we can to make sure that if they have the right to vote, they can vote in 2004.”

The infamous attempt to purge felons from the voting rolls in 2000 was initiated by former Secretary of State Katherine Harris five months before the Presidential election. News reports and analyses since have shown that the list included people who had never committed a crime and others who had committed only misdemeanors. In addition, voters whose names were similar to those of felons on the list were mistakenly removed from the rolls. PFAWF, along with other civil rights organizations, was co-counsel in a successful lawsuit to require state and county election officials to reinstate to the voter rolls people who were wrongfully removed in 1999 and 2000, a process that is still ongoing.

“Even before they have corrected the mistakes of four years ago, before they have restored the rights to the people who were wronged in 2000, they’re starting this process yet again,” Neas said. “It’s mind-boggling.”

In 2000, county officials who suspected that the voters they removed from the rolls had been misidentified said they had nowhere to turn for help. Neas said the foundation is writing to each of the 67 county election officials to offer help in identifying people who may have been placed on the purge list erroneously to correct the situation before the November 2, 2004 election. This letter can be viewed here.

“Unfortunately, this process puts the burden on the voter to prove whether he or she has the legal right to vote in Florida. It’s key that we begin reaching out to these people as soon as possible, to help them assess whether they have wrongly been tagged as felons who are not able to vote,” he said. “A challenge after the election will do no good. The damage will be done. It’s an enormous task, but we’re going to work with our coalition partners to do all we can.”

Last week, People For the American Way Foundation and its coalition partners launched the “Know Your Rights/Election Protection” program in Tallahassee and other cities. The ambitious nonpartisan program will distribute millions of state-specific “Voters’ Bills of Rights” and other informational materials in more than 20 states. Thousands of Election Protection volunteers, including lawyers and law students, will canvass neighborhoods, monitor polling places, and staff a toll-free hotline that will provide free immediate legal advice to voters who encounter problems on Election Day. The program targets historically disenfranchised communities, including African American, Latino and disabled voters.

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