Florida's `Disappeared Voters': Disfranchised by the GOP

By Palast, Gregory | The Nation, February 5, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Florida's `Disappeared Voters': Disfranchised by the GOP


Palast, Gregory, The Nation


THOUSANDS OF CITIZENS CAN'T REGISTER OR HAVE BEEN THROWN OFF THE ROLLS. WHAT WAS BILLED AS A REFORM EFFORT IMPROPERLY TARGETS LARGE NUMBERS OF BLACKS.

In Latin America they might have called them votantes desaparecidos, "disappeared voters." On November 7 tens of thousands of eligible Florida voters were wrongly prevented from casting their ballots--some purged from the voter registries and others blocked from registering in the first instance. Nearly all were Democrats, nearly half of them African-American. The systematic program that disfranchised these legal voters, directed by the offices of Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris, was so quiet, subtle and intricate that if not for George W. Bush's 500-vote eyelash margin of victory, certified by Harris, the chance of the purge's discovery would have been vanishingly small.

The group prevented from voting has few defenders in either party: felons. It has been well reported that Florida denies its nearly half a million former convicts the right to vote. However, the media have completely missed the fact that Florida's own courts have repeatedly told the Governor he may not take away the civil rights of Florida citizens who committed crimes in other states, served their time and had their rights restored by those states.

People from other states who have arrived in Florida with a felony conviction in their past number "clearly over 50,000 and likely over 100,000," says criminal demographics expert Jeffrey Manza of Northwestern University. Manza estimates that 80 percent arrive with voting rights intact, which they do not forfeit by relocating to Florida.

Nevertheless, agencies controlled by Harris and Bush ordered county officials to reject attempts by these eligible voters to register, while, publicly, the governor's office states that it adheres to court rulings not to obstruct these ex-offenders in the exercise of their civil rights. Further, with the aid of a Republican-tied database firm, Harris's office used sophisticated computer programs to hunt those felons eligible to vote and ordered them thrown off the voter registries.

After reviewing The Nation's findings, voter demographics authority David Bositis concluded that the purge-and-block program was "a patently obvious technique to discriminate against black voters." Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC, notes that based on nationwide conviction rates, African-Americans would account for 46 percent of the ex-felon group wrongly disfranchised. Corroborating Bositis's estimate, the Hillsborough County elections supervisor found that 54 percent of the voters targeted by the "scrub" are African-American, in a county where blacks make up 11 percent of the voting population.

Bositis suggests that the block-and-purge program "must have had a partisan motivation. Why else spend $4 million if they expected no difference in the ultimate vote count?" Florida's black voters gave Al Gore nine out of ten of their votes; white and Hispanic felons, mostly poor, vote almost as solidly Democratic. A recently released University of Minnesota study estimates that, for example, 93 percent of felons of all races favored Bill Clinton in 1996. Whatever Florida's motive for keeping these qualified voters out of the polling booths on November 7, the fact is that they represented several times George W. Bush's margin of victory in the state. Key officials in Bush's and Harris's agencies declined our requests for comment.

The NAACP, tipped off to the racially suspect voter purge by early reports of this investigation, added the tainted felon-hunt to its lawsuit, filed January 10, against Harris, her elections unit chief Clay Roberts and their private database contractor. The suit accuses them of violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Constitution's equal protection amendment.

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