Has Florida Created a Trap at the Polls for Ex-Felons?
Tampa Vote Fair has its own list of former felons, about 1,375 names from the county and 21,582 from the state—people it says are not supposed to be on the voter rolls and are poised to vote fraudulently. Local news outlets reported that Tampa Vote Fair used a database created by True the Vote, a Texas-based Tea Party group. But Vote Fair spokesman Tim Curtis says that the current list was created by the group’s leader, Kimberly Kelley, using only public records.
When a local newscast ran a story in late August on Tampa Vote Fair’s ex-felon list, the Tampa 912 Project, a closely aligned Tea Party group of which Kelley is vice-chair, wrote on Facebook: “Kudos to Kimberly Kelley and her team on a great job. Hopefully this is a first of many steps in clearing up county voter registrations. Remember, Al Frankin [sic] won the MN Senate race by less than this number by illegally using the felon vote. That gave Obama his 60th vote in the Senate and gave us Obamacare. This is a HUGE issue.”
Franken won the Senate race by 225 votes in an election and recount process widely regarded as one of the most transparent and most highly scrutinized in history. As detailed in election law expert Rick Hasen’s book The Voting Wars: “The board [commissioned to review the recount] conducted its review openly—all the ballots could be viewed on line in real time, and newspapers and radio stations allowed voters to determine the intent on questioned ballots—and, most unanimously, agreed on whether to accept or reject nearly 96 percent of the challenged ballots.” A 2010 investigation by Minnesota’s Citizens for Election Integrity, based on surveys of county attorneys, found just thirty-eight convictions of felons for voter fraud. Twenty-six former felons were found guilty of voting illegally, well below the margin of victory. Another twelve had registered to vote, but did not in fact cast a ballot.
But evidence aside, Tampa Vote Fair’s felon-fraud meme is spreading through local media. On August 20, a local newscast declared, “The group says its research shows some of the felons voted while behind bars.” That’s it—no scrutiny of the claim, or even acknowledgement of the absurdity that a person behind bars could somehow manage to vote.
I asked Kelley’s group to discuss this charge and heard back from Curtis, who, like Kelley, helps to lead both Tampa Vote Fair and its Tea Party sister group. “We’ll round up to 1,400 [felons],” Curtis posited. “That means that 1,400 other people who are legally registered to vote will have their votes nullified by the 1,400 who are illegally registered and could illegally vote in the upcoming election.”
The county has yet to verify whether his ex-felons are “illegally” registered. There’s certainly no proof that anyone on the list has voted or intends to vote.
But Curtis was adamant that fraud is happening and said the news report about the felons who “voted while behind bars” was accurate as well. He told me they have evidence of five people who cast ballots while in jail. “Are you surprised by that?” he asked. Curtis wouldn’t show me his proof of the incarcerated voters, and instead cited hypothetical examples: a wife who takes an absentee ballot to her imprisoned husband, who “fills it out while on a conjugal visit.” The wife would then mail the ballot in. “It’s not that difficult to game the system,” Curtis said.
These are the sorts of vague, unconvincing proofs of voting fraud that Tea Party Republicans have been building a case on nationwide. Even in Minnesota, the Citizens for Election Integrity report makes no mention of organized efforts to manipulate the election. Instead, it documents cases in which ex-felons were unclear about the restoration of their voting rights. That kind of confusion is exploited and manipulated to allege a campaign of intentional fraud, which is then used to make the case for stricter voter laws—the same process True the Vote used to get a strict voter ID law passed in Texas. (It was later blocked by a federal court.)
“The people who are attacking voters don’t want people of color participating at the same rate and with the same ease as other voters,” said Advancement Project co-director Penda Hair in a June interview. “So they come up with one excuse after another, and they label it under voter fraud.”
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard said he forwarded the list of 1,375 ex-felon names submitted to him by Tampa Vote Fair to the state, whose investigators are “working through the process” of verification. Until the state is finished, said Lennard, he couldn’t give information about whether any of those names represent voter fraud, from behind bars or otherwise. If fraud is found, the state’s attorney will investigate it further.
Lennard reported there were 1,843 people in his county who have recently lost their voting rights because of felony convictions, and said his office had sent out 897 notification letters about this since March. When told of reports that people have received those notifications alongside voter identification cards from the county, leading to confusion, Lennard chalked it up to a “lag time” between when the state notifies the county about people who have lost eligibility, and when the county sends out cards that declare eligibility.
Lennard also noted that Tampa Vote Fair has submitted multiple lists of people whose eligibility the group wants checked. It is the only group that has submitted such requests other than the state itself, which regularly hands down names to the county to be checked as part of routine list maintenance.
Under Governor Scott, “list maintenance” has been a tricky issue as well. The state is the subject of multiple lawsuits over a purge program it initiated in April, in which a list of thousands of names was generated using a highly contested database-matching method. The Justice Department and civil rights organizations asked Florida to cease and desist, citing apparent violations of the National Voter Registration Act because the purge program was too close to an election. Scott defended the action, saying the state needed to root out voter fraud. A federal judge agreed and allowed the program to commence.
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It’s doubtful that the county is engaging in a “setup,” as Lewis puts it, but there is little doubt that Tampa Vote Fair is prepared to exploit the confusion surrounding felons’ voting rights. Nationally, the True the Vote network is mobilized to do the same. In Virginia, which also has some of the toughest ex-felon voting restrictions in the nation, the state’s secretary has agreed to process all the voter restoration applications on backlog in time for the upcoming election. The Advancement Project, a civil rights law organization, persuaded the state to bulk up its staff for the mass processing, which could affect the rights of up to 350,000 Virginians whose voting rights are in question because of past felony convictions.
Tampa Vote Fair has set its sights not only on the felons looking to regain their voting rights but also on the people helping them. “They monitor everything I turn in,” says Lewis. At a recent Hillsborough County Republican Party executive committee meeting, Lewis heard members discuss keeping track of her work. Tampa Vote Fair’s Kelley is a member of the committee, despite the group’s claim to be nonpartisan. An August 21 agenda lists Kelley providing a “voter fraud research” report.
Tampa Vote Fair’s work with the Republican Party aligns closely with the recent history of voter “caging.” The courts have long ruled that caging that disenfranchises minority groups is illegal, after the Republican National Committee was accused of doing it in 1981 to purge minority voters. The RNC was also accused by news media and the Democratic Party of conspiring to do it again in 2004 in five states, including Florida.
Florida’s efforts at felony disenfranchisement history have deep historical roots. The first laws took hold in 1868 as a measure by the state legislature to severely limit the political power of African-Americans recently emancipated from slavery. A hundred years later, the state decided to keep these laws on the books, even though its Constitutional Revision Commission found no factual or rational basis for keeping them intact. Eight of the commission’s thirty-seven members were also part of the Johns Committee, a government commission that investigated civil rights organizations during the 1950s and ’60s for “subversive” activities.
As Blair Bass describes his relationship to democracy at the Rowlett Park picnic, this ugly history feels all too present. Bass’s voter information card reads “no party affiliation.” He explains, “I thought that way, they wouldn’t pick on me and take me off the rolls. But I guess they found out I was black and figured I would vote Democrat anyway.”