Florida's 'Disappeared Voters': Disfranchised by the GOP | The Nation


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

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A letter dated August 10, 2000, from Harris's office to Bush's office, obtained under Florida's freedom-of-information act, indicates that the chief of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections also questioned Harris's office about the purge of ex-cons whose rights had been restored automatically by other states. The supervisors' group received the same response as Hillsborough: Strike them from the voter rolls, and if they complain, make them ask Bush for clemency.

According to an April 2, 2001, MSNBC report, Florida state officials have "quietly changed" the policy that purged eligible voters from its rolls. Anita Hodgkiss, with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, said in a message that it was The Nation's investigative reports that "forced the state to change its position on out-of-state ex-felons."

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While almost all county supervisors buckled, Carol Griffen did not. Griffen, Washington County's elections chief, concluded that running legal voters through Jeb Bush's clemency maze would violate a 1993 federal law, the National Voter Registration Act, which was designed to remove impediments to the exercise of civil rights. The law, known as "Motor Voter," is credited with helping register 7 million new voters. Griffen quotes from the Florida section of the new, NVRA-certified registration form, which says, "I affirm I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my rights relating to voting have been restored." "That's the law," says the adamant Griffen, "and I have no right stopping anyone registering who truthfully signs that statement. Once you check that box there's no discussion." Griffen's county refused to implement the scrub, and the state appears reluctant to challenge its action.

But when Pastor Johnson attempted to register in Alachua County, clerks refused and instead handed him a fifteen-page clemency request form. The outraged minister found the offer a demeaning Catch-22. "How can I ask the governor for a right I already have?" he says, echoing, albeit unknowingly, the words of the Florida courts.

Had Johnson relented and chosen to seek clemency, he would have faced a procedure that is, admits the clemency office's Hayes, "sometimes worse than breaking a leg." For New Yorkers like Johnson, she says, "I'm telling you it's a bear." She says officials in New York, which restores civil rights automatically, are perplexed by requests from Florida for nonexistent papers declaring the individual's rights restored. Without the phantom clemency orders, the applicant must hunt up old court records and begin a complex process lasting from four months to two years, sometimes involving quasi-judicial hearings, the outcome of which depends on Jeb Bush's disposition.

Little wonder that out of tens of thousands of out-of-state felons, only a hardy couple of hundred attempted to run this bureaucratic obstacle course before the election. (Bush can be compassionate: He granted clemency to Charles Colson for his crimes as a Watergate conspirator, giving Florida resident Colson the right to vote in the presidential election.)

Was Florida's corrupted felon-voter hunt the work of cozy collusion between Jeb Bush and Harris, the President-elect's brother and state campaign chief, respectively? It is unlikely we will ever discover the motives driving the voter purge, but we can see the consequences. Three decades ago, Governor George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door and thundered, "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" but he failed to block entry to African-Americans. Governor Jeb Bush's resistance to court rulings, conducted at whisper level with high-tech assistance, has been far more effective at blocking voters of color from the polling station door. Deliberate or accidental, the error-ridden computer purge and illegal clemency obstacle course function, like the poll tax and literacy test of the Jim Crow era, to take the vote away from citizens who are black, poor and, not coincidentally, almost all Democrats. No guesswork there: Florida is one of the few states to include both party and race on registration files.

Pastor Johnson, an African-American wrongfully stripped of his vote, refuses to think ill of the governor or his motives. He prefers to see a dark comedy of bureaucratic errors: "The buffoonery of this state has cost us a President." If this is buffoonery, then Harris and the Bushes are wise fools indeed.

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