WEST PALM BEACH---Earlier this summer, after news organizations successfully sued Florida to release a list of 48,000 felons ineligible to vote this year, state Sen. Mandy Dawson, an African American Democrat whose district runs through portions of Palm Beach and Broward counties, sent letters to about 10,000 people in those counties who were on the list.
A few days later, the outraged calls started coming in -- about 400 people claiming they shouldn't be on the list. Some said they had been found guilty of misdemeanors, some said they had only been arrested and never charged, others said the adjudication of their sentences had been withheld, and yet others claimed they'd never had a run-in with the law.
"This is just outrageous," Dawson said. "We're worried about what's going to happen on Election Day when people go to vote. We don't know where this list came from and maybe the supervisors got the same bad information that the state did. I have no doubt that John Kerry will win this election. But I don't believe he'll ever be sworn in as the president."
Tensions are running high around the country about the potential for voter disenfranchisement. In Florida, Democrats are worrying about whether their votes will be counted and whether the other side will try to cheat to tip the balance one way or another. Florida Republicans claim the Democrats are using scare tactics to motivate their base. In other states, it's Republicans who are crying foul -- especially over issues related to provisional balloting and voter registration. But Florida, racked by an historic string of summer hurricanes, now faces an unrelenting string of legal challenges to the Nov. 2 presidential vote there.
The Felon List
Florida is one of seven states that automatically bars all felons from voting after their sentences have been served. In 2001, Florida lawmakers agreed to spend up to $2 million to compile a list of felons who were to be barred from voting.
At first, the state tried to keep the list private. But after a court ordered it released to the public, reporters discovered it was filled with mistakes and inconsistencies. The Miami Herald, for instance, found that 2,000 people who'd had their voting rights restored under the state's clemency process were still on the list. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune found that the 48,000-person list had only 61 Hispanics on it -- a fact that raised eyebrows because Florida's Hispanics mostly vote Republican. Democratic and civil rights groups have said about half of the list was made up of blacks and that Democrats outnumbered Republicans 3 to 1 on it, a claim that has been verified by reporting from Florida news organizations.
"We found many mistakes on the list," said Palm Beach County supervisor of elections Theresa LePore.
Secretary of State Glenda Hood, the former Republican mayor of Orlando and a political appointee of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, eventually threw out the list. But there was a twist -- the state's 67 individual county election supervisors still were responsible for enforcing state law, which forbids felons from voting.
Dawson said she and others continue to suspect a plot to disenfranchise voters -- a plot that would have been accomplished had the court not forced the state to publicly release the felon list.
Raymond Tucker Jr., a former Palm Beach County deputy sheriff, was among those who received a letter from Dawson notifying him that his name was on the list. In an interview, Tucker said he was charged with a felony crime about 15 years ago but was acquitted and has been voting ever since.
"I almost hope they do tell me I can't vote when I get there," said Tucker, who lives in Democrat-heavy Broward. "I think I'd have one hell of a lawsuit on my hands."
Jenny Nash, a spokesperson for the secretary of state's office, said the list was "intended to be nothing more than guidance" for the county election supervisors. She acknowledged problems with the list, including the lack of Hispanics, which she blamed on a technical error and differences in various state law enforcement databases.
"The fact is, as soon as that question was brought up about the Hispanic classifications, the secretary pulled the list," Nash said, denying any political motivations by Hood or Bush.
The Voter Registration Form
The U.S. District Court in Miami is fast-tracking a case brought by three minority voter applicants and three labor unions to force the state and various counties to accept thousands of rejected voter applications before the Nov. 2 election. The lawsuit seeks to direct county election supervisors to accept registration forms on which people forgot to check a box affirming their citizenship, but who signed their name to a statement that affirms the applicant's citizenship.
Some county election supervisors have said these applications should not be thrown out, essentially because the citizenship question is asked a second time on the application. The election supervisor in Miami-Dade County, Constance A. Kaplan, was among those who said that they would accept applications without the box checked, even after the county's legal office advised her otherwise. In Miami-Dade, the election supervisor is a non-political, appointed position.
Others, such as Broward County Supervisor Brenda Snipes, a Democrat appointed to the job by Gov. Jeb Bush after he suspended the previous supervisor last November, initially said such applications would be thrown out if the offenders did not return and correctly complete the form after being notified of the problem. She later changed her mind and said she would accept the applications.
Hood's office seemed to add to the confusion by telling the supervisors that the law clearly stated such applications could not be accepted, but then telling reporters that there was little her office could do to enforce the law. "We can't do anything except say what the law is."
Some Democrats argued that selective enforcement could give Republicans an unfair advantage because Miami-Dade Hispanics are mostly Cuban and vote overwhelmingly Republican. In Broward, they say, there is more of a mix of nationalities, and they tilt Democratic. Democrats argue that most of the 10,000 voters whose applications have been thrown out are minority voters who would likely vote Democratic.
Nash, the spokesperson for Hood, said Democrats are unfairly attacking the secretary of state for political reasons. Nash said Hood did her job by writing a letter to the Dade supervisor seeking his compliance with the law.
"Florida law is very specific as is federal law pertaining to the citizenship box," Nash said. "The feds require people to be asked, 'Are you a citizen?' and that a box has to be checked. The department of state does not have the authority to tell the supervisors to waive provisions of state or federal law."
The court will likely attempt to clear up this issue by the end of the week.
The Touch Screen Debate
Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) has filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding that new touch-screen voting machines be equipped with paper ballots. The new touch screens will be used in 15 Florida counties, including such large counties as Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough. Many of these counties lean Democratic. The other 52 counties will use optical scan voting machines that also produce a paper record.
The legislature certified both types of machines after the 2000 election.
But many critics have raised questions about the touch-screen voting machines, including whether they could malfunction on Election Day and whether they're more susceptible to manipulation.
"The rational [for the lawsuit] is that Florida state law requires a manual recount in a close election, and you cannot conduct a manual recount on these machines," Wexler, a lawyer, said. "By that standard they violate Florida law. So if this election is close like it was in 2000, 52 counties will be busily counting and recounting and 15 counties that represent 50 percent of the population of this state will be sitting idly by unable to conduct a recount."
Nash suggested that Wexler's lawsuit was politically motivated.
"The timing of his lawsuit is very curious," Nash said. "These systems have been in place since 2002. These new voting systems have delivered hundreds of successful elections, and we haven't had any problems. In fact, Congressman Wexler was elected on the touch screen in 2002, and he didn't seem too concerned about it then. I think these groups' agendas are to erode voter confidence and put doubt in the voters' minds. And I think Congressman Wexler does a huge disservice to the voters of Florida."
The state Supreme Court on Monday issued an opinion that prevents people who cast provisional ballots at the wrong precinct from having their votes counted. That ruling dealt a blow to a group of labor unions that sued the state arguing that a rule requiring provisional ballots that are cast in the wrong precincts be thrown out unfairly disenfranchises voters.
Under Florida law, if voters show up at a polling place that has no record of their registration, they are given provisional ballots. Those ballots are held until officials determine if the voters were entitled to vote at that precinct and had not already cast ballots.
If they should have been allowed to vote at that precinct, the ballots count; if not, they are thrown out.
The labor union plaintiffs argued that the law unconstitutionally disenfranchised Floridians who may not know their polling place. They argued that many people have new polling places because of redistricting or because they have moved or been displaced by a hurricane.
The court disagreed, saying that it was not unreasonable to require all voters to vote at the right polling place.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, which supported the plaintiffs in the Florida case, said the precinct requirement is a remnant of an outdated system, according to the Associated Press.
"This is like saying you can only do your banking in this building downtown," Simon said. "What we're seeing here is the difficulty of trying to drag Florida kicking and screaming out of the horse and buggy era."
Contributing Video: Jerry Lower
Contributing Photography: The Associated Press, The Washington Post