Ex-felons in Fla. fight for rights

July 15, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - While most tremors from Florida's 2000 presidential election fiasco have quieted down, one aspect remains hotly contested in federal court: the denial of voting rights to former felons returned to society.

Thousands of men and women convicted of a felony who had served their time were legally barred from casting ballots in that decisive election, which eventually was awarded to George W. Bush by 537 votes and a controversial ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that stopped recounts.

Thousands more in Florida, particularly in minority communities, have charged they were erroneously listed as former felons on Election Day and were denied ballots, possibly tilting the election to Mr. Bush.

That election is history, but a class action to restore the franchise in behalf of former felons is in the U.S. District Court for Southern Florida, brought against Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and the state by voting rights advocates. The state cites the 14th Amendment in defending the denial of voting rights to felons.

The lead petitioner is Thomas Johnson, 52, a black minister who a decade ago served eight months in a New York prison on charges of drug and weapon possession. He now heads an organization working to rehabilitate ex-convicts returned to society. His case is being handled by the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.

The issue is whether individuals convicted of a felony deserve to lose this basic right forever or whether, having served their time and having most other rights restored, they should be made whole as functioning - and tax-paying - citizens.

According to the Brennan Center, more than 4.7 million Americans - 620,000 in Florida - are barred from voting in federal or state elections after having been convicted of a felony. In 10 states, including Florida, they can lose the right to vote for life as a result of a single conviction. In Arizona and Maryland, two violent felonies can produce the same result.

The Florida case actually was initiated before the November 2000 presidential election but has been given greater impetus by it. The class-action suit charges that the state's disenfranchisement laws amount to arbitrary, irrational and intentional race discrimination in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

But Hamish Hume, a lawyer in Washington for the state of Florida, says the suit has been presented "as a race case with no evidence at all" of such discrimination. Further, he says, applications for restoration of voting rights are overwhelmingly approved. But critics say most former felons never reach the formal application stage.

Nancy Northup, director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, says: "In our criminal justice system, who gets arrested, who gets prosecuted and who gets convicted of a felony are all decisions that involve a great deal of discretion. Too often, race and class play a role in these decisions. When felony convictions result in voting bans, the result is increasing disenfranchisement of populations that were already marginalized."

Florida officials, the Brennan Center says, used unreliable voter registration lists in 2000 to weed out convicted felons and, as a result, many eligible registered voters were erroneously turned away from the ballot box, including a high percentage of African-Americans who had never committed a felony.

"Florida is now denying the voting rights of more than 5 percent of its voting age population, 10 percent among African-Americans, who have paid their debt to society," Ms. Northup says.

In a separate case, the NAACP is suing Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, charging improper purging of alleged felons from the voting rolls in the 2000 election. Lori Borgen of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law says the state violated the Voting Rights Act in "an election practice having a disproportionate impact" on minority citizens.

More than 1 1/2 years after the Florida fiasco, echoes continue to be heard in the Florida courts over real or alleged abuses in possibly the most contentious election in U.S. history.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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