As the 2004 election nears, we take a look at how former felons–many of them African American Democrats–were wrongly included on a Florida state list of voters to be purged. We speak with an attorney with the ACLU who threatened to sue the state, a Florida elections supervisor who has publicly refused to purge voters based on the potential felons list and the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging felon disenfranchisement statutes in New York State. [includes rush transcript]
The Florida Division of Elections has done an about-face and decided it will allow voting by nearly 2,500 citizens whose restored voting rights had been threatened with revocation. The former felons–many of them African American Democrats–had been wrongly included on a state list of voters to be purged.
The agency originally said that state law required former felons be deleted from the voters rolls because they had registered to vote before they received clemency. But Secretary of State Glenda Hood backtracked yesterday amidst pressure from civil liberties groups.
Florida is one of seven states that does not automatically restore civil rights to felons after they have served their prison sentences. And regaining the right to vote can be a long and difficult process.
The law caused hundreds or possibly thousands of votes to be discounted in the 2000 election because of errors in a state purge list of former felons.
- Becky Steele, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union West Central Florida Office.
- Joseph "Jazz" Hayden, campaign director at Unlock the Block and lead plaintiff in Hayden v. Pataki, a lawsuit challenging felon disenfranchisement statutes in New York State.
- Ion Sancho, Supervisor of Elections for Leon County in Florida. He has publicly refused to purge voters based on the potential felons list.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined here in our Tampa studio by Becky Steele, the Director of the ACLU, West Central Florida office. In our New York office, we’re joined by Joseph "Jazz" Hayden who is the Campaign Director at Unlock the Block and lead plaintiff in Hayden vs. Pataki, a lawsuit challenging felon disenfranchisement statutes in New York State. We’re going to start with Becky Steele. Can you respond to this latest news? What exactly did the Florida division of elections decide?
BECKY STEELE: Well, first of all, we’re really happy with this news and what the Division of Elections decided was to remove ex-felons from Central Voters Database. They had been designated because they had received clemency and had their rights restored after they had registered to vote. So, the original position of having them in the database was then that the Supervisors of Elections should contact them and if they did not reregister to vote, those ex-felons who had their rights restored would not be allowed to vote. So, at the ACLU, our Legal Director, Randall Marshall, wrote a letter to Glenda Hood, the Secretary of State, and said there are some serious problems with this position. It may violate federal law and may violate the Constitution. You imposed these additional requirements on people who are eligible voters. They’ve gone through all of the hoops that they need and spent a long, arduous process getting their rights restored, and now because of a technicality in the timing, you’re going to strike them from the voter rolls. That’s a serious problem. So, on July 7, Don Roberts, the new Division Director of the Division of Elections, sent a letter to all of the supervisors of lengths and they have removed those people from the Central Voter Database.
AMY GOODMAN: But what will happen to others who didn’t go through that arduous process?
BECKY STEELE: Well, those ex-felons who have not had their rights restored are currently not allowed to vote under Florida law. And that’s a serious problem in our state. We have got one of the largest number of disenfranchised voters in the country. Right now, if you just look at the ex-felons who have completed all of their terms, there are over 600,000 people, and that’s since the year 2000.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re talking about now removing 2,500 from the list that they should be allowed to vote, but then you’re talking about this huge number that are not allowed to vote. But they’ve served their time.
BECKY STEELE: They’ve served their time, completed their restitution. They’ve, you know, completed their so-called debt to society, and yet they’re still not allowed to vote under our system. This goes back to Florida’s 1868 Constitution that was enacted after the Civil War with the intent of disenfranchising black voters, and there have been, you know, legal challenges that are still working their way through the courts. Unfortunately, that’s the system that’s in place right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Where does Florida stand in relation to the rest of the country? Do you know how many states do not allow people who’ve served time in prison to vote for the rest of their lives unless they go through this process?
BECKY STEELE: Well, we’re in the distinction minority of states. We’re one of only seven states that doesn’t automatically provide restoration of rights.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Jazz Hayden. Jazz Hayden, Campaign Director at Unlock the Block, sued the Governor of New York, George Pataki, challenging the felon disenfranchisement statutes in New York State. Can you tell us where New York stands on this, Jazz?
JOSEPH "JAZZ" HAYDEN: Well, New York state law denies the right to vote to anyone that’s in prison, that’s been convicted of a felony and that’s doing time in prison and also while they’re on parole. Once they complete their sentence, the right to vote is automatically restored.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the lawsuit that you filed?
JOSEPH "JAZZ" HAYDEN: The lawsuit I filed challenges the felon disenfranchisement statutes and it challenges it in such a way that it eliminates all the discussion about debt to society and all the rest of that. We take the position that the laws are unconstitutional and that they should be swept into the dustbin of history along with the poll tax, the grandfather clause, the literacy tests, the lynch mobs and all the rest of those obstacles to African-American empowerment in this country. And as it stands now, I filed a case— I mean a lawsuit in the year 2000 while I was doing a term in prison and I came out and connected with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Community Services Society and Center for Law and Justice. Their legal teams joined the lawsuit and we filed an amendment complaint in 2000, and it has been working its way through the district court until about three weeks ago. A district judge, Makenna, dismissed our— all our claims, you know. I mean, it was a very bad decision. And as it stands now, we’re— we have decided that we’re going to appeal to the Court of Appeals.
AMY GOODMAN: So there are several issues here. One is whether people in prison should get to vote, then whether people who come out of prison in this country, who’ve served their time, should get to vote, and then the issue of those that actually go through a process to get their voting rights restored should be allowed to vote, as has happened here in Florida. What about where, Jazz Hayden, in New York, where does it stand for people who have served their time, come out of prison? Is it similar to the Florida law that says no?
JOSEPH "JAZZ" HAYDEN: No. Once you serve your time in New York, your right to vote is automatically restored. It wasn’t always that way. But as a result of litigation in a case in 1971, in which a former prisoner lost that suit, but right after that, the New York State Legislature amended the felon disenfranchisement statutes. They were just like Florida’s, and made— restored the right to vote for people convicted of felonies upon the completion of their sentence, automatically restored. You don’t have to go through any boards or clemency or legislature, anything. As soon as your sentence is complete, from that moment on, your full citizenship rights are restored and you are able to vote.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the telephone by the Supervisor of Elections for Leon County in Florida, who has publicly refused to purge voters. Ion Sancho, is on the line with us. Can you explain what you have decided to do, or not to do, I should say?
ION SANCHO: We believe that Florida laws also protect every legal voter and gives them the right to cast a legal vote. And so we see conflicts in the statutes here. We were given a very inaccurate list with— that had legal voters on it. And prior to removing any of these individuals, I believe that we have a legal responsibility to, in fact, only remove individuals under Florida law who have, indeed — who indeed are felons. So, we’re contacting every county in the state. We’re doing research on trying to find out if these individuals on Leon County’s list, which number some 850, approximately, are, in fact, felons. And what we’re finding is that this database the state used is terribly, terribly flawed, riddled with errors, and if we attempt to remove individuals without doing the kind of research that would give us some degree of certainty that these individuals, in fact, are felons, and thus under Florida’s 1868 Constitution, not allowed to register, if we fail to act properly, we’ll disenfranchise voters. That’s why, to this point, we’ve not notified anyone who is on our list, that they may be a felon, because we’re going to try to correct the list first before we do any notification.
AMY GOODMAN: Becky Steele, your response.
BECKY STEELE: Well, I’m really glad to hear that Mr. Sancho is being so careful in addressing the Central Voter purge list, and this is something we’ve been meeting with supervisors of elections around the state and urging caution and care when deciding when to send these letters out that start the process, but ultimately can result in someone losing their right to vote and being stricken from the voting rolls. The other thing, we’re taking a multifaceted approach and urging a change in the Florida Constitution. There is a ballot initiative going forward and ultimately that’s what needs to happen is either change the Constitution or through litigation have it declared unconstitutional.
AMY GOODMAN: The ballot initiative says?
BECKY STEELE: The ballot initiatives merely says that once you have completed your time, your voting rights would be automatically restored and people can look at that and say the — can look at that at the ACLU.org website.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for joining us. We’ve been joined by Becky Steele here in our Tampa studio, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, West Central Florida office. We’ve also been joined on the phone by Ion Sancho, Supervisor of Elections for Leon County, Florida, and in our New York studio, Jazz Hayden, Campaign Director at Unlock the Block, and lead plaintiff in the Hayden vs. Pataki lawsuit, challenging the statutes in New York State. You are listening to and watching Democracy Now! in this largest public media collaboration in the country. More than 220 radio and television stations are broadcasting Democracy Now!, as well as on Dish Network Free Speech TV channel 9415, and we’re video and audio streaming at democracynow.org.