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Of 7,000 felons purged from voting rolls, many are Democrats, blacks

Published May 23, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida scours its voter rolls in search of non-U.S. citizens, another form of purging continues: stripping felons of the ability to vote, including high numbers of Democrats and African-Americans.

In the first four months of 2012, election supervisors removed nearly 7,000 voters from the rolls following recent felony convictions. The system of regaining voting rights in Florida is so lengthy and strict that many will likely never vote again.

The Times/Herald analyzed state data that included the name, address, date of birth, party affiliation, age and race of 6,934 purged voters from January through April. In Florida, a felony conviction means the loss of civil rights, including the right to vote, serve on a jury or run for office.

According to the data, Democrats were three times more likely than Republicans to be removed. Blacks were almost as likely as whites to be removed (44 percent of those removed were white; 43 percent were blacks), while blacks make up 16 percent of the state's population.

"It's good news that only 7,000 voters committed new crimes out of almost 11 million voters statewide," said Reggie Garcia, a Tallahassee lawyer and clemency expert. "It's bad news that they are disproportionately African-American, Democrat and presumably males."

Democrats account for 51 percent of felons removed from the rolls so far this year and Republicans account for 17 percent. Voters of no party affiliation made up 23 percent and minor-party voters made up the rest.

Pockets of Tampa and Jacksonville are home to the most purged voters in 2012, according to voters' ZIP codes. Jacksonville, the state's largest city, accounts for 928 removals, about one of seven felons swept from the rolls, even though the rate of violent crime declined there by 3.3 percent from 2010 to 2011.

The system for removing felons from the Florida voter rolls is similar to that for noncitizens, who must respond to a certified letter within 30 days or face removal. Soon after taking office, Gov. Rick Scott asked the state's chief elections official, Kurt Browning, whether noncitizens were voting illegally in Florida.

Browning said Florida didn't screen voters for citizenship, but the voting application noted that lying about citizenship is perjury, punishable by up to five years in prison.

"He was concerned about noncitizens being registered and voting," said Browning, who has since resigned and is now a candidate for Pasco County school superintendent. "I don't want it portrayed that the governor was on some crusade to rid the rolls of noncitizens. We had a conversation. This was a concern of his, as it was mine, and still is."

Their talk occurred on the newly elected Scott's first visit to the Department of State as he made field trips to state agencies.

One of Scott's first major decisions as governor was to enact rules that made it harder for ex-felons to regain their voting rights. Scott and all three fellow Republicans on the Cabinet required ex-felons to be crime-free for five years before petitioning the state to regain their civil rights, as the state has a backlog of more than 100,000 pending cases.

Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said felons must be off the rolls regardless of their backgrounds. "The law applies to everyone equally," Burgess said. "It's the job of election supervisors to make sure the voter rolls conform with the law."

While the purging process may be color- and party-blind, the figures suggest the justice system might not be. Blacks make up 16 percent of the state's population, yet accounted for 44 percent of admissions to the state prison system last year. Blacks also identify overwhelmingly with the Democratic Party.

University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith said the numbers tell a disturbing story: that Florida's system of civil rights revocation — which was a 19th century Jim Crow effort to remove blacks from the rolls — is still performing that function.

"Given the past history of racial discrimination in Florida, it raises a serious question as to what the real intent here is," Smith said. "All kinds of people commit felonies in Florida. What we see here is a clear racial and partisan pattern."

The state elections division sees it differently.

"Obviously, we're not targeting demographic groups," said spokesman Chris Cate. "If they're ineligible to vote, they need to be removed."

Edward Call, 24, of St. Petersburg was one of the removed voters. A Democrat, he voted in the 2008 presidential primary and general election, but his guilty plea to a felony drug charge reached the Pinellas elections office, which sent him a certified letter and ran a legal ad before removing him from the rolls.

Tampa Bay Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report, and information from the Associated Press was used. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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