Reported by Peter Franceschina, Sally Kestin, John Maines, Megan O'Matz and Dana Williams Written by Sally Kestin
October 12, 2008
More than 30,000 Florida felons who by law should have been stripped of their right to vote remain registered to cast ballots in this presidential battleground state, a Sun Sentinel investigation has found.
Many are faithful voters, with at least 4,900 turning out in past elections.
Another 5,600 are not likely to vote Nov. 4 — they're still in prison.
Of the felons who registered with a party, Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two to one.
Compare candidates, make your choices and print out your ballots Florida's elections chief, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, acknowledged his staff has failed to remove thousands of ineligible felons because of a shortage of workers and a crush of new registrations in this critical swing state.
Browning said he was not surprised by the newspaper's findings. "I'm kind of shocked that the number is as low as it is," he said.
Asked how many ineligible felons may be on Florida's rolls, Browning said, "We don't know."
The Division of Elections has a backlog of more than 108,000 possible felons who have registered to vote since January 2006 that it hasn't had the time or staff to verify. Browning estimated that about 10 percent, once checked, would be ineligible.
"This is part of a big mess," said Jeff Manza, professor of sociology at New York University and author of a book on felon voting. "It's almost certain there will be challenges if the election is close enough that things hinge on this. Both parties are armed to the teeth with legal talent in all the battleground states."
Florida's felon ban originated before the Civil War, and today the state remains one of 10 that restrict some felons from voting even after they've served their time. The law requires state and county elections officials to remove felons from voter rolls after conviction and add them only when they've won clemency to restore their voting rights.
In 2007, the state eased the restrictions by granting automatic clemency to most nonviolent offenders who have completed their sentences. Others, including people convicted of federal offenses, multiple felonies or crimes such as drug trafficking, murder and sex charges, must still apply for clemency and have their cases reviewed.
The felons the Sun Sentinel identified never received clemency, but their names remain on Florida's voter rolls. Some are well-known: ex-Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne and ex-Palm Beach County Commissioner Tony Masilotti, for instance, both convicted last year of public corruption.
Browning said the state painstakingly checks all voters before removing them to avoid inadvertently taking off eligible voters as happened in two previous large-scale purge attempts.
"The policy of this department, this state, is that we will err on the side of the voter," he said.
Florida registers voters largely on an honor system, asking applicants to affirm on a signed form that they are not convicted felons or that their rights have been restored. State law requires the Elections Division to conduct criminal records checks only after voters are added to the rolls, and it takes months or even years to remove those who are ineligible, the Sun Sentinel found.
"It's scandalous, really," said Lance deHaven-Smith, professor of public policy at Florida State University. "Why do they have to cull the rolls after they get registered? They shouldn't get on the rolls in the first place."
Several felon voters interviewed by the Sun Sentinel expressed confusion over automatic clemency and said they thought their voting rights had been restored. Some said they merely signed registration forms that were filled out by volunteers.
"If I wasn't able to vote, they wouldn't have given me my [voter registration] card," said John A. Henderson, 55, a Hallandale Beach Democrat. "I voted the last time and the times before that."
Henderson served about a year in prison in the late 1990s for battery and trafficking in cocaine. He said he was unaware he needed to formally apply to restore his rights when he successfully registered to vote in 2002. Henderson has since cast ballots in at least six elections and received three updated voter ID cards from the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office, records show.
Broward elections officials were unaware of Henderson's criminal record and did not check it when he registered, said county elections spokeswoman Mary Cooney. Nonetheless, she said he will remain on the rolls "until we are directed otherwise to remove him."