MIAMI – Florida elections officials said Saturday they will not use a disputed list that was designed to keep felons from voting, acknowledging a flaw that could have allowed convicted Hispanic felons to cast ballots in November.
The glitch in a state that President Bush won by just 537 votes could have been significant — because of the state's sizable Cuban population, Hispanics in Florida have tended to vote Republican more than Hispanics nationally. The list had about 28,000 Democrats and around 9,500 Republicans, with most of the rest unaffiliated.
"Not including Hispanic felons that may be voters on the list ... was an oversight and a mistake," Gov. Jeb Bush (search) said. "And we accept responsibility and that's why we're pulling it back."
Gov. Bush said the mistake occurred because two databases that were merged to form the disputed list were incompatible.
The problem in compiling the list was unintentional and unforeseen, said Nicole de Lara, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood.
"Nevertheless, Supervisors of Elections are required to uphold their constitutional obligation" and will find other ways to ensure felons are removed from the rolls, Hood said in a statement.
Florida is one of only a handful of states that does not automatically restore voting rights to convicted felons once they've completed their sentence.
The decision to scrap the list was made after it was reported that the list contained few people identified as Hispanic; of the nearly 48,000 people on the list created by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (search), only 61 were classified as Hispanics.
That was because when voters register in Florida, they can identify themselves as Hispanic. But the potential felons database has no Hispanic category, which excludes many people from the list if they put that as their race.
The law enforcement list was compared to the voter rolls to determine who should be barred from voting.
The glitch, first reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, affected only those who identified themselves as Hispanic. A review of the voter list by The Associated Press found others with Hispanic surnames who did not identify themselves as Hispanic.
The purge of felons from voter rolls has been a thorny issue since the 2000 presidential election. A private company hired to identify ineligible voters before the election produced a list with scores of errors, and elections supervisors used it to remove voters without verifying its accuracy. A federal lawsuit led to an agreement to restore rights to thousands of voters.
The new list was released July 1, with officials saying Gov. Bush's administration was simply complying with federal election law. Problems with the list were quickly detected.
State officials have said there are people on the list who are not felons, and elections workers have flagged more than 300 people listed who might have received clemency.
Another problem was that about 2,700 people who had received clemency were still on the list. That was because they had registered to vote before they received clemency. The state initially required them to register again, but later backed off.
Gov. Bush, the president's brother, spoke with Hood early Saturday and agreed with the decision that her office made.
"It was the right thing to do," Bush said.
Since the 2000 election, the secretary of state's office has been moved from Cabinet status in Florida to an agency under the Republican governor.
Many Democrats were convinced state officials purposely culled too many voters from the rolls in order to ensure President Bush's re-election. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) called it a "potential careless and needless disfranchisement of thousands of voters."
Civil rights advocates who wanted the list thrown out applauded the decision, but said some damage has already been done.
"Certainly there will be some people who received a letter, telling them effectively that they're going to be purged, who have been dissuaded from going to the polls altogether," said Jessie Allen, associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice (search) at the New York University School of Law.
State Sen. Les Miller, a Tampa Democrat who opposed the list, said he was pleased with Saturday's decision, but remained cautious.
"I still have a question mark in the back of my head, wondering what happens now," Miller said. "Are they saying 'that's it, we're not going to utilize it henceforth and forever more?' I need to know that."
Bush said the list will not be available to elections supervisors until he's comfortable that it actually will be "a useful tool."
Bush added, however, that he's concerned pulling back the list could mean "that more people who shouldn't be voting will be voting."
Election officials emphasized that the list is intended to be a starting point for county election supervisors.
On Election Day, anyone who feels they have been inadvertently removed from the voter rolls will be allowed to use a provisional ballot that will be examined later to determine eligibility.