Rights and responsibility

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The problem of identifying -- and properly purging -- felons from Florida's voter rolls is not new to Patricia Hollarn.

"Some voters are being unfairly rejected," asserted the Okaloosa supervisor of elections, speaking Jan. 23 in Orlando to a state panel created to help reform Florida's now-famously flawed election system.

That panel was called by Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed the 21-member, bipartisan task force to save face in the post-election fallout. The job of the Governor's Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology is to recommend changes to the Florida Legislature when it convenes in March. After meeting earlier this month in Tallahassee, the task force made a stop on its statewide tour at the Radisson in downtown Orlando.

There, Hollarn was one of many speakers. But among several other issues -- including a lack of money for voter registration -- she zeroed in on the issue of alleged criminals denied their right to vote here.

In 1998, when the legislature created the Central Voter File, local elections supervisors began to rely on lists issued by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to identify ex-cons as ineligible voters. One problem: the FDLE listed all those who were merely arrested for felonies, without saying whether they were found guilty or not. The Governor's Office of Executive Clemency, she said, was supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff -- but it didn't even have a computerized database. That meant the department of elections had a lot of work to do, and quickly.

"The funds allotted to the division of elections," Hollarn said, "were for a hurry-up job. And you know what hurry-up jobs are like."

The problem, she said, was at least partially remedied by having the counties periodically download their information to the Central Florida Voter File. But even with that, she said, the information usually lags by six months.

As a result, thousands of people were improperly accused of being felons. The remedy, she suggested, is to automatically restore convicts' civil rights when they leave prison.

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