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Monday, October 04, 2010

70 felons, 281 dead people still registered to vote in Martin County

70 felons, 281 dead people still registered to vote in Martin County

By Jim Turner
Posted October 3, 2010 at 7:15 p.m.

Treasure Coast elections officials have removed 11,308 felons and deceased people from the list of registered voters in the past two years.

However, as voting gets under way for the general election, 1,107 people who by law should have been removed remained among the 360,000 registered voters in Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties, according to the Sun-Sentinel.

The voter list includes: Kobie Gary, a son of famed attorney Willie Gary, who in April was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for conspiracy to grow and distribute marijuana out of a home in Hobe Sound; Eryn Allegra, a Port St. Lucie woman who smothered her 8-year-old son to death on Christmas Day 2008; and Ira Hatch, who in July pleaded no contest to a racketeering charge after being accused of stealing millions of dollars from his Vero Beach title company.

Overall in Martin County, 70 felons were still registered as well as 281 dead people.

Florida is one of 10 states that restrict voting by felons after they’ve completed their sentences. Felons are not permitted to cast ballots until their rights have been restored through clemency, an automatic process for many non-violent offenders but that for others requires an investigation and hearing.

On the Treasure Coast, elections officials say they have been removing names when they get them from the state Division of Elections, but they also have to follow steps that give those listed as felons a month to contest the removal.

“The state was sending them fast and furious to us and they were under the impression they were current with the felon list,” Martin County Supervisor of Elections Vicki Davis said. “We don’t keep track of those who are convicted here at our end.”

Davis estimates the felon removal process, sending each individual a certified letter and posting a legal notification in a newspaper, costs the county $7,000 to $10,000 a year.

“Most of the time we have no response from these individuals,” Davis said. “Out of all of the notifications, maybe three or four.”

The majority of those who responded believe their rights were restored and are directed to contact the Florida Clemency Board.

State elections officials pledged to clean up the voter rolls two years ago after a Sun Sentinel investigation found they included more than 28,000 people who had died and 33,000 felons whose civil rights had not been restored.

This year, as many as 14,892 statewide voters dead as long as two decades were still registered as of July, according to the Sun-Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel. As many as 9,766 felons who have not gotten their voting rights restored under Florida law remain registered, the papers reported.

The majority of those are in urban counties.

However, a quick review of registered voters on the Treasure Coast turned up a number of high-profile residents who in the past two years have been convicted of felonies.

Davis said the state has yet to include Gary on any list of names to remove, but the county will start the process. Gary did not vote in the recent primary nor has he requested an absentee ballot for the general election.

As for dead voters, officials rely upon the family to provide a death certificate. Often a Florida voter will die near a secondary residence that is out of state.

The potential for election fraud in the names of dead voters is low, but ineligible felons have voted by the thousands in past elections in Florida and could decide close races on Nov. 2.

Informed of the latest findings, Florida’s election chief, Dawn Roberts, ordered an immediate review of the methods the state uses to identify voters who die or are convicted of a felony.

“I am concerned about the potential discrepancies the Sun Sentinel has found,” Roberts, acting secretary of state, said in an e-mail. “We are meeting now with our state partners and analyzing the data collection efforts and, if necessary, will make changes to improve those efforts.”

Roberts also said she will work to change state law to allow the Division of Elections access to death records nationwide. Currently, the division receives death notices every two weeks but only for people who die in Florida.

“Clearly what you’ve uncovered is there is still a problem, and it needs to be addressed,” said state Sen. Nan Rich, D- Weston, a member of the Ethics and Elections Committee. “Obviously, there is still an issue with the matching system.”

Felons overlooked

The state elections division is responsible for identifying ineligible voters and sending their names to county elections supervisors for purging.

Every day, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement matches its database of criminal histories against voters. FDLE sends the elections division a list of possible felon voters, who are then doublechecked against court records and other sources.

The Sun Sentinel compared databases from the Florida Department of Corrections to the voter rolls as of the end of August and found more than 9,700 possible matches. The number is conservative because it excludes cases where a middle name or initial was missing as well as inmates released prior to October 1997.

The elections division checked a sample of 25 names the newspaper found and confirmed 22 were ineligible felons. More than half were missed by the state because some felons appear in the corrections database but not in FDLE’s.

“Beginning immediately, we are adding cross-reference checks of our voter file with Department of Corrections in addition to the existing checks with FDLE,’’ Roberts said.

Another gap occurs with federal felony convictions. Former politicians jailed for corruption in Broward and Palm Beach counties were convicted in federal court as long as four years ago but were not identified by the state for removal. Neither was Scott Rothstein, convicted in January on five felony counts in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

“There is not a routine exchange of data between our office and the federal circuit courts,’’ said Jennifer Krell Davis, spokeswoman for the elections division.

The division cannot easily access electronic federal court data and relies on each district court to provide paper files on felons, which occurs “on an inconsistent basis,’’ Krell Davis said.

Sen. Rich said the information-sharing needs to improve.

“It just seems like this is a problem that never really seems to go away,’’ she said. “This is an issue the (elections) committee should investigate when we return to Tallahassee — see if we can’t close this gap.’’

Maintaining accurate voter rolls is a requirement in state and federal law, but Florida has been unable to get it right for years. Felons have caused the most headaches.

Elections officials have been slow to remove felons because in prior purge attempts, legitimate voters have been inadvertently taken off. The elections division painstakingly checks every possible felon voter before removal.

The state switched to a centralized voter database in 2006 in part to more easily identify felons and by 2008 had a backlog of more than 100,000 names to check. Then Secretary of State Kurt Browning said, “It’s my department’s goal, between now and the 2010 elections, that those felons will be resolved.’’

The division hired about 40 part-time and temporary employees to reduce the backlog at a cost of $700,000, Krell Davis said. Files on felon voters poured into county elections supervisors’ offices.

By April of this year, state officials thought the backlog had been eliminated and were reviewing new felon matches the same day they came in. Election supervisors said they believed voter rolls were finally current.

The felon voters the Sun Sentinel identified include people convicted of sex crimes, carjacking, kidnapping and murder. Some are in prison, others have been released and still others are fugitives.

Jerry Pierre of Fort Pierce has been in prison since September 2007, serving a life sentence for his part in pulling a 32-year-old man off a bicycle and beating him to death in 2005. He’s still a registered voter in St. Lucie County.

What it means

Ineligible voters can influence the outcome of an election and cost taxpayers money. Election supervisors mail out sample ballots to all voters, an expense that could be cut by eliminating felons not legally registered and voters who have died.

The likelihood of elections officials accomplishing that in time for the general election is small. It takes about 90 days to remove a voter because of legal notice requirements.

With the exception of the 1997 Miami mayor’s race, few votes in Florida have been cast in the names of dead people. Ineligible felons are more of a concern. About 7,500 felons voted in the state’s 2008 general election, the Sun Sentinel found.

Voting by a felon whose civil rights are not restored is a third-degree felony, but prosecutions are rare.

Sally Kestin, John Maines and Dana Williams of the Sun-Sentinel contributed to this report.

Registered felons and dead voters

Treasure Coast

Felons registered in 2008: 971

Felons currently registered: 434

Deceased currently registered: 673

Felons removed from voter lists past two years: 2,757

Deceased removed: 8,281

Martin County

Felons currently registered: 70

Deceased currently registered: 281

Felons removed from voter lists past two years: 633

Deceased removed: 2,779

Indian River County

Felons currently registered: 43

Deceased currently registered: 105

Felons removed from voter lists past two years: 852

Deceased removed: 2,057

St. Lucie County

Felons currently registered: 321

Deceased currently registered: 287

Felons removed from voter lists past two years: 1,272

Deceased removed: 3,445

Source: Sun-Sentinel, county supervisor of elections

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