Sunday, August 01, 2004

NOT THE FIRST TIME? Remember Florida's felon/purge list? The one Governor Jeb Bush scrapped in early July after embarrassing details emerged about its contents?

A quick recap:

1. Florida hires a private company to generate a list of disqualified voters--primarily new felons, who automatically lose their right to vote under Florida law. The list is designed for local supervisors of elections, who will use it to purge ineligible voters from their rolls.

2. Because the felon/purge list caused so much controversy in 2000--evidence suggests that it illegally disqualified at least some eligible voters--media organizations and liberal groups ask to see the list.

3. State officials refuse to release it.

4. Media organizations sue for access.

5. The state's privacy arguments are rejected by a Tallahassee judge, and the list becomes public.

6. Within a week of the list's release, reporters notice that of nearly 48,000 names on the list, only 61 (or .1%) belong to Hispanics. By contrast, more than 22,000 belong to African-Americans. (In Florida, Hispanics are a Republican-leaning voting bloc while African-Americans are solidly Democratic.)

7. Florida withdraws the list. "We are deeply concerned and disappointed that this has occurred," wrote Secretary of State Glenda Hood, a Republican. Gov. Jeb Bush added, "Not including Hispanic felons that may be voters on the list . . . was an oversight and a mistake."

As I digested these developments, I wondered:

If the Florida list for 2004 was set to purge a disproportionately small number of Hispanics--a crucial voting bloc for Republicans in Florida--how did the list treat Hispanics in 2000?

THE NUMBERS Some digging led me to Guy Stuart, a professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and the author of an impressively-thorough paper (.pdf) on African-American over-representation on Florida's 2000 list.

What did I find out?

According to Stuart, 1,241 Hispanic names made their way onto 2000 list. Which means that, while the list wasn't as egregiously unrepresentative back then as it was this time around, Hispanics were nonetheless substantially under-represented in 2000: only 4% of names on the list were Hispanic in a state where Hispanics make up 11% of registered voters.

So what's going on? Were large numbers of Hispanics omitted from the 2000 list? Or, to put it more sharply: Is it possible that it took the illegal votes of Hispanic felons to put Bush over the top in 2000 in Florida?

The short answer is that the numbers, by themselves, aren't persuasive evidence for either of those conclusions. On the other hand, the discrepancy between Hispanic representation on the voter rolls and on the felon/purge list strikes me as being large enough to demand an explanation, and Stuart agrees.

(Because his research focused almost exclusively on the disproportionately high number of African-American names on the felon/purge list in 2000, the under-representation of Hispanics wasn't something Stuart had considered until I asked him about it.)

Additional research would be required, Stuart believes, to determine why Hispanic were under-represented. And the discrepancy could certainly have an innocent explanation. He floated the following conspiracy-free theory as an example:

[Perhaps] the population of Hispanic registered voters is different from the population of Hispanic felons and ex-felons, more so than is the case for African-Americans. Part of this may have to do with citizenship issues--are non-citizen Latinos more likely to commit felonies? Or is it simply the case that registering to vote in the Latino community is a better indicator of being a "good citizen" than it is in the African-American community? So if the overlap between registered voters and felons is less in the Latino community, then you can expect under-representation.

Still, even as Stuart termed that explanation plausible, he conceded that he wasn't convinced by it.

Neither am I.

Anyone with a thick rolodex and a Big Media byline willing to take a closer look?

FOOTNOTE / SHAMELESS PLUG: Glad this post has generated so much interest. New to CONTRAPOSITIVE? Here are a pair of "greatest hits":

BUSH'S LOST SUMMER: On August 6, 2001, President Bush was told that Osama Bin Laden was determined to attack inside the United States. So how did the President spend August 7?

RICE'S LOOP: What didn't Condi know and when didn't she know it?

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.