By Farhad Manjoo
Published October 19, 2004 6:19PM (EDT)

Of all the forms of disenfranchisement that Florida's partisan elections officials let stand during the 2000 presidential race, perhaps the most shameful was their shoddy work on the felon "purge" list -- a list that struck from the rolls tens of thousands of (mainly) African-American voters who were legally entitled to cast a ballot on Election Day. Such a list threatened to make a comeback in Florida this year, but pressure from voting rights groups led to its defeat in the summer.

But it isn't just in Florida that we should fear the wrongful disenfranchisement of ex-felons, or of people who've simply been mistaken for felons. According to "Purged!," an extensive new survey of the methods by which felons' voting rights are restricted in various states, there are few regions in the U.S. that commit the necessary resources, thought and care to keeping their felon voting lists accurate. The result, according to researchers, is that many people -- nobody knows how many -- eligible to vote this year may be mistakenly barred from the polls.

The report -- by the ACLU, the left-leaning think tank Demos, and Right to Vote, a coalition of voting-rights groups -- examines the practices in 15 states, from large to small, red to blue. Unlike in Florida and six other states that permanently bar people convicted of felonies from voting, these states allow some restoration of felons' voting rights after a prison sentence has been served -- but in many cases, the researchers conclude, the states' procedures for restoring felons' voting rights are deeply flawed. A quarter of these states, for instance, lack laws that set out how officials should draw up their purge lists; two-thirds of the states don't require voters to be notified when they've been purged; and none of the states has "codified" any procedures for local officials to use to make sure that a person who's slated to be removed from the rolls is actually the felon the state aims to purge, rather than just someone with a similar name or other identifying characteristics.

The researchers, who weren't given access to many states' actual purge lists, could not pinpoint any specific states where we should expect to see a Florida-like situation this year -- but the procedural errors they found should cause us to be worried for every state. "If you look at the errors, there's definitely a sense that these could be in many places," says Laleh Ispahani, one of the authors of the report. When Florida drew up its flawed 2004 list, at least a couple thousand eligible voters were affected, Ispahani notes. Multiply that by 48 states -- all except Maine and Vermont, which allow felons to vote even while in prison -- and you're talking real disenfranchisement.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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