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CNN sues for access to Florida's voter rolls

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    News Media Update         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information    

CNN sues for access to Florida’s voter rolls

  • CNN filed a lawsuit against Florida’s elections office last week for access to a list of possible felons whose names may be deleted from state voter rolls.

June 4, 2004 — CNN filed a lawsuit against Florida’s elections division last Friday for access to a list of almost 48,000 possible felons who may be deleted from voter rolls. The state forwards the list to county elections officials who determine which individuals are ineligible to vote.

“In the last general election, it is estimated that thousands of voters were turned away from the polls after the [Florida] Division of Elections sent counties an inaccurate list of 173,142 suspected felons and other persons not eligible to vote,” CNN said in its May 28 complaint.

President Bush defeated Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election after being declared the winner in Florida by 537 votes, following weeks of recounts and legal challenges that ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Nearly all of the people wrongfully purged from Florida’s voter list in 2000 were Democrats and more than half were African-Americans, according to an investigative series by BBC reporter Greg Palast.

“With only six months remaining until the next election, the issue of potential voter disenfranchisement is of critical importance,” the CNN complaint said, noting this is particularly so when it could affect the outcome of a presidential election.

On May 24, the state denied CNN’s Public Records Act request for copies of the list, citing a statutory exemption to the open records law.

The exemption states that copies of voter registration records can only be made for government agencies, political candidates, committees, parties and incumbent elected officials.

The general public can visually inspect the records in the Tallahassee elections office, but may not make copies or “extract” from the list, according to the law. Florida Assistant General Counsel Marielba Torres wrote CNN that a network representative could go to the elections office in Tallahassee to view the voter rolls, but would not be allowed to make copies or take notes.

CNN argues that the law is unconstitutional. The Florida Constitution requires that exemptions to public disclosure be narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest and articulate the specific necessity of the exemption. Laws exempting access must also relate to a single subject.

The law in question was passed as part of the Florida Election Reform Act of 2001, which addressed an array of issues ranging from campaign contributions to machine certification.

“The law ignores both Florida’s constitutional right of access to public records and the equal protection doctrine,” CNN wrote.

Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, told The Washington Post yesterday that granting everyone the right to reproduce the list could “potentially violate the privacy of innocent voters.”

Because the individuals listed are only “potential” felons, the state list likely contains a range of people who are legally eligible to vote. It does not exclude, for example, individuals who have been granted clemency or whose charges have been reduced. Having the same name and birthday as someone else who is a felon may also erroneously place a person’s name on the list.

(Cable News Network v. Florida Department of State; Media Counsel: Gregg D. Thomas, Holland & Knight, Tampa) AV


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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