TALLAHASSEE - With less than six months to go before the presidential election, thousands of Florida voters who may have been improperly removed from the voter rolls in 2000 have yet to have their eligibility restored.
Records obtained by The Herald show that just 33 of 67 counties have responded to a request by state election officials to check whether or not nearly 20,000 voters should be reinstated as required under a legal settlement reached between the state, the NAACP and other groups nearly two years ago.
Some of the counties that have failed to respond to the state include many of Florida's largest, including Broward, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach.
Those counties that have responded told the state that they have restored 679 voters to the rolls so far -- more than enough to have tipped the balance of the 2000 election had they voted for Al Gore. President Bush won Florida and the presidency by 537 votes.
The fact that many counties have yet to add voters back to the rolls comes at the same time that election supervisors across Florida are being asked to look at purging more than 47,000 voters that the state has identified as possible felons who are ineligible to vote under state law.
But state election officials say there is no deadline for when counties must reinstate voters who may have been wrongly removed four years ago. That upsets some of the groups that sued the state over its 1999 and 2000 purge lists.
''It's scandalous that the state has not simply undone the error that was done in 2000,'' said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. ``It calls into question this and so many other issues and makes you wonder, how much has really changed four years after the 2000 election?''
But state officials say the ultimate decisions whether to restore or remove a voter are left to each county elections supervisor.
''The supervisors of elections have duties under the law to do list maintenance -- which includes the removal of felons, duplicates and those who have died -- from voter rolls,'' said Marielba Torres, assistant general counsel for the state elections division. ``We provide a tool. They need to verify it from the sources they have. They have the legal duty to do it.''
Prior to the contested 2000 election, then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris hired an Atlanta company to develop lists of felons, deceased people and those with duplicate registrations to distribute to county supervisors.
But the accuracy of lists distributed in both 1999 and 2000 came under fire from some supervisors who ignored them, saying they were riddled with errors. Other counties used the lists without verifying their accuracy. Those lists included the names of voters who had been convicted of felonies in other states, some of which automatically restore voting rights to convicts after they are released from prison. Florida requires felons convicted in the state to apply to have their civil rights restored.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several other civil rights groups sued the state and a handful of counties in 2001. In a settlement in September 2002, the state agreed to hand out a new list of ''false positives'' -- voters who were included on the 1999 and 2000 lists but would not show up under more stringent matching criteria. One of those new criteria includes relying on Florida conviction data only, instead of relying on arrest records from other states.
A year after the settlement, elections division Director Ed Kast mailed out instructions to the state's 67 county supervisors and a list that included more than 12,000 voters initially identified in 1999 and 2000 as felons and an additional 7,500 listed as duplicate voters.
ABOUT HALF REPORTED
Since Sept. 30, however, just 33 counties have checked the list and reported their findings to the state. Most of the counties are from North and Central Florida.
One county -- Leon, home of the state capital -- sent in its list on Friday after a reporter's inquiry. Leon officials said they had not filed it immediately because they did not use the flawed lists from 1999 and 2000.
''To make us go back and research whether someone should be restored was moot,'' said Janet Olin, assistant supervisor of elections for Leon.
Representatives from Broward and Miami-Dade elections offices could not say why they have not responded to the state.
''It doesn't ring a bell with me. This is the first I'm hearing of it,'' said Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Constance Kaplan, who said she routinely hands over voter-registration issues to her staff.
Broward Deputy Supervisor of Elections Gisela Salas also was unaware of the state request.
Miami-Dade County may not have any voters that it needs to restore, since it and a handful of other counties, such as Volusia, were part of the initial lawsuit the NAACP filed against the state and were required to independently look at restoring voters.
In April 2003 Miami-Dade Assistant County Attorney Susan Torres wrote to the ACLU and said that 107 voters had been restored to the rolls.
Likewise, Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Deanie Lowe wrote in January that her county had already screened the ''false positives'' list and had restored voters.
One county that was part of the initial NAACP lawsuit, Hillsborough, wound up restoring 579 voters, most of whom had been identified initially as felons.
''I came in with a blank slate,'' said Buddy Johnson, who was appointed Hillsborough supervisor of elections in 2003 by Gov. Jeb Bush. ``We took every single individual on a case-by-case basis. We would be as fair as humanly possible, as accurate as possible.''
TIME RUNNING OUT
The question that remains for those 34 counties that have yet to report back to the state is whether they will have the time to restore voters prior to the 2004 election. County elections offices are already gearing up for the elections, as well as processing amendment-petition signatures that take time to verify.
And earlier this month, state election officials added another job: the possible purging of more than 47,000 voters that state officials have listed on a statewide central voter database as felons who shouldn't be allowed to vote. Of those identified, nearly a third, or 15,500, are registered in three South Florida counties: Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.
This latest list has created a firestorm, especially from the ACLU's Simon, who has pleaded with county supervisors to request independent verification before jettisoning any voters from their lists.
Simon has cited a past state elections division memo that pointed out that the data compiled by the state -- which relies primarily on conviction information from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement -- may have mistakes.
Leon County's Olin says her elections office has already found errors in this latest state list.
The Florida Democratic Party has jumped into the fray as well, requesting documents from the state, including the names and addresses of those ruled potentially ineligible to vote.
The controversy has grown so large that the state supervisors of elections association plans to meet in June to discuss whether the group should develop its own set of procedures before purging any of these voters from the rolls.
''It doesn't help when one supervisor says they are going to do one thing, and another does it a different way,'' Miami-Dade's Kaplan said. ``It is my goal to make sure that anyone who is eligible is kept on the rolls and those who are 100 percent not eligible are removed.''
But Simon says any uniform procedure should ensure that voters aren't purged without thorough research.
``When you are dealing with the most fundamental right of any citizen, I think they'd better be damn careful before they remove anyone from the rolls.''