TAMPA -- It's another case of sound and fury, signifying Democrats.
Florida may or may not be as critical to the outcome of the presidential race this year as it was in 2000. But the race here will likely be close again. The outcome might depend on an unlikely group: criminals.
In preparation for Nov. 2, Florida Democrats are busy polishing up one of their favorite urban legends. The one that says Republicans prevented qualified Democrats from voting in Florida in 2000 -- that's why George Bush won the state and the election -- and are trying to run the same scam again this year.
The current issue, consuming reams of newsprint across the Sunshine State, has to do with a state-generated list of more than 47,000 possible felons, who elections supervisors need to determine voter eligibility on before election day. Democrats have a high level of interest in the list because -- what a surprise! -- almost 60 percent of the people on the list who were registered to vote are Democrats and only about 20 percent Republicans.
Florida is one of not a few states where people convicted of felonies don't automatically have their civil rights -- including the right to vote -- restored at the completion of their sentences. The reason being, if you can't obey the laws, why should you be involved in picking who makes them or enforces them? There's a process for rights restoration that felons must apply for. Many don't bother.
There's a thorough process for vetting the possible felons list before it goes to supervisors, and then supervisors do their own investigations. Anyone moved into a non-voting category receives a certified letter informing him of the action in time for the issue to be contested before election-day. The process isn't perfect but it's pretty good. With few exceptions, people who show up on election day and find they are not on voter rolls have only themselves to blame.
But none of this prevents Democrats from hamming it up and trying to manufacture the impression that George W. Bush and his evil minions are working night and day to keep Democrats -- particularly black Democrats -- away from the polls in Florida.
Most of the daily media in the state have been happy to go along with the gag. No newspaper, for instance, has asked any prominent Florida Democrat, "Aren't you the tiniest bit embarrassed that one of your party's most reliable voter blocks is criminals?"
In fact, none of the sensible questions about this issue are being asked. Try to bring the subject up with testosterone-challenged Republicans and you get bobbing and weaving that would have made Sugar Ray Robinson whistle through his teeth. "Well, we won't be bringing that up in the campaign," or "that's an issue for appropriate authorities at the appropriate level, in the course of time, subject to certain constraints," and other dithers that make me wonder if the guy is related to Sir Humphrey Appleby on Yes, Minister.
Try to ask a Democratic Party official about the issue and he won't return your call.
Supervisors of election across the state are feeling the pressure. Most know that if they try to remove voters from the list they'll certainly be blasted by Democrats and almost as certainly not supported by Republicans. As a high percentage of people on the list is black, the charge of racism is just waiting to be launched at any supervisor with the temerity to do this part of his/her job.
To wit, July 10 Florida's chief elections official, Republican Secretary of State Glenda Hood, essentially threw in the towel and said her office had made a serious error in the infamous list -- not including felons who identified themselves as Hispanics -- so she no longer wishes supervisors to use any statewide list to question potential voters.
So there you have it. The Democrats, like that ant, have high hopes -- based at least partly on a much hoped-for high turnout of criminals on Nov. 2. It's impossible to tell how many felons will vote who shouldn't, or what effect these votes will have on the outcome.
I recently said to a friend, who's a Democrat, "I've had some bumper stickers made up. They say 'Another Felon For Kerry.' How many do you want for your Democrat pals?" He laughed. But he also looked like he'd just swallowed a carpet tack.
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