BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, shining a light on voter exclusion in the Sunshine state and, 10 years later, a hard time swallowing O.J.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, from NPR.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Wednesday, a Florida judge heard CNN's case against Florida. CNN is suing for access to the state's list of convicted felons who may not vote without clemency from the state. In 2000, President Bush squeaked out victory in Florida with roughly 500 votes. That year, more than 170,000 felons in Florida had been purged from the voter rolls. Now, it appears that perhaps thousands of eligible voters were purged along with them. Under state law, certain organizations --political parties, for example -- may view and even copy the list of felons held by the state elections division, if they swear not to reveal it. The press and public can view it too, but they can't copy it or take notes or tell anyone. CNN has been joined by Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, in its efforts to make that list available. He joins me on the phone from Washington. Welcome to the show.
BILL NELSON: Well, it's a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, first of all, CNN is a big company. It can hire big-time lawyers to pursue this suit. Why did you feel the need to come to the aid of the network?
BILL NELSON: My aid is to the people of Florida when they go into that voting booth not to have happen what happened four years ago where suddenly they're ready to cast their vote and are told, "Oh, you've been stricken from the voter rolls, because you're a convicted felon," when in fact their name had been stricken because their name was similar to the name of a convicted felon. The issue here is the State of Florida has come up with a list of 48,000 felons that are to be stricken from the rolls.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the 2004 election.
BILL NELSON: Exactly. The problem is that the State of Florida will not let the public nor the press examine the list.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the way I understand it, the public and the press are allowed to go in and look at it. They're just not allowed to copy it and they're not allowed to take notes, which means you can check on it to see if your name's there, but you can't report on it, cause you can't take the information out.
BILL NELSON: And you have to swear on oath that you will not relay any of this information to another person, a totally decrepit kind of system. The question is how are you going to be able to check and double check the names of 48,000 people that are going to be stricken from the rolls if you can't go in and transmit this information if you are a member of the public or of the press?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When was this law passed limiting access in this way?
BILL NELSON: In 2001.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hm. Now, Senator, you're a politician. Maybe you can help me out with something here. After the 2000 election, we have since learned that the Florida felons list was riddled with inaccuracies that barred many eligible voters from the polls, and only a few hundred of them could have changed the outcome of the presidential election. So, Florida decides to pass a law that makes it harder for the public and the press to check the accuracy of the list?
BILL NELSON: Clearly I think a law like this is unconstitutional. As a matter of fact, we already know that some of the elections supervisors in Florida's 67 counties have said that they have already found mistakes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a matter of fact in Leon County, one of the inspectors found his or her own name on the list.
BILL NELSON: Yeah. Isn't that incredible? The elections supervisor spotted a name, and it was one of his own employees, and that employee clearly was not a convicted felon. So it shouldn't have been on there. And that's the whole point. There are going to be mistakes on a list of 48,000 people. So instead of striking their names from the rolls, why don't you let the public have access so they can check the list and re-check it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now the State of Florida is saying that it's not allowing the list to be copied out of concerns for people's privacy. Do you think that this law will be stricken down as unconstitutional?
BILL NELSON: Well if it isn't, I fear for the outcome, because every indication is that in this presidential election, Florida is split right down the middle, and if it comes down to a few votes deciding Florida, and if that decides the nation, here we go again. We can't afford to have any mistakes this time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to an investigative report by journalist Greg Palast, most of the people that were wrongfully removed from the voter rolls back in 2000 were Democrats, and at least half were African-American.
BILL NELSON: It doesn't make any difference if it's Democrat, Republican, Independent -- whatever it is -- we're all Americans, and we ought to have the right to vote! And that's what we're trying to preserve here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Senator Nelson, thank you very much.
BILL NELSON: Okay. Have a good day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You too. Florida Senator Bill Nelson joined us by phone from Capitol Hill. [MUSIC]