JIM CROW IN CYBERSPACE: The Unreported Story of How They Fixed the Vote in Florida
In the days following the presidential election, there were so many stories of African Americans erased from voter rolls you might think they were targeted by some kind of racial computer program.
I have a copy of it: two silvery CD-ROM disks right out of the office computers of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Once decoded and flowed into a database, they make for interesting, if chilling, reading. They tell us how our president was, elected—and it wasn’t by the voters.
Here’s how it worked: Mostly, the disks contain data on Florida citizens—57,700 of them. In the months leading up to the November 2000 balloting, Florida Secretary of State Harris, in coordination with Governor Jeb Bush, ordered local elections supervisors to purge these 57,700 from voter registries. In Harris’s computers, they are named as felons who have no right to vote in Florida.
Thomas Cooper is on the list: criminal scum, bad guy, felon, attempted voter. The Harris hit list says Cooper was convicted of a felony on January 30, 2007.
You may suspect something’s wrong with the list. You’d be right. At least 90.2 percent of those on this “scrub” list, targeted to lose their civil rights, are innocent. Notably, over half—about 54 percent—are Black and Hispanic voters. Overwhelmingly, it is a list of Democrats.
Secretary of State Harris declared George W. Bush winner of Florida, and thereby president, by a plurality of 537 votes over Al Gore. Now do the arithmetic. Over 50,000 voters wrongly targeted by the purge, mostly Blacks. My BBC researchers reported that Gore lost at least 22,000 votes as a result of this smart little blackbox operation.
The first reports of this extraordinary discovery ran, as you’d expect, on page one of the country’s leading paper. Unfortunately, it was in the wrong country: Britain. In the USA, it ran on page zero—the story was simply not covered in American newspapers.
The theft of the presidential race in Florida also grabbed big television coverage. But again, it was the wrong continent: on BBC Television, broadcasting from London worldwide—everywhere, that is, but the USA.
Was this some off-the-wall story that the British press misreported? Hardly. The chief lawyer for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission called it the first hard evidence of a systematic attempt to disenfranchise Florida’s Black voters. So why was this story investigated, reported and broadcast only in Europe, for God’s sake? I’d like to know the answer. That way I could understand why a Southern California ho’daddy like me has to commute to England with his wife and kiddies to tell this and other stories about my country.
In this chapter, I take you along the path of the investigation, step by step, report by report, from false starts to unpretty conclusions. When I first broke the story, I had it wrong. Within weeks of the election, I said the Harris crew had tried to purge 8,000 voters. While that was enough to change the outcome of the election (and change history), I was way off. Now, after two years of peeling the Florida elections onion, we put the number of voters wrongly barred from voting at over 90,000, mostly Blacks and Hispanics, and by a wide majority, Democrats.*
*Two years into the investigation, we are still uncovering evidence. The stories of Thomas Cooper and the thousands of other “felons” convicted in the future are new to this edition.
“We” are a team. There’s no way on earth I could have conducted this investigation without scores of researchers, some the top names in their technical fields, some inspired amateurs, and many unpaid volunteers. Cyber-wizard Fredda Weinberg of Delray Beach, Florida, deserves special praise for cracking the disks and for indefatigable fact-mining; as do my colleagues at the Guardian, BBC, The Nation, and Salon.com; database expert Mark Swedlund and so many others. I regret I cannot list them all.
That will take us to the Big Question: Was it deliberate, this purge so fortunate for the Republicans? Or just an honest clerical error? Go back to the case of Thomas Cooper, Criminal of the Future. I counted 325 of these time-traveling bandits on one of Harris’s scrub lists. Clerical error? I dug back into the computers, the e-mail traffic in the Florida Department of Elections, part of the secretary of state’s office. And sure enough, the office clerks were screaming: They’d found a boatload like Mr. Cooper on the purge list, convicted in the future, in the next century, in the next millennium.
The jittery clerks wanted to know what to do. I thought I knew the answer. As a product of the Los Angeles school system, where I Pledged my Allegiance to the Flag every morning, I assumed that if someone was wrongly accused, the state would give them back their right to vote. But the Republican operatives had a better idea. They told the clerks to blank out the wacky conviction dates. That way, the county elections supervisors, already wary of the list, would be none the wiser.* The Florida purge lists have over 4,000 blank conviction dates.
*E-mail from Janet Mudrow (Florida Department of Elections), “Subject: Future Conviction Dates,” to Marlene Thorogood (Database Technologies), cc: Bucky Mitchell (Florida Department of Law Enforcement); dated June 15.
You’ve seen barely a hair of any of this in the U.S. media. Why? How did 100,000 U.S. journalists sent to cover the election fail to get the vote theft story (and preferably before the election)?
Part I: SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: American Journalism
Hears No Evil, Sees No Evil, Reports No Evil
Investigative reports share three things: They are risky, they upset the wisdom of the established order and they are very expensive to produce. Do profit-conscious enterprises, whether media companies or widget firms, seek extra costs, extra risk and the opportunity to be attacked? Not in any business text I’ve ever read. I can’t help but note that Britain’s Guardian and Observer newspapers, the only papers to report this scandal when it broke just weeks after the 2000 election, are the world’s only major newspapers owned by a not-for-profit corporation.
But if profit lust is the ultimate problem blocking significant investigative reportage, the more immediate cause of comatose coverage of the election and other issues is what is laughably called America’s “journalistic culture.” If the Rupert Murdochs of the globe are shepherds of the New World Order, they owe their success to breeding a flock of docile sheep-snoozy editors and reporters content to munch on, digest, then reprint a diet of press releases and canned stories provided by government and corporate public-relations operations.
Take this story of the list of Florida’s faux felons that cost Al Gore the presidential election. Shortly after the U.K. story hit the World Wide Web, I was contacted by a CBS TV network news producer eager to run a version of the story. The CBS hotshot was happy to pump me for information: names, phone numbers, all the items one needs for your typical quickie TV news report.
I freely offered up to CBS this information: The office of the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican presidential candidate, had illegally ordered the removal of the names of felons from voter rolls—real felons who had served time but obtained clemency, with the right to vote under Florida law. As a result, another 40,000 legal voters (in addition to the 57,700 on the purge list), almost all of them Democrats, could not vote.
The only problem with this new hot info is that I was still in the midst of investigating it. Therefore, CBS would have to do some actual work—reviewing documents and law, obtaining statements.
The next day I received a call from the producer, who said, “I’m sorry, but your story didn’t hold up.” And how do you think the multibillion-dollar CBS network determined this? Answer: “We called Jeb Bush’s office.” Oh.
I wasn’t surprised by this type of “investigation.” It is, in fact, standard operating procedure for the little lambs of American journalism. One good, slick explanation from a politician or corporate chieftain and it’s case closed, investigation over. The story ran on television, but once again, in the wrong country: I reported it on the BBC’s Newsnight. Notably, the BBC is a publicly owned network—I mean a real public network, with no “funds generously provided by Archer Mobil Bigbucks.”
Let’s understand the pressures on the CBS TV producer that led her to kill the story simply because the target of the allegation said it ain’t so. The story demanded massive and quick review of documents, dozens of phone calls and interviews—hardly a winner in the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am school of U.S. journalism. Most difficult, the revelations in the story required a reporter to stand up and say that the big-name politicians, their lawyers and their PR people were freaking liars.
It would be much easier, a heck of a lot cheaper and no risk at all to wait for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to do the work, then cover the commission’s report and press conference. No one ever lost their job writing canned statements from a press release. Wait! You’ve watched Murphy Brown so you think reporters hanker to uncover the big scandal. Bullshit. Remember, All the President’s Men was so unusual they had to make a movie out of it.
The Election Fix Story Steals Into the States
In London the Guardian and Observer received about two thousand bless-you- Britain- for-telling-us-the-truth-about-our-elections letters from U.S. Internet readers circulating the samizdat presidential elections coverage. I also received a few like this:
You pansey brits seem to think that the average American is as undereducated and stupid as the average british subject. Well comrad [sic], I’m here to tell you . . .
. . . which ended with some physically unfeasible suggestions of what to do with the Queen.
Re: YOUR SOCIALIST SLANTED NEWS/REPORTING Date: 1/7/01 2:20:41
hey greg, Let me begin by saying that your “article” on the Florida “black list” Is so transparently a socialist/democrat attempt to help your socialist cousins In the states that It laughable.You pansey brits seem to think that the average American is as undereducated and stupid as the average britlsh subject. Well comrad, I’m here to tell you that that Is not the case. While your average British male was chasing his classmates around the dorms trying to get a little buggery time in, The Average American male was in class paying attention to the subject matter at hand. One of the first things I learned was to spot a liar, and in your case It was’nt hard.
Yor story IS so full of outright lies and half truths that a 6th grader here In the states could find you out. You claim to be places and to have spoken to people that would be extremely hard If not Impossible to a member of the legitimate press and a genuine miracle for a representative of a third world (yes greg, britain is considered here in the states to be a third world country, and one populated by fourth rate academics) socialist rag. We yanks have kicked your worthless limey butts twice so tartls that what has your panties In a twist? Does’nt matter anyway,
I just wanted to drop you a line to tell you to say hi to prince chuck for me, you know who I’m talking about don’t you? He’s the one member of the boll family that is squatting in Buckingham palace, the one that from head on looks like a volkswagon with both doors open. Oh,and I almost forgot, tell that bitch the Queen the next time you bugger her that she needs to lose some weight & Stay out of our politics you english pigs.
My Observer report went to print within three weeks of the election. The vote count in Florida was still on. Watching the vote-count clock ticking, Joe Conason, the most determined of American investigative reporters, insisted to his editors at Salon.com, the Internet magazine, that they bring my story back to America. Salon posted “Florida’s Ethnic Cleansing of the Voter Rolls” to the Net on December 4, 2000. It wasn’t exactly “print,” but at least it was American. Still not one U.S. news editor called, not even from my “sister” paper, the Washington Post, with whom the Guardian shares material and prints an international weekly…
From a news perspective, not to mention the flood of site hits, this was Salon’s biggest politics story ever—and they named Part I their political story of the year. But where was Part II? On their Web site and on radio programs the magazine was announcing Part II would appear in two days . . . and in two days . . . and in two days . . . and nothing appeared. Part II was the story blown off by the CBS Evening News about an additional 40,000-plus voters whom Jeb Bush barred from voting. The fact that 90 percent of these 40,000 voters were Democrats should have made it news . . . because this maneuver alone more than accounted for Bush’s victory.
I was going crazy: Gore had not yet conceded . . . the timing of Part II was crucial. Where the hell was it? Finally, an editor told me, “The story doesn’t check out. You see, we checked with Jeb Bush’s office and they said . . .”
Argh! It was deja vu all over again.
Another staffer added, as a kind of explanation, “The Washington Post would never run this story.”
Well, he had me there. They hadn’t, they didn’t. Not yet. At least Salon helped me sneak the first report past the border patrols.
So God bless America.
While waiting for the United States to awaken, I took my BBC film crew to Florida, having unearthed a smoking-gun document: I had a page marked “confidential” from the contract between the State of Florida and the private company that had purged the voter lists. The document contained cold evidence that Florida knew they were taking the vote away from thousands of innocent voters, most of them Black.
It was February. I took my camera crew into an agreed interview with Jeb Bush’s director of the Florida Department of Elections. When I pulled out the confidential sheet, Bush’s man ripped off the microphone and did a fifty-yard dash, locking himself in his office, all in front of our cameras. It was killer television and wowed the British viewers. We even ran a confession from the company that was hired to carry out the purge operation. Newsworthy? Apparently not for the United States.
My program, BBC Newsnight, has a film-trading agreement with the ABC television network. A record twenty thousand Net-heads in the United States saw the BBC Webcast; and several banged on the door of ABC TV’s Nightline to run our footage, or at least report what we found. Instead, Nightline sent its own crew down to Florida for a couple of days. They broadcast a story that ballots are complex and Blacks are not well educated about voting procedures. The gravamen of the story was, Blacks are too frigging dumb to figure out how to vote. No mention that in white Leon County, machines automatically kicked back faulty ballots for voter correction; whereas in Gadsden County, very Black, the same machines were programmed to eat mismarked ballots. That was in our story, too.
Why didn’t ABC run the voter purge story? Don’t look for some big Republican conspiracy. Remember the three elements of investigative reporting: risk, time, money. Our BBC/Guardian stories required all of those, in short supply in U.S. news operations.
Finally, in February, my Part II—the report that was too scary and difficult for Dan Rather’s show—found asylum in the Nation magazine, that distant journalistic planet not always visible to the naked eye.
And then, mirabile dictu, the Washington Post ran the story of the voter purge on page one, including the part that “couldn’t stand up” for CBS and Salon . . . and even gave me space for a bylined comment. Applause for the Post’s courage! Would I be ungrateful if I suggested otherwise? The Post ran the story in June, though they had it at hand seven months earlier when the ballots were still being counted. They waited until they knew the findings of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report, which verified BBC’s discoveries, so they could fire from behind that big safe rock of Official Imprimatur. In other words, the Post had the courage to charge out and shoot the wounded.
Part II: THE REPORTS
These are the stories you weren’t supposed to see: from reports that ran in Britain’s Observer and Guardian, bits of script from the BBC Television investigation and, to help set out the facts, the U.S. stories from Salon, the Nation and the Washington Post—followed by new material, never before printed or broadcast on either continent. Documents keep bubbling up from the cesspool of the Florida state offices. I’ve saved them for you here, having run out of the patience needed to knock heads with “respectable” U.S. papers and networks.
How did British newspapers smell the Florida story all the way across the Atlantic? At the time, I was digging into George Bush Sr.’s gold-mining business (see next chapter), when one of my researchers spotted a note on the Mother Jones Internet bulletin board flagging a story in the Palm Beach Post printed months before the election. The Post’s back pages mentioned that 8,000 voters had been removed from the voter rolls by mistake. That’s one heck of a mistake. Given the Sturm und drang in Florida, you’d think that an American journalist would pick up the story. Don’t hold your breath. There were a couple of curious reporters, but they were easily waylaid by Florida’s assurances that the “mistake” had been corrected, which the Post ran as truth.
But what if the Florida press puppies had been wrong? What if they had stood on their hind legs and swallowed a biscuit of bullshit from state officials—and the “mistakes” had not been corrected?
It was worth a call.
From London, I contacted a statistician at the office of the county elections supervisor in Tampa. Such an expert technician would have no reason to lie to me. The question at the top of my list: “How many of the voters on the scrub list are BLACK?” And the statistician said, “You know, I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that.” From his leads, I wrote:
“Black-Out in Florida”
The Observer, London, November 26, 2000
Vice-President AI Gore would have strolled to victory in Florida if the state hadn’t kicked up to 66,000 citizens off the voter registers five months ago as former felons. In fact, not all were ex-cons. Most were simply guilty of being African-American. A top-placed election official told me that the government had conducted a quiet review and found—surprise!—that the listing included far more African-Americans than would statistically have been expected, even accounting for the grievous gap between the conviction rates of Blacks and Whites in the U.S.
One list of 8,000 supposed felons was supplied by Texas. But these criminals from the Lone Star State had committed nothing more serious than misdemeanors such as drunk driving (like their governor, George W. Bush).
The source of this poisonous blacklist: Database Technologies, acting under the direction of Governor Jeb Bush’s frothingly partisan secretary of state, Katherine Harris. DBT, a division of ChoicePoint, is under fire for misuse of personal data in state computers in Pennsylvania. ChoicePoint’s board is loaded with Republican sugar daddies, including Ken Langone, finance chief for Rudy Giuliani’s aborted Senate run against Hillary Clinton.
Voting with the Alligators
When the Observer report hit the streets (of London), Gore was still in the race. Reporter Conason pushed Salon.com to pick up my story and take it further. But that would not be easy. The Texas list error 8,000 names was corrected, said the state. That left the tougher question: What about the 57,700 other people named on that list?
The remaining names on the list were, in the majority, Black—not unusual in a nation where half of all felony convictions are against African Americans. But as half the names were Black, and if this included even a tiny fraction of innocents, well, there was the election for Bush.
The question was, then, whether the “corrected” list had in fact been corrected. Finding the answer would not be cheap for Salon. It meant big bucks; redirecting their entire political staff to the story and making hotshot reporters knuckle down to the drudgery of calling and visiting county elections offices all over Florida. But they agreed, and Salon’s Alicia Montgomery, Daryl Lindsey and Anthony York came back with a mother lode of evidence proving that, by the most conservative analysis, Florida had purged enough innocent Black voters—several thousand—to snatch the presidency from Al Gore.
At that time the presidential race was wide open. Word was, Gore’s camp was split, with warriors fighting the gray-heads of the Establishment who were pushing him to lie down and play dead, advice he’d ultimately follow. Just before we hit the electronic streets with it, someone called a key player in the White House and Gore’s inner circle about the story Salon would soon break. The Big Insider said, “That’s fantastic! Who’s the reporter?” The tipster said, “This American, he’s a reporter in Britain, Greg Palast.”
Mr. White House Insider replied, “Shit! We hate that guy.” But that’s another story.
On December 4, 2000, I sent this to Salon:
“Florida’s Ethnic Cleansing of the Voter Rolls”
If Vice President Al Gore is wondering where his Florida votes went, rather than sift through a pile of chads, he might want to look at a “scrub list” of 57,700 names targeted to be knocked off the Florida voter registry by a division of the office of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. A close examination suggests thousands of voters may have lost their right to vote based on a flaw-ridden list of purported “felons” provided by a private firm with tight Republican ties.
Early in the year, the company ChoicePoint gave Florida officials the names of 8,000 ex-felons to “scrub” from their list of voters. But it turns out none on the list was guilty of felonies, only misdemeanors.
The company acknowledged the error, and blamed it on the original source of the list—the state of Texas.
Florida officials moved to put those falsely accused by Texas back on voter rolls before the election. Nevertheless, the large number of errors uncovered in individual counties suggests that thousands of other eligible voters have been turned away at the polls.
Florida is the only state that pays a private company that promises to provide lists for “cleansing” voter rolls. The state signed in 1998 a $4 million contract with DBT Online, since merged into ChoicePoint, of Atlanta. The creation of the scrub list, called the central voter file, was mandated by a 1998 state voter fraud law, which followed a tumultuous year that saw Miami’s mayor removed after voter fraud in the election, with dead people discovered to have cast ballots. The voter fraud law required all 67 counties to purge voter registries of duplicate registrations, deceased voters and felons, many of whom, but not all, are barred from voting in Florida. In the process, however, the list invariably targets a minority population in Florida, where 31 percent of all Black men cannot vote because of a ban on felons.
If this unfairly singled out minorities, it unfairly handicapped Gore: in Florida, 93 percent of African-Americans voted for the vice president.
In the ten counties contacted by Salon, use of the central voter file seemed to vary wildly. Some found the list too unreliable and didn’t use it at all. But most counties appear to have used the file as a resource to purge names from their voter rolls, with some counties making little—or no—effort at all to alert the “purged” voters. Counties that did their best to vet the file discovered a high level of errors, with as many as 15 percent of names incorrectly identified as felons.
News coverage has focused on some maverick Florida counties that rejected the scrub lists, including Palm Beach and Duval. The Miami Herald blasted the counties for not using the lists; but local officials tell us they had good reason to reject the scrub sheets from Harris’s office. Madison County’s elections supervisor, Linda Howell, had a peculiarly personal reason for distrusting the central voter file. She had received a letter saying that since she had committed a felony, she would not be allowed to vote.
Howell, who said she has never committed a felony, said the letter she received in March 2000 shook her faith in the process. “It really is a mess,” she said.
“I was very upset,” Howell said. “I know I’m not a felon.” Though the one mistake did get corrected and law enforcement officials were quite apologetic, Howell decided not to use the state list because its “information is so flawed.” She’s unsure of the number of warning letters that were sent out to county residents when she first received the list in 1999, but she recalls that there were many problems. “One day we would send a letter to have someone taken off the rolls, and the next day, we would send one to put them back on again,” Howell said. “It makes you look like you must be a dummy.”
Dixie and Washington counties also refused to use the scrub list. Starlet Cannon, Dixie’s deputy assistant supervisor of elections, said, “I’m scared to work with it because [a] lot of the information they have on there is not accurate.” Carol Griffin, supervisor of elections for Washington, said, “It hasn’t been accurate in the past, so we had no reason to suspect it was accurate this year.” But if some counties refused to use the list altogether, others seemed to embrace it all too enthusiastically. Etta Rosado, spokeswoman for the Volusia County Department of Elections, said the county essentially accepted the file at face value, did nothing to confirm the accuracy of it and doesn’t inform citizens ahead of time that they have been dropped from the voter rolls.
“When we get the con felon list, we automatically start going through our rolls on the computer. If there’s a name that says John Smith was convicted of a felony, then we enter a notation on our computer that says convicted felon-we mark an ‘f’ for felon—and the date that we received it,” Rosado said.
“They’re still on our computer, but they’re on purge status,” meaning they have been marked ineligible to vote.
“I don’t think that it’s up to us to tell them they’re a convicted felon,” Rosado said. “If he’s on our rolls, we make a notation on there. If they show up at a polling place, we’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re a convicted felon, you can’t vote.’ Nine out of ten times when we repeat that to the person, they say ‘Thank you’ and walk away.
They don’t put up arguments.” Rosado doesn’t know how many people in Volusia were dropped from the list as a result of being identified as felons.
Hillsborough County’s elections supervisor, Pam Iorio, tried to make sure that the bugs in the system didn’t keep anyone from voting. All 3,258 county residents who were identified as possible felons on the central voter file sent by the state were sent a certified letter informing them that their voting rights were in jeopardy. Of that number, 551 appealed their status, and 245 of those appeals were successful. (By the rules established by Harris’s office, a voter is assumed guilty and convicted of a crime and conviction unless and until they provide documentation certifying their innocence.) Some had been convicted of a misdemeanor and not a felony, others were felons who had had their rights restored and others were simply cases of mistaken identity.
An additional 279 were not close matches with names on the county’s own voter rolls and were not notified. Of the 3,258 names on the original list, therefore, the county concluded that more than 15 percent were in error. If that ratio held statewide, no fewer than 7,000 voters were incorrectly targeted for removal from voting rosters.
Iorio says local officials did not get adequate preparation for purging felons from their rolls. “We’re not used to dealing with issues of criminal justice or ascertaining who has a felony conviction,” she said. Though the central voter file was supposed to facilitate the process, it was often more troublesome than the monthly circuit court lists that she had previously used to clear her rolls of duplicate registrations, the deceased and convicted felons. “The database from the state level is not always accurate,” Iorio said. As a consequence, her county did its best to notify citizens who were on the list about their felony status.
“We sent those individuals a certified letter, we put an ad in a local newspaper and we held a public hearing. For those who didn’t respond to that, we sent out another letter by regular mail,” Iorio said. “That process lasted several months.” “We did run some number stats and the number of Blacks [on the list] was higher than expected for our population,” says Chuck Smith, a statistician for the county. Iorio acknowledged that African-Americans made up 54 percent of the people on the original felons list, though they constitute only 11.6 percent of Hillsborough’s voting population. Smith added that the OBT computer program automatically transformed various forms of a single name. In one case, a voter named “Christine” was identified as a felon based on the conviction of a “Christopher” with the same last name. Smith says ChoicePoint would not respond to queries about its proprietary methods. Nor would the company provide additional verification data to back its fingering certain individuals in the registry purge. One supposed felon on the ChoicePoint list is a local judge.
While there was much about the lists that bothered Iorio, she felt she didn’t have a choice but to use them.
And she’s right. Section 98.0975 of the Florida Constitution states: “Upon receiving the list from the division, the supervisor must attempt to verify the information provided. If the supervisor does not determine that the information provided by the division is incorrect, the supervisor must remove from the registration books by the next subsequent election the name of any person who is deceased, convicted of a felony or adjudicated mentally incapacitated with respect to voting.” But the counties have interpreted that law in different ways. Leon County used the central voter file sent in January 2000 to clean up its voter rolls, but set aside the one it received in July. According to Thomas James, the information systems officer in the county election office, the list came too late for the information to be processed.
According to Leon election supervisor Ion Sancho, “there have been some problems” with the file. Using the information received in January, Sancho sent 200 letters to county voters, by regular mail, telling them they had been identified by the state as having committed a felony and would not be allowed to vote. They were given 30 days to respond if there was an error.
“They had the burden of proof,” he says.
He says 20 people proved that they did not belong on the list, and a handful of angry phone calls followed on election day. “Some people threatened to sue us,” he said, “but we haven’t had any lawyers calling yet.” In Orange County, officials also sent letters to those identified as felons by the state, but they appear to have taken little care in their handling of the list.
“I have no idea,” said June Condrun, Orange’s deputy supervisor of elections, when asked how many letters were sent out to voters. After a bit more thought, Condrun responded that “several hundred” of the letters were sent, but said she doesn’t know how many people complained. Those who did call, she said, were given the phone number of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement so that they could appeal directly to it.
Many Orange County voters never got the chance to appeal in any form. Condrun noted that about one-third of the letters, which the county sent out by regular mail, were returned to the office marked undeliverable. She attributed the high rate of incorrect addresses to the age of the information sent by DBT, some of which was close to 20 years old, she said.
Miami-Dade County officials may have had similar trouble. Milton Collins, assistant supervisor of elections, said he isn’t comfortable estimating how many accused felons were identified by the central voter file in his county. He said he knows that about 6,000 were notified, by regular mail, about an early list in 1999. Exactly how many were purged from the list? “I honestly couldn’t tell you,” he said. According to Collins, the most recent list he received from the state was one sent in January 2000, and the county applied a “two-pass system.” If the information on the state list seemed accurate enough when comparing names with those on county voter lists, people were classified as felons and were then sent warning letters. Those who seemed to have only a partial match with the state data were granted “temporary inactive status.” Both groups of people were given90 days to respond or have their names struck from the rolls.
But Collins said the county has no figures for how many voters were able to successfully appeal their designation as felons.
ChoicePoint spokesman Martin Fagan concedes his company’s error in passing on the bogus list from Texas. (“I guess that’s a little bit embarrassing in light of the election,” he says.) He defends the company’s overall performance, however, dismissing the errors in 8,000 names as “a minor glitch—less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the electorate” (though the total equals 15 times Governor George W. Bush’s claimed lead over Gore). But he added that ChoicePoint is responsible only for turning over its raw list, which is then up to Florida officials to test and correct.
Last year, DBT Online, with which ChoicePoint would soon merge, received the unprecedented contract from the state of Florida to “cleanse” registration lists of ineligible voters—using information gathering and matching criteria it has refused to disclose, even to local election officials in Florida.
Atlanta’s ChoicePoint, a highflying dot-com specializing in sales of personal information gleaned from its database of four billion public and not-so-public records, has come under fire for misuse of private data from government computers.
In January 2000, the state of Pennsylvania terminated a contract with ChoicePoint after discovering the firm had sold citizens’ personal profiles to unauthorized individuals.
Fagan says many errors could have been eliminated by matching the Social Security numbers of ex-felons on DBT lists to the Social Security numbers on voter registries. However, Florida’s counties have Social Security numbers on only a fraction of their voter records. So with those two problems—Social Security numbers missing in both the OBI’s records and the counties’ records—that fail-safe check simply did not exist.
Florida is the only state in the nation to contract the first stage of removal of voting rights to a private company. And ChoicePoint has big plans. “Given the outcome of our work in Florida,” says Fagan, “and with a new president in place, we think our services will expand across the country.”
Especially if that president is named “Bush.” ChoicePoint’s board, executive suite and consultant rosters are packed with Republican stars, including former New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir and former ultra-Right congressman Vin Weber, ChoicePoint’s Washington lobbyist.
More Votes Fished Out of the Swamps
Following the Salon investigation I was confident that at least 7,000 innocent voters had been removed from voter rolls, half of them Black, and that swung the election. But my investigation was far from over-and I found yet another 2,834 eligible voters targeted for the purge, almost all Democrats.
It was December 10, 2000-Gore was still hanging in there when I wrote this for British readers:
” Blacklist Burning for Bush”
The Observer, London, December 10, 2000
Hey, Al, take a look at this. Every time I cut open another alligator, I find the bones of more Gore voters. This week, I was hacking my way through the Florida swampland known as the Office of Secretary of State Katherine Harris and found a couple thousand more names of voters electronically “disappeared” from the vote rolls.
About half of those named are African-Americans.
They had the right to vote, but they never made it to the balloting booths.
On November 26, we reported that the Florida Secretary of State’s office had, before the election, ordered the elimination of 8,000 Florida voters on the grounds that they had committed felonies in Texas. None had.
For Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his brother, the Texas blacklist was a mistake made in Heaven. Most of those targeted to have their names “scrubbed” from the voter roles were African-Americans, Hispanics and poor white folk, likely voters for Vice-President Gore. We don’t know how many voters lost their citizenship rights before the error was discovered by a few skeptical county officials before ChoicePoint, which has gamely ‘fessedup to the Texas-sized error, produced a new list of 57,700 felons. In May, Harris sent on the new, improved scrub sheets to the county election boards.
Maybe it’s my bad attitude, but I thought it worthwhile to check out the new list. Sleuthing around county offices with a team of researchers from Internet newspaper Salon, we discovered that the “correct” list wasn’t so correct.
Our ten-county review suggests a minimum 15 percent misidentification rate.
That makes another 7,000 innocent people accused of crimes and stripped of their citizenship rights in the run-up to the presidential race, a majority of them Black. Now our team, diving deeper into the swamps, has discovered yet a third group whose voting rights were stripped. The state’s private contractor, ChoicePoint, generated a list of about two thousand names of people who, earlier in their lives, were convicted of felonies in Illinois and Ohio. Like most American states, these two restore citizenship rights to people who have served their time in prison and then remained on the good side of the law.
Florida strips those convicted in its own courts of voting rights for life. But Harris’s office concedes, and county officials concur, that the state of Florida has no right to impose this penalty on people who have moved in from these other states. (Only 13 states, most in the Old Confederacy, bar reformed criminals from voting.) Going deeper into the Harris lists, we find hundreds more convicts from the 37 other states that restored their rights at the end of sentences served. If they have the right to vote, why were these citizens barred from the polls? Harris didn’t return my calls. But Alan Dershowitz did. The Harvard law professor, a renowned authority on legal process, said: “What’s emerging is a pattern of reducing the total number of voters in Florida, which they know will reduce the Democratic vote.” How could Florida’s Republican rulers know how these people would vote? I put the question to David Bositis, America’s top expert on voting demographics. Once he stopped laughing, he said the way Florida used the lists from a private firm was “a patently obvious technique to discriminate against Black voters.” In a darker mood, Bositis, of Washington’s Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the sad truth of American justice is that 46 percent of those convicted of felony are African-American. In Florida, a record number of Black folk, over 80 percent of those registered to vote, packed the polling booths on November 7. Behind the curtains, nine out of ten Black people voted for Gore.
Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project, Washington, pointed out that the “White” half of the purge list would be peopled overwhelmingly by the poor, also solid Democratic voters.
Add it up. The dead-wrong Texas list, the uncorrected “corrected” list, plus the out-of-state ex-con list. By golly, it’s enough to swing a presidential election. I bet the busy Harris, simultaneously in charge of both Florida’s voter rolls and George Bush’s presidential campaign, never thought of that.
Thursday, December 7, 2 a.m. On the other end of the line, heavy breathing, then a torrent of words too fast for me to catch it all. “Vile . . . lying . . . inaccurate. . . pack of nonsense . . . riddled with errors . . .” click! This was not a ChoicePoint whistleblower telling me about the company’s notorious list. It was ChoicePoint’s own media communications representative, Marty Fagan, communicating with me about my “sleazy disgusting journalism” in reporting on it.
Truth is, Fagan was returning my calls. I was curious about this company that chose the president for America’s voters.
They have quite a pedigree for this solemn task. The company’s Florida subsidiary, Database Technologies (now DBT Online), was founded by one Hank Asher. When US law enforcement agencies alleged that he might have been associated with Bahamian drug dealers—although no charges were brought—the company lost its data management contract with the FBI. Hank and his friends left and so, in Florida’s eyes, the past is forgiven.
Thursday, 3 a.m. A new, gentler voice gave me ChoicePoint’s upbeat spin. “You say we got over 15 percent wrong—we like to look at that as up to 85 percent right!” That’s 7,000 votes-plus—the bulk Democrats, not to mention the thousands on the faulty Texas list.
(Gore lost the White House by 537 votes,) I contacted San Francisco-based expert Mark Swedlund. “It’s just fundamental industry practice that you don’t roll out the list statewide until you have tested it and tested it again,” he said. “Dershowitz is right: they had to know that this jeopardized thousands of people’s registrations. And they would also know the [racial] profile of those voters.” “They” is Florida State, not ChoicePoint. Let’s not get confused about where the blame lies. Harris’s crew lit this database fuse, then acted surprised when it blew up. Swedlund says ChoicePoint had a professional responsibility to tell the state to test the list; ChoicePoint says the state should not have used its “raw” data.
Until Florida privatized its Big Brother powers, laws kept the process out in the open. This year, when one county asked to see ChoicePoint’s formulas and back- up for blacklisting voters, they refused—these were commercial secrets. ‘ So we’ll never know how America’s president was chosen.
Yet Another 40,000 Located. I Repeat: 40,000
Now it gets weird. Salon was showered with praise—by columnists in the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post and Cleveland Plain Dealer (almost to a one Black or Jewish), who were horrified by, as Bob Kuttner of the Boston Globe put it, Florida’s “lynching by laptop.” And still no news editor from print or television called me (except the CBS Evening News producer who ran away with tail tucked as soon as Governor Jeb denied the allegations). .
My work was far from over. On a tip, I began to look into the rights of felons in Florida—those actually convicted.
Every paper in America reported that Florida bars ex-criminals from voting. As soon as every newspaper agrees, you can bet it probably isn’t true. Someone wants the papers to believe this. It did not take long to discover that what everyone said was true was actually false: some ex-cons could vote, thousands in fact. I knew it . . . and so did Governor Jeb Bush. Was Jeb Bush involved?
So I telephoned a clerk in First Brother Jeb’s office, who whispered, “Call me tomorrow before official opening hours.” And when I did call the next morning, this heroic clerk spent two hours explaining to me, “The courts tell us to do this, and we do that.”
She referred to court orders that I’d gotten wind of, which ordered Governor Bush to stop interfering in the civil rights of ex-cons who had the right to vote.
I asked Jeb’s clerk four times, “Are you telling me the governor knowingly violated the law and court orders, excluding eligible voters?”
And four times I got, “The courts tell us to do this [allow certain felons to vote] and we do that [block them].”
But Salon, despite a mountain of evidence, stalled—then stalled some more. Resentment of the takeover of the political coverage by an “alien” was getting on the team’s nerves. I can’t blame them. And it didn’t help that Salon was facing bankruptcy, staff were frazzled and it was nearly Christmas.
The remains of the year were lost while I got hold of legal opinions from top lawyers saying Bush’s office was wrong; and later the Civil Rights Commission would also say Bush was wrong. But the political clock was ticking and George W. was oozing toward the Oval Office.
E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post told me, “You have to get this story out, Greg, right away!” Notably, instead of directing me to the Post’s newsroom, E. J. told me to call The Nation, a kind of refugee center for storm-tossed news reports.
After double-checking and quintuple-checking the facts, the Nation held its breath and printed the story of the “third group” of wrongly purged ex-felon voters (numbering nearly three thousand), and a fourth group of voters wrongly barred from registering in the first place—yet another 40,000 of them, almost all Democratic voters.
It was now February 5, 2001—so President Bush could read this report from the White House:
“Florida’s Disappeared Voters”
The Nation, February 5, 2001
In Latin America they might have called them votantes desaparecidos, “disappeared voters.” On November 7, 2000, tens of thousands of eligible Florida voters were wrongly prevented from casting their ballots—some purged from the voters registries and others blocked from registering in the first instance.
Nearly all were Democrats, nearly half of them African-American. The systematic program that disfranchised these legal voters, directed by the offices of Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris, was so quiet, subtle and intricate that if not for George W. Bush’s 500-vote eyelash margin of victory, certified by Harris, the chance of the purge’s discovery would have been vanishingly small.
The group prevented from voting—felons—has few defenders in either party. It has been well reported that Florida denies its nearly half a million former convicts the right to vote. However, the media have completely missed the fact that Florida’s own courts have repeatedly told the governor he may not take away the civil rights of Florida citizens who have committed crimes in other states, served their time and had their rights restored by those states.
People from other states who have arrived in Florida with a felony conviction in their past number “clearly over 50,000 and likely over 100,000,” says criminal demographics expert Jeffrey Manza of Northwestern University.
Manza estimates that 80 percent arrive with voting rights intact, which they do not forfeit by relocating to the Sunshine State. In other words, there are no fewer than 40,000 reformed felons eligible to vote in Florida.
Nevertheless, agencies controlled by Harris and Bush ordered county officials to reject attempts by these eligible voters to register, while, publicly, the governor’s office states that it adheres to court rulings not to obstruct these ex-offenders in the exercise of their civil rights. Further, with the aid of a Republican-tied database firm, Harris’s office used sophisticated computer programs to hunt those felons eligible to vote and ordered them thrown off the voter registries.
David Bositis, the Washington, DC, expert on voter demographics, suggests that the block-and-purge program “must have had a partisan motivation. Why else spend $4 million if they expected no difference in the ultimate vote count?” White and Hispanic felons, mostly poor, vote almost as solidly Democratic as African-Americans. A recently released University of Minnesota study estimates that, for example, 93 percent of felons of all races favored Bill Clinton in 1996. Whatever Florida’s motive for keeping these qualified voters out of the polling booths on November 7, the fact is that they represented several times George W. Bush’s margin of victory in the state. Key officials in Bush’s and Harris’s agencies declined our requests for comment.
The disfranchisement operation began in 1998 under Katherine Harris’s predecessor as secretary of state, Sandra Mortham. Mortham was a Republican star, designated by Jeb Bush as his lieutenant governor running mate for his second run for governor. (A financial scandal caused Jeb to replace her with Harris.) Six months prior to the gubernatorial contest, the Florida legislature passed a “reform” law to eliminate registration of ineligible voters: those who had moved, those who had died and felons without voting rights. The legislation was promoted as a good government response to the fraud-tainted Miami mayoral race of 1997.
But from the beginning, the law and its implementation emitted a partisan fragrance. Passed by the Republican legislature’s majority, the new code included an extraordinary provision to turn over the initial creation of “scrub” lists to a private firm. No other state, either before or since, has privatized this key step in the elimination of citizens’ civil rights.
In November 1998 the Republican-controlled office of the secretary of state handed the task to the single bidder, Database Technologies, now the DBT Online unit of ChoicePoint Inc. of Atlanta, into which it merged last year.
The elections unit within the office of the secretary of state immediately launched a felon manhunt with a zeal and carelessness that worried local election professionals. The Nation has obtained an internal Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections memo, dated August 1998, which warns Mortham’s office that it had wrongly removed eligible voters in a botched rush “to capriciously take names off the rolls.” However, to avoid a public row, the supervisors agreed to keep their misgivings within the confines of the bureaucracies in the belief that “entering a public fight with [state officials] would be counterproductive.” That November, Jeb Bush had an unexpectedly easy walk to the governor’s mansion, an election victory attributed, ironically, to his endorsement by Black Democratic politicians feuding with their party.
Over the next two years, with Republicans in charge of both the governorship and the secretary of state’s office, now under Harris, the felon purge accelerated. In May 2000, using a list provided by DBT, Harris’s office ordered counties to purge 8,000 Florida voters who had committed felonies in Texas.
In fact, none of the group was charged with anything more than misdemeanors, a mistake caught but never fully reversed. ChoicePoint DBT and Harris then sent out “corrected” lists, including the names of 437 voters who had indeed committed felonies in Texas. But this list too was in error, since a Texas law enacted in 1997 permits felons to vote after doing their time. In this case there was no attempt at all to correct the error and re-register the 437 voters.
The wrongful purge of the Texas convicts was no one-of-a-kind mishap. The secretary of state’s office acknowledges that it also ordered the removal of 714 names of Illinois felons and 990 from Ohio—states that permit the vote even to those on probation or parole.
According to Florida’s own laws, not a single person arriving in the state from Ohio or Illinois should have been removed.
Altogether, DBT tagged for the scrub nearly 3,000 felons who came from at least eight states that automatically restore voting rights and who therefore arrived in Florida with full citizenship.
A ChoicePoint DBT spokesman said, and the Florida Department of Elections confirms, that Harris’s office approved the selection of states from which to obtain records for the felon scrub. As to why the department included states that restore voting rights, Janet Mudrow, Florida’s liaison to ChoicePoint DBT, bounced the question to Harris’s legal staff. That office has not returned repeated calls.
Pastor Thomas Johnson of Gainesville is minister to House of Hope, a faith-based charity that guides ex-convicts from jail into working life, a program that has won high praise from the pastor’s friend, Governor Jeb Bush. Ten years ago, Johnson sold crack cocaine in the streets of New York, got caught, served his time, then discovered God and Florida-where, early last year, he attempted to register to vote. But local election officials refused to accept his registration after he admitted to the decade-old felony conviction from New York. “It knocked me for a loop. It was horrendous,” said Johnson of his rejection.
Beverly Hill, the election supervisor of Alachua County, where Johnson attempted to register, said that she used to allow ex-felons like Johnson to vote. Under Governor Bush, that changed. “Recently, the [Governor’s Office of Executive] Clemency people told us something different,” she said. “They told us that they essentially can’t vote.” Both Alachua’s refusal to allow Johnson to vote and the governor’s directive underlying that refusal are notable for their timing—coming after two court rulings that ordered the secretary of state and governor to recognize the civil rights of felons arriving from other states. In the first of these decisions, Schlenther v. Florida Department of State, issued in June 1998, Florida’s Court of Appeal ruled unanimously that Florida could not require a man convicted in Connecticut twenty-five years earlier “to ask [Florida] to restore his civil rights. They were never lost here.” Connecticut, like most states, automatically restores felons’ civil rights at the end of their sentence, and therefore “he arrived as any other citizen, with full rights of citizenship.” The Schlenther decision was much of the talk at a summer 1998 meeting of county election officials in Orlando.
So it was all the more surprising to Chuck Smith, a statistician with Hillsborough County, that Harris’s elections division chief Clayton Roberts exhorted local officials at the Orlando meeting to purge all out-of-state felons identified by DBT. Hillsborough was so concerned about this order, which appeared to fly in the face of the court edict, that the county’s elections office demanded that the state put that position in writing—a request duly granted.
The Nation has obtained the text of the response to Hillsborough. The letter, from the Governor’s Office of Executive Clemency, dated September 18, 2000, arrived only seven weeks before the presidential election. It orders the county to tell ex- felons trying to register that even if they entered Florida with civil rights restored by another state’s law, they will still be “required to make application for restoration of civil rights in the state of Florida,” that is, ask Governor Bush for clemency-the very requirement banned by the courts. The state’s directive was all the more surprising in light of a second ruling, issued in December 1999 by another Florida court, in which a Florida district court judge expressed his ill-disguised exasperation with the governor’s administration for ignoring the prior edict in Schlenther.
Voting rights attorneys who reviewed the cases for The Nation explained that the courts relied on both Florida statute and the “full faith and credit” clause of the U.S. Constitution, which requires every state to accept the legal rulings of other states. “The court has been pretty clear on what the governor can’t do,” says Bruce Gear, assistant general counsel for the NAACP.
And what Governor Bush can’t do is demand that a citizen arriving in Florida ask him for clemency to restore a right to vote that the citizen already has.
Strangely enough, the governor’s office does not disagree. While Harris, Bush and a half dozen of their political appointees have not returned our calls, Tawanna Hayes, who processes the requests for clemency in the governor’s office, states unequivocally that “we do not have the right to suspend or restore rights where those rights have been restored in another state.” Hayes even keeps a copy of the two court decisions near her desk and quotes from them at length. So, why have the governor and secretary of state ordered these people purged from the rolls or barred from registering? Hayes directed us to Greg Munson, Governor Bush’s assistant general counsel and clemency aide.
Munson has not responded to our detailed request for an explanation.
A letter dated August 10, 2000, from Harris’s office to Bush’s office, obtained under Florida’s Freedom of Information Act, indicates that the chief of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections also questioned Harris’s office about the purge of ex-cons whose rights had been restored automatically by other states. The supervisors’ group received the same response as Hillsborough: strike them from the voter rolls and, if they complain, make them ask Bush for clemency. While almost all county supervisors buckled, Carol Griffin did not. Griffin, Washington County’s elections chief, concluded that running legal voters through Jeb Bush’s clemency maze would violate a 1993 federal law, the National Voter Registration Act, which was designed to remove impediments to the exercise of civil rights. The law, known as “motor voter,” is credited with helping to register 7 million new voters. Griffin quotes from the Florida section of the new, NVRA- certified registration form, which says: “I affirm I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my rights relating to voting have been restored.” “That’s the law,” says the adamant Griffin, “and I have no right stopping anyone registering who truthfully signs that statement. Once you check that box there’s no discussion.” Griffin’s county refused to implement the scrub, and the state appears reluctant to challenge its action.
But when Pastor Johnson attempted to register in Alachua County, clerks refused and instead handed him a fifteen-page clemency request form. The outraged minister found the offer a demeaning Catch-22. “How can I ask the governor for a right I already have?” he says, echoing, albeit unknowingly, the words of the Florida courts.
Had Johnson relented and chosen to seek clemency, he would have faced a procedure that is, admits the clemency office’s Hayes, “sometimes worse than breaking a leg.” For New Yorkers like Johnson, she says, “I’m telling you it’s a bear.” She says officials in New York, which restores civil rights automatically, are perplexed by requests from Florida for nonexistent papers declaring the individual’s rights restored. Without the phantom clemency orders, the applicant must hunt up old court records and begin a complex process lasting from four months to two years, sometimes involving quasi-judicial hearings, the outcome of which depends on Jeb Bush’s disposition.
Little wonder that out of tens of thousands of out-of-state felons, only a hardy couple of hundred attempted to run this bureaucratic obstacle course before the election. (Bush can be compassionate: he granted clemency to Charles Colson for his crimes as a Watergate conspirator, giving Florida resident Colson the right to vote in the presidential election.)
How did the governor’s game play at the ballot box?
Jeb Bush’s operation denied over 50,000 citizens their right to vote. Given that 80 percent of registered voters actually cast ballots in the presidential election, at least 40,000 votes were lost. By whom? As 90 percent or more of this targeted group, out-of-state ex-cons, votes Democratic, we can confidently state that this little twist in the voter purge cost AI Gore a good 30,000 votes.
Was Florida’s corrupted felon-voter hunt the work of cozy collusion between Jeb Bush and Harris, the president-elect’s brother and state campaign chief, respectively? It is unlikely we will ever discover the motives driving the voter purge, but we can see the consequences. Three decades ago, Governor George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door and thundered, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” but failed to block entry to African- Americans. Governor Jeb Bush’s resistance to court rulings, conducted at whisper level with high-tech assistance, has been far more effective at blocking voters of color from the polling station door. Deliberate or accidental, the error-ridden computer purge and illegal clemency obstacle course function, like the poll tax and literacy test of the Jim Crow era, to take the vote away from citizens who are Black, poor and, not coincidentally, almost all Democrats. No guesswork there: Florida is one of the few states to include both party and race on registration files. Pastor Johnson, an African-American wrongfully stripped of his vote, refuses to think ill of the governor or his motives. He prefers to see a dark comedy of bureaucratic errors: “The buffoonery of this state has cost us a president.” If this is buffoonery, then Harris and the Bushes are wise fools indeed.