Part III: FROM PLANNING TO EXECUTION TO INAUGURATION: What They Knew, and When They Knew It
And that Nation story would be the last investigative report on the matter in the U.S. press for a year. An editor at one of the biggest newspapers in the United States told me, “The committee has decided not to continue printing stories about the presidential vote. We think it’s over. We don’t want to look partisan.”
I thought, what “committee”? And I picked up that I wasn’t supposed to ask. America had, as Katherine Harris requested, “moved on.” But I hadn’t.
It was now February, and here’s what we knew so far. The Observer/Salon stories told us that Harris’s elections office had wrongly ordered over 50,000 voters stripped from the rolls, thousands of them wrongly. From the Nation report we knew that Governor Bush’s office had barred the registration of another 40,000—Democrats by a wide margin. That was the election.
Maybe Governor Bush had simply misread the court orders, and maybe Harris’s office had no idea the purge list was wildly wrong; maybe the computer firm DBT simply flubbed the algorithms. One man’s mistake is another man’s inauguration. Tough, but no criminal intent.
A loose clue still nagged me. As always, it was the money. When I looked into state files, I discovered that ChoicePoint’s DBT was not the first contractor on the job. In 1998, this first firm, Professional Service Inc., charged $5,700 for the job. A year later, the Florida Department of Elections terminated their contract, then gave the job to DBT for a first- year fee of $2,317,800no bidding! Then I found out that indeed there had been an open bid for the job. However, when the offers were unsealed, DBT’s was the costliest—several thousand percent over competitors’. The state ignored the bids and grabbed for DBT, in the end signing a deal for more than DBT’s original astronomical bid. Hmm.
When I contacted database industry experts about the fee paid IBT by Florida their eyes popped out—”Wow!” “Jeez!” “Scandalous!” The charge of twenty-seven cents per record was easily ten the industry norm.
Something else bothered me: It was the weird glee, the self-congratulations, from the ChoicePoint public relations man over my Salon report that 15 percent of the names on his purge list were wrong (even though the error turned ound an election). To ChoicePoint, my story was good news: In effect, they said, I reported their list was “85 percent correct.” But was it?
The Killer Stats
The list was 85 percent “accurate,” said DBT ChoicePoint’s PR man, because they used Social Security numbers. That was convincing—until I checked the felon scrub lists themselves and almost none of them listed a voter’s Social Security number. Floridians, until recently, did not have to provide their Social Security number when registering to vote.
Four days after I ran my first report in England, on November 30, 2000, the Bloomberg business news wire interviewed Marty Fagan of ChoicePoint, one of the PR men who’d spoken to me. Based on the big “success” of its computer purge in Florida, ChoicePoint planned to sell its voter-purge operation to every state in the Union. This could become a billion-dollar business.
Fagan crowed to Bloomberg about the accuracy of ChoicePoint’s lists. The company, he said, used 1,200 public databases to cross-check “a very accurate picture of an individual,” including a history of addresses and financial assets.
That was impressive. And indeed, every database expert told me (including DBT’s vice president) , if you want 85 percent accuracy or better, you will need at least these three things: Social Security numbers, address history and a check against other databases. But over the ensuing weeks and months I discovered:
- ChoicePoint used virtually no Social Security numbers for the Florida felon purge;
- of its 1,200 databases with which to “check the accuracy of the data,” ChoicePoint used exactly none for cross-checking;
- as to the necessary verification of address history of the 66,000 named “potential felons,” Choice Point performed this check in exactly zero cases.
There was, then, not a chance in hell that the list was “85 percent correct.”
One county, Leon (Tallahassee), carried out the purge as the law required. But with doubts in the minds of their in-house experts, the county did the hard work of checking each name, one by one, to verify independently that the 694 named felons in Tallahassee were, in fact, ineligible voters. They could verify only 34 names—a 95 percent error rate. That is killer information. In another life, decades ago, I taught “Collection and Use of Economic and Statistical Data” at Indiana University. Here’s a quicky statistics lesson:
The statewide list of felons is “homogeneous” as to its accuracy. Leon County provides us with a sample large enough to give us a “confidence interval” of 4.87 at a “confidence level” of 99 percent. Are you following me, class? In other words, we can be 99 percent certain that at least 90.2 percent of the names on the Florida list are not felons—52 ,000 wrongly tagged for removal.
Okay, you want to argue and say not everyone tagged was actually removed. Maybe 52,000 did not have their vote swiped, but 42,000 or 22,000. Al Gore “lost” by 537 votes.
Now I was confident the list was junk—it had to be, because ChoicePoint did not use the most basic tools of verification. But why didn’t they? Is ChoicePoint incompetent, hasn’t a clue of the methodology for verifying its output? That’s unlikely—this is the company hired by the FBI for manhunts, and the FBI doesn’t pay for 90.2 percent wrong.
And why would ChoicePoint lie about it? Their list was bogus they had to know it. Did someone want it wrong? Could some, say, want to swing an election with this poisoned list? That’s when I went back to a stack of documents from inside Harris’s office—and to one sheet in particular, marked, “DBT CONFIDENTIAL AND TRADE SECRET.” “When the going gets weird,” Hunter Thompson advises jourists, “the weird turn pro.” In London, I showed this “CONFIDENTIAL” sheet to the ultimate pro, Meirion Jones, producer of the BBC Television’s Newsnight. He said, “How soon can you get a plane to Florida?”
Mr. Roberts Does a Runner
Our BBC Newsnight broadcast began with a country-and-western twang off the rental car radio:
“After hundreds of lies. . . fake alibis…”
Newsnight’s camera followed me up to the eighteenth floor of the Florida Capitol Building in Tallahassee for my meeting with Clayton Roberts, the squat, bull-necked director of Florida’s Division of Elections.
Roberts, who works directly under Secretary of State Katherine Harris, had agreed to chat with me on film. We sat on the reception sofa outside his office. His eyes began to shift, then narrowed as he read the heading of the paper on the sofa next to me: “CONFIDENTIAL”
He certainly knew what I had when I picked up the paper and asked him if the state had checked whether DBT (the ChoicePoint company) had verified the accuracy of a single name on the purge list before they paid the company millions.
“No, I didn’t ask DBT. . . ,” Roberts sputtered, falling over a few half -started sentences—then ripped off his lapel microphone, jumped up, charged over the camera wires and slammed his office door on me and the camera crew giving chase. We were swiftly escorted out of the building by very polite and very large state troopers.
[Note: For figures, see the PDF at the end of this part.]
Fig 1.2 Clayton Roberts, Katherine Harris’s elections division chief, runs for cover, caught on video by my BBC Television crew and by filmmaker Danny Schechter. These shots are taken from his film Counting on Democracy.
Before he went into hiding and called the Smokies, Roberts whipped around and pointed an angry finger at the lens, saying, “Please turn off that camera!” Which we did—BBC rules. But he didn’t add, “and turn off the microphone,” so our lawyers ruled we could include his parting shot, “You know if y’all want to hang this on me that’s fine.” I will. Though not him alone. By “this” he meant the evidence in the document, which I was trying to read out to him on the run.*
*On the Internet, a self-proclaimed video expert on a pro-Bush Web site wrote that I had faked the Roberts film, “unethical as you can get,” because we clearly must have hidden away “the two-hour interview that preceded” Roberts’s running away—fantasy footage that would have made Roberts look honest. Not so. You can watch the film of the Roberts run for yourself at www.news.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/cta/progs/newsnight/palast.ram.
What was so terrifying to this Republican honcho? The “CONFIDENTIAL” page (figure 1.3), obviously not meant to see the light of day, said that DBT would be paid $2.3 million for their lists and “manual verification using telephone calls and statistical sampling.” No wonder Roberts did a runner. He and Harris had testified to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission—under oath—that verification of the voter purge list was left completely up to the county elections supervisors, not to the state or the contractor, ChoicePoint DBT.
Fig. 1.3. Contract secrets. This is a photocopy of a page from the contract that won the election for George W. Bush—between the State of Florida and DBT Online to identify “felon” voters to remove from registration rolls. DBT was paid $2,317,800 for the first year’s work to include “manual verification using telephone calls.” The work was paid for but not done—with the approval of the state. Why?
It was the requirement to verify the accuracy of the purge list that justified ChoicePoint’s selection for the job as well as their astonishingly high fee. Good evening, Mr. Smith.
Are you the same Mr. John Smith that served hard time in New York in 1991? Expensive though that is to repeat thousands of times, it is necessary when civil rights are at stake. Yet DBT seemed to have found a way to cut the cost of this procedure: not doing it.
There is no record of DBT having made extensive verification calls. It is difficult for DBT to squirm out of this one. If they had conducted manual verification as contracted, you’d think they would have noticed that every single record on the Texas felon list was wrong.
I took my camera crew to DBT’s Boca Raton, Florida, office complex to confront them about the verification calls, but they barred our entry. On our return to London, we received a call from one of their executives explaining that “manual verification by telephone” did not “require us to actually make telephone calls” to anyone on the list. Oh, I see.
Based on this new evidence, BBC broadcast that the faux felon purge and related voting games cost Al Gore at least 22,000 votes in Florida—forty times Bush’s margin of victory as certified by Harris. Quibble with that estimate, tweak it as you will, we now knew the rightful winner of the election. Or at least the British public knew.
New Unreported Evidence: Wrong Is Good, Right Is Bad
I now began to understand the brilliant deviltry of the purge game. It did not matter if, on Day One of the purge process, Republicans had some grand plan, some elaborate conspiracy, to eliminate the vote of African-American innocents. Rather, document after document suggested that, once the operatives saw the demographics of the raw lists—tens of thousands of names of mostly Democratic voters—they moved heaven and earth to prevent its reduction. A list of 57,000 voters, mostly Black, erased with the flick of a switch was just fine with Mr. Roberts and crew. Make verification phone calls? Have statisticians check the findings? Correct the methods? Why, that would only cut the list… by 90 percent at least. Why should a Republican administration pay for that?
It’s not “conspiracy,” but opportunism. The Department of Elections Republicans began to act like a bank customer who accidentally receives a million-dollar deposit that is not theirs: To fail to correct the error, to actively conceal the error, is theft in any court. Only here the crime was far bigger: the theft of our democracy.
Opportunism does not require planning and conspiracy; it does require a cover-up. In any investigation, I try to imagine myself in the peeps’ shoes. If I had a magic list falsely accusing my opponents’ voters of crime, how would I prevent the discovery that it is bogus? First, don’t dare verify the list; not one phone call. Second, don’t correct the methodology: Ignore every warning about crap inputs, crap methods, crap results. And third, for God’s sake, don’t allow any independent statistician near it.
The Case of the Missing Statistician
Florida’s contract with DBT states:
During the verification phase, DBT shall use academically based and widely utilized statistical formulas to determine the exact number of records necessary to represent a valid cross-section [sample] of the processed files. DBT shall consult a professional statistician. . . . Upon the return of the processed data, DBT shall supply the formulas and mathematical calculations and identify the professional statistician used during the verification process.
The 8,000-name Texas list had a 100 percent error rate which seemed a wee bit high to me. What kind of “academically based formula” was used to verify the accuracy of these data? Who was the consulting “professional statistician”? Inscrutably silent on whether he or she exists, ChoicePoint DBT referred me back to Clay Roberts. His minions could not name this Man of Mystery either, although the contract requires DBT to provide evidence of the statistician’s hiring and analysis. Neither the name nor the calculations were filed as required.
Eventually, I found this: a letter dated March 22, 1999, from DBT to the state. “Our” statistician said the one-page note, “certified” their list as 99.9 percent “accurate”! I can imagine why “our” statistician would remain nameless: 99.9 percent accurate but almost every name an eligible voter. No backup. Nada.
How convenient. No independent technician, no expert to see things go rotten, no one to blow the whistle.
Evidence of Innocence: “Don’t Need”
I turned back to the question of Florida hiring DBT for $2.3 million, booting the company charging $5,700. When questioned, George Bruder, ChoicePoint DBT’s senior vice president, said, “a little birdie” told him to enter that astonishing bid. What else did the little birdie tell him?
What happened to the 1,200 databases, the millions and millions of records that DBT used in its Carl Saganesque sales pitch to the state? In fact, the state paid for this vital cross-check—or at least DBT’s bid said that for their two-million-dollar fee, they would use artificial intelligence for “cross-referencing linked databases . . . simultaneously searching hundred of data sources, conducting millions of data comparisons, compiling related data for matching and integration.”
In all, they had four billion records to check against. Under “Offer and Bid” it read: DBT will process total combined records from:
- 8,250,000 Criminal Conviction Records
- 69,000,000 Florida Property Records
- 62,000,000 National Change of Address Records
- 12,590,470 Florida Driver License Records….
And so on. The phone calls, the massive data crunching, it all justified the big payoff to DBT and scared away competitors who could not match DBT’s database firepower. DBT’s offer promised “273,318,667 total records to be processed.” But they didn’t do it.
Once the contract was nailed, it seems a little birdie in the state told DBT not to bother with all that expensive computing work. In the state files, on the DBT bid, I found a handwritten notation, “don’t need,” next to the listing of verification databases (the 62 million address histories, etc.), though this work was included in the price.
Each pass would have cut the list by thousands, thereby letting thousands more Democrats vote. So when the state said, “Don’t need,” the underlying motive was, “Don’t want.”
Take a look at the scrub list itself, figure 1.4. I picked a random piece of the scrub sheet for a magazine illustration,* then took a careful look at each name. And, unlike DBT and the state, I dialed the phone.
*Harper’s magazine, March 2002.
Besides Thomas Cooper, whose crime is still in the future, there’s Johnny Jackson Jr., thirty-two years of age. He was on the purge list because his name partially matched that of a man convicted in Texas, John Fitzgerald Jackson. Johnny Jr.’s never been to Texas, and his mama swears to me he never had the middle name Fitzgerald. Neither is there any evidence that John Fitzgerald Jackson, the felon, ever left Texas—or ever left his jail cell. There are 638 John and Johnny Jacksons (and permutations thereof) in the Florida phone book. How did the state know they had the right Johnny? They didn’t; and it looks like they didn’t want to know. Using the address history database, as the state was promised, would have saved Jackson, a Black man, his right to vote.
Then there’s Wallace McDonald, age sixty-four. Wallace tells me how in 1959 he fell asleep on a bus-stop bench and was busted. Even for a Black man in then-segregated Florida, that was a misdemeanor, not a felony. He never lost his right to vote; and the state agrees he was wrongly “scrubbed.” Had DBT checked the databases, as promised, they would not have named Wallace.
Willie Dixon is on the list, too. The Reverend Dixon was convicted decades ago, and has received full executive clemency. That would have been an easy one to catch if the state had checked and verified the clemency records as per the contract.
Mismatches Made in Heaven
Fig 1.4 Scrub list. Florida “felon” scrub list. This is one screen page from the computer “scrub” list of thousands tagged for removal from voter registration rolls.
Read down the list and mismatches jump out at you. Note they have taken voting rights away from Randall Higginbotham, age forty-one, because of the crimes of Sean Higginbotham, age thirty. The list is lousy with suspicious matches: pairing voter David Russell Butler Jr. of Florida to convict David Butler of Ohio. No question why David R. registered with his full name and appended the Junior. There are sixty-six other David Butlers listed in the Florida phone book and they must get one another’s mail all the time. It is disturbingly improbable that they purged the right Butler. That should have been a no-brainer to correct.
The wrong Butlers, Smiths and Jacksons remained on the list because of DBT’s “matching logic” and “matching criteria.” Credit card companies can require thirty-five matches for verification before they will issue you plastic. The State of Florida was content with a partial match of four: names (the first four letters were good enough), date of birth, gender and race. Not even the address or state mattered in the mad dash to maximize the number of citizens stripped of their civil rights.
Rather than add matching criteria to verify the list, the state told DBT to remove criteria. For example, Messrs. Butler and Jackson so carefully added “Jr.” to their official names to avoid such confusion. Tough luck. I found an internal mail in Roberts’s office, dated June 14, 2000, in which clerks fretted about what they called “tweaked” data, allowing “matches” between Edward and Edwin (and Edwina!); deliberately ignoring middle names and initials; and skipping the “Jr.” and “Sr.” suffixes.
I met with a Willie D. Whiting of Tallahassee. The Reverend Whiting confessed he had a speeding ticket a decade ago, but doubted that should cost him his right to vote. But there he was: on the purge list, matched with Willie J. Whiting—no “Jr.” whose birthday was two days different from Willie D.’s.
Our experts looked at the paltry number of match criteria and were horrified. One, Mark Hull, told me the state and ChoicePoint could have chosen criteria that would have brought down the number of “false positives” to less than a fragment of 1 percent. He said it made him ill to learn what the company had agreed to do. These revelations were especially upsetting to him; he had been the senior programmer for CDB Infotek, a ChoicePoint company.
“Wanted More Names Than We Can Verify…”
DBT’s “expertise” in obtaining data justified their hiring. But it was a con. Janet Mudrow, the state’s liaison with DBT, confessed to me that DBT merely downloaded lists from eleven states that make the data available publicly, such as Texas. Any high school kid with a Mac and a credit card could have grabbed the names off the Internet. And that was okay with Florida, even though eight of those states do not take away an ex-felon’s voting rights, and therefore should not have been used at all.
DBT’s negligence in handing Florida the bogus Texas list cost Florida and its counties a pretty penny when they tried to reverse that error. Yet Mudrow, in Harris’s office, says the state neither demanded reimbursement nor sought any penalty as permitted under the contract. In fact, the state awarded DBT another contract renewal, bringing total fees to over $4 million.
Why didn’t the state complain, sue, or withhold payment?* Following my first reports, when the stats hit the fan, ChoicePoint DBT agreed to a one-year extension of their contract without charge. But why didn’t the watchdog bark? One can only conclude that Harris’s office paid an awful lot of money for either (a) failed, incomplete, incompetent, costly, disastrous work that stripped innocent citizens of their rights, or (b) services performed exactly as planned.
*Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth told me our evidence suggested contractor fraud against the state. I asked him if, as chief law enforcement officer for the state, he’d be investigating. Butterworth explained that Florida is unique in limiting his powers. The investigation would have to be conducted by the secretary of state, Ms. Harris.
Was DBT paid to get it wrong? Every single failure—to verify by phone, to sample and test, to cross-check against other databases—worked in one direction: to increase the number of falsely accused voters, half of them Black.
How could ChoicePoint, such an expert outfit, do such a horrendous job, without complaint from their client? You’d think their client, the state, ordered them to get it wrong.
They did. Just before we went on air in February 2000, Choice Point vice president James Lee called us at the BBC’s London studios with the first hint that the state of Florida instructed the company to give them the names of innocents. The state, he said, “wanted there to be more names than were actually verified as being a convicted felon.” What an extraordinary statement.
When ChoicePoint saw the story with their own words “more names than were actually verified” printed across the screen, the company went ballistic. They demanded in writing to my network chiefs that we retract it all. The BBC wouldn’t back down an inch.
McKinney Nails the Confession
Following the February 15, 2001, broadcast, only one member of the U.S. Congress called BBC to ask for our evidence: Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. This lady is trouble, the kind of trouble I like. A Black single mom and doctoral candidate at Princeton’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy, she is always asking questions. And in the world of politics, that makes her dangerous—”radioactive,” as a staffer from the Democratic National Committee describes her. Unusual for a member of Congress, she reads the detailed memos and evidence herself, not delegating the research to underlings. She knows her stuff.
McKinney represented Atlanta, ChoicePoint headquarters.
She demanded their executives appear before a special hearing. As usual, she had some questions she wanted answered, in public. So I handed McKinney—and ChoicePoint—the evidence. ChoicePoint was shoveling a lot of nonsense my way, but I figured the company might hesitate about shucking and jiving a member of the U.S. Congress.
On April 17 ChoicePoint VP James Lee opened his testimony before the McKinney panel with notice that, despite its prior boast, the firm was getting out of the voter purge business. Then the company man, in highly technical, guarded language, effectively confessed to the whole game. Lee fingered the state.
Lee said that, for example, the state had given DBT the truly insane directive to add to the purge list people who matched 90 percent of a last name—if Anderson committed a crime, Andersen lost his vote. DBT objected, knowing this would sweep in a huge number of innocents. The state then went further and ordered DBT to shift to an 80 percent match. It was programmed in inaccuracy. Names were reversed—felon Thomas Clarence could knock out the vote of Clarence Thomas. He confirmed that middle initials were skipped, “Jr.” and “Sr.” suffixes dropped. Then, nicknames and aliases were added to puff up the list. “DBT told state officials,” testified Lee, “that the rules for creating the [purge] list would mean a significant number of people who were not deceased, not registered in more than one county or not a felon would be included on the list. Likewise, DBT made suggestions to reduce the numbers of eligible voters included on the list.”
Correct the list? Remove those “not a felon”? The state, says DBT, told the company, Forget about it.
Hunting the Black Voter—the June 9 Letter
Florida was hunting for innocents and, it seems, the Blacker the better. To swing an election, there would be no point in knocking off thousands of legitimate voters if they were caught randomly that would not affect the election’s outcome. The key was color. And here’s where the computer game got intensely sophisticated. How could it be that some 54 percent of the list were Black? There is no denying that half of America’s felons are African Americans, but how could it be that the innocent people on the list were mostly Blacks as well?
In November, ChoicePoint’s PR men jumped up and down insisting in calls to me that “race was not part of the search criteria.” The company repeated this denial in press releases after they were sued by the NAACP for participating in a racist conspiracy against citizens’ civil rights. DBT complained to my producers and to federal investigators: Race was not a search criterion, period ! Then, I obtained a letter dated June 9, 2000, signed by ChoicePoint DBT’s Vice President Bruder written to all county elections supervisors explaining their method:
“The information used for the matching process included first, middle, and last name; date of birth; race; and gender; but not Social Security Number.”
They had not lied to me. Read closely. They used race as a match criterion, not a search criterion. The company used this confusion between “match” and “search” criteria to try to pull the BBC off the track. They tried to slide the race question by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. However, on the morning of February 16, the day after our broadcast, I faxed to the commission the June 9 letter. Later that day, the commission questioned Bruder.
- COMMISSION: Was race or party affiliation matching criterion in compiling that list?
- BRUDER: [under oath] No. . . .
- COMMISSION: [June 9 letter read into record.] Did you write this letter? It has your signature on it.
- BRUDER: Can I see it, please?
- COMMISSION: So, you misinformed the Florida supervisors of elections that race would be used as a matching criterion?
- BRUDER: Yes.
Wise answer, Mr. Bruder. Misleading elections officials is not a crime; perjury would be. He pleaded confusion. So if race was not a match criterion, how did Black people get matched to felons?
I was perplexed by this until I looked again at the decoded scrub sheets: There were columns for felon race and voter race. How could DBT deny that? (See figure 1.4, Scrub List.) However, DBT had simply identified race for every real felon, and the secretary of state provided the race of the voters. It was left to the county supervisors to finish the Jim Crow operation: They would accept racial matches as “proof” that the right person was named. Therefore, a Black felon named Willie Whiting wiped out the registration of an innocent Willie Whiting (Black) but not the rights of an innocent Will Whiting (white).
The Pre-Clearance Deception
The U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 assumes something very unkind about Florida, that the Old South state will twist the process to stop African Americans from voting. Florida cannot be trusted to change voting procedures on its own. So, with the handful of other states named in the act, Florida must “pre-clear” voting operations changes with the U.S. Justice Department. The state must certify any new voter registration process will have no “disparate impact” on Black voters.
How in the world did Florida zing this racially bent felon purge scheme past the Feds? In 1998, the Justice Department smelled something rotten and asked a few questions, including, Why did Florida need to hire an outside contractor?
On July 21, 1998, a lowly state legislative aide drafted a soothing memorandum of law to the Justice Department, dismissing the purge operation as mere administrative reform. The aide Clayton Roberts—worked with a state senator—Katherine Harris.
In 1998 they sowed; in 2000 they reaped.*
*The intensely complex research unraveling Florida’s deceptive moves to obtain pre-clearance was conducted by Paul Lukasiak.
Voting Machine Apartheid
Mary Frances Berry, chairperson of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said the real horror of the 2000 election was not the vote count that so transfixed our media, but what she calls “the no Count”—the means of keeping citizens from voting or having their ballots voided.
And Florida used more than the voter purge in their “no count” bag of tricks. In February 2001, I found a doozy.
This fact caught my attention: In a presidential race decided by 537 votes, Florida simply did not count 179,855 ballots. And whether your vote counted depended a lot on your color. In Leon (Tallahassee), a primarily white county, only 1 in 500 ballots was uncounted, “spoiled,” as they say in the vote biz, that is, voided for one reason or another.
In neighboring Gadsden, with a high population of Black voters, 1 in 8 ballots was never counted.
Here’s the breakdown of ballots not counted in Florida’s Blackest and whitest counties:
Population 25+% African American
Residents not counted
Fewer than 5% African American
Detect a pattern?
How could this happen? Exactly how do votes “spoil”? And why do Black votes spoil so easily?
I found the answer in the Tallahassee office of Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho. Like many other counties, Sancho’s used paper ballots. These ballots are read by machine, “optically scanned.” He had set up a voting machine to demonstrate its use. I tried it out, voting for Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader—a deliberate error as a gag for a documentary film crew. I marked the ballot, then put it into a slot in the machine and grrrr-zunt! —it shot back into my hands, recognizing my error. You cannot make a voting mistake on this machine, called an “Accuvote.” Mighty cool. But if you can’t make a mistake, how did so many votes “spoil” in paper ballot counties? I asked a clerk: Does every county using paper ballots have this machine? The answer—yes and no—was disturbing. The adjoining county, Gadsden, also had machine-read paper ballots, but did not activate the reject mechanism. Make one wrong mark on your ballot in Gadsden and your ballot disappears into the machine—it will not be counted. For example, some voters had checked off and written in the name “Al Gore”—yet their vote did not count for Gore.
So I asked what I call The Florida Question: “By any chance, do you know the racial profile of counties where machines accept bad ballots?”
Then I got The Florida Answer: “We’ve been waiting for someone to ask us that.” The clerk then pulled out a huge multicolored sheet, listing, for every Florida county, the number of ballots not counted. The proportion of uncounted ballots to the Black population, county by county, was a nearly perfect match. But Ted Koppel’s Nightline tells us this was because Blacks were too ignorant to figure out the ballot. Could Ted have gotten it wrong? As the Tallahassee officials demonstrated to me, whether a ballot was counted or not had almost nothing to do with the voter’s education or sophistication—but an awful lot to do with the type of machine deployed and how the buttons were set.
Then I got to the 64 Dollar questions: What did Harris and the governor know and when did they know it? Was either aware of this racially loaded technical problem? Harris’s office and Jeb’s are literally a stone’s throwaway from Sancho’s. The technicians told me, “That’s why we set up this machine, so they could see it before the election.”
Cover-up and Counterspin
While virtually none of the new investigate material reached America’s shores, the counterspin machine was in full throttle. The Wall Street Journal, usually unbiased, ignored the racial demographics of the mountains of spoiled ballots and proclaimed that there was no racial difference in the geographic division of sophisticated voting machines.
My felon purge reports got Florida’s press poodles up in arms.
Months after the election, the Palm Beach Post, ChoicePoint DBT’s hometown paper, announced dramatically, “thousands of felons voted in the presidential election last year. . . . It’s likely they benefited Democratic candidate Al Gore.” Wow! Thousands!
The Post’s FELONS VOTED! shock-horror story ran one week before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission aimed to blast the state DBT purge list as garbage.
What did the Post’s sleuths use to hunt for felons? The DBT list. They then looked for voters who matched, by name, birthday, race and gender, “felons” among the 6 million Florida voters. It was DBT Lite. They failed to do even the lame cross-checks done by the state and counties.
The Post did not find “5,643 felons voted,” or anything close to it. Rather, they simply had a list of common names (for example, John Jackson) and birthdays, maybe some misdemeanor violators or felons with clemency. (Think of this: If every birthday were a city, America would have 365 cities with 750,000 people in each. How many in that city’s phone book would have the name “Joe White”?)
This was not just bad journalism, it smacked of a disinformation campaign.
There’s good reason to suspect the motive and method of the Post’s story. This is the paper, remember, that began to sniff the fake purge before the election, but then swallowed what an internal pre-election memo from the state to DBT’s Bruder called the “Department of Elections News Coverage Game Plan.”* In that memo, discovered after the election by our researchers, the Department of Elections gloated that they had gotten the Palm Beach Post to “correct” their story and had successfully planted happy-talk stories in the Sun-Sentinel and other papers.
*E-mail dated June 26, 2000, from Janet Carabelli, Department of Elections, to Dee Smith, Bruder, others; obtained through Florida Open Records Act.
The Ultimate Measure
And there’s the ultimate test of the veracity of the DBT and Post lists: The attorney general of Florida, Bob Butterworth, told me he absolutely would prosecute anyone who registered or voted illegally. A felon voting has committed a new felony—that means more jail time. The idea that 57,700 Floridians—or even 5,643—would chance years in the pokey by voting illegally was on its face incredible. If DBT and the Post found these criminals, why haven’t they had them arrested? Butterworth was checking six cases when I spoke to him, and as of this writing, has not busted one single “felon voter.”
The Consortium That Couldn’t Count
Twisted press coverage murdered the story of ethnic cleansing of the voter rolls. But simply smothering the news wasn’t good enough for the New York Times, CNN and the other keepers of the New Information Order. With other major news outlets, they joined together as “the Consortium” and spent a wagonload of cash to hire the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), of the University of Chicago, to conduct what was wrongly called a “recount” of the ballots. For months they held back the results. Finally, more than a year after the election, they released their findings. “Bush would have won anyway,” headlines reassured us. So shut up, move on, get over it: The Lion of Kabul won fair and square.
Or did he?
First, understand that NORC did not “recount” the ballots.
Rather, its teams described each of the 180,000 “spoiled” ballots that Katherine Harris barred from the official total. This was the first count of these ballots. Also, NORC “coders” were not allowed to count these ballots either, merely provide physical descriptions of each ballot. They could note, in code, “Paper ballot, Gore circled,” but could not count that ballot as a vote for Gore. The newspaper and television executives and editors, not the NORC experts, called the “winner” in this one.
Most Americans would have thought the goal of this million-dollar investigation was to find out whom Floridians wanted to vote for. That tends to be what we mean by “democracy.” But the news bosses were in no mood for a democracy that threatened the legitimacy of authority, especially with the war on in Afghanistan and an economy in the toilet. So, despite the fact that NORC coders clearly found that the majority of Florida voters thought they had voted for Gore, the papers called the NORC findings for Bush. Like, huh? NORC has put its data on the Web, so the Gore majority is there for all to see (for those who bother to look). The media chiefs’ trick was to say that, going by various Florida rules, which knock out ballots with stray markings, Bush would have won. Well, we already knew that: That’s how Katherine Harris called it for Bush—on technicalities, not votes. Through this editorial three-card monte, the Republic was saved.
I watched the NORC operation firsthand in Miami in February 2001. There was an Alice in Wonderland weirdness in the process—”First we announce the winner, then we count the ballots.” It was not difficult to discern which candidate the voters wanted. “It screamed at you,” said one counter. If someone circled “Gore,” who do you think he or she wanted as president? Yet, thousands of such ballots were tossed out of the official count. Tens of thousands were disenfranchised because of a wrongly placed or stray mark—often made by the voting machine itself, as it turns out.
The Consortium members did not comment on this exclusion of tens of thousands of clearly marked ballots or on its effect: the inauguration of the wrong person.
The Evidence Vanishes
And then, evidence began to disappear. The counsel for the Civil Rights Commission told me he was most concerned about the purge of the 2,834 felons who did have a right to vote (he’d read my Nation article) —a willful violation of two court orders. Proof of the illegal procedure was in a September 18, 2000, letter to county supervisors.* The letter was read to me by two county clerks, but the sources were too nervous to fax me a copy.
*The tenacious Dave Ruppe of ABC.NEWS.com discovered this document switch-a-roo independently, though his network did not broadcast the story.
So I called Janet Keels in Governor Jeb Bush’s Office of Executive Clemency; I wanted a hard copy of the letter. A crew with the documentary Unprecedented captured the call on camera. . . .
My name is Gregory Palast and I’m calling from London.
My name is Troy Walker.
Troy, maybe you can help me. There is a letter from Janet Keels’s [Governor’s] Office of Executive Clemency, dated September 18, 2000. This is to Hillsborough Board of Elections dealing with registration of voters who moved to the state, committed a felony but have received executive clemency. I’m sure you have a copy of it….
We do have a letter referencing something close to that. Okay, what date is that letter?
This letter is dated February 23, 2001.
What? He then read me a letter from Keels saying the exact opposite of the September 18 memo.
September 18 (before the election): convicts from other states moving to Florida “would be required to make application for restoration of civil rights in the State of Florida.”
February 23 (after the election): out-of-state convicts “need not apply for restoration of civil rights in Florida.”
The post-election letter was drafted one week after the Civil Rights Commission began to question Florida about the illegal maneuver—and now Troy was telling me there was no record of the first letter in Keels’s files, or in the office’s files, or in the state computers.
Uh, oh. There were two explanations. Maybe I had screwed up. My most serious accusation, that the governor’s office barred and removed thousands of legal voters in violation of two court rulings, may have been dead wrong. After all, the cautious clerks had merely read me the text of the letter. What if it had never been sent? What if I’d been had by my sources? The first edition of this book had already gone to press.
The other possibility: The letter existed but had been purged faster than a Black voter from the governor’s files, replaced by the February 23 letter, with opposite meaning. If so, then Jeb Bush’s office was skirting close to obstruction of justice.
Did the incriminating September 18, 2000, letter exist? In 2002, I obtained the answer—from the most extraordinary source.
“Greg Palast distorts and misrepresents the events surrounding the 2000 presidential election in Florida in order to support his twisted and maniacally partisan conclusions.”
Had I said something to upset the secretary of state? So began Harris’s letter, a vein-popping screamer running beyond a thousand words, dated April 2002, to my editors at Harper’s.* It contained, despite its gonna-beat-you-up tone, astonishing confessions. First, she does not deny the core allegation: that her list of 57,700 felons contained the names of thousands of innocent Democratic voters. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read her acknowledgment that the debacle over which she presided as secretary of state “exposed flaws in the elections process that had festered across America for decades.”
*See www.gregpalast.com/Harris/ for the entire text.
In the world according to Harris, blame flew everywhere, from the legislature to the attorney general, never landing on herself.
But what caught my eye and made me grab for the phone was her excuse for the illegal purge of out-of-state convicts. Harris wrote that the governor’s Office of Executive Clemency “issued a letter” telling her elections divisions to carry out the deed.
“Hello. I just received a note from Secretary Harris regarding a letter she received from Governor Bush’s office regarding [here I mentioned the felon issue, leaving off the bits about “twisted”]. . . . Could you fax me a copy?”
And within the hour, the clerk had sent me, word for word as it had been read to me by my sources, the letter dated September 18. And here it is:
Fig. 1.5. Switched letters. Note that the letter dated September 18, 2000, six weeks before the presidential election, requires ex-felons to seek executive clemency from Governor Jeb Bush before they can vote. That directly violates court rulings. The letter dated February 23, 2001, written three months after the election and a week after the U.S. Civil Rights Commission began to investigate the matter, says the opposite:
These voters need not apply for clemency. The voters need not seek Governor Bush’s “clemency.”
Part IV: THE THEFT OF THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION—2004
Maybe, as Ms. Harris and Florida Republicans suggest, we should just “get over it. Just move on.” They have moved on: to 2002 and 2004. They fixed the election of November 2000-and went right to work on monkeying with the next election cycle. Harris and Jeb Bush weren’t chastened by the exposure of their purge operation. After all, in 2000 they got away with it.
Burying the Loot: Keeping the Florida Voter Rolls Whiter Than White
On January 10, 2001, picking up on our Salon story, the NAACP sued ChoicePoint’s DBT, Katherine Harris and Clayton “Road Runner” Roberts for violating the civil rights of thousands of Florida citizens as guaranteed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.
Harris insists she did no wrong. Now she could tell it to the judge. (However, that can be a risky move for Harris. In June 2002, the last time she tried to defend herself in court, a judge reached an unusual, albeit insightful, verdict: “This lady is crazy.” Lucky for Harris the judge’s remarks referred to her perverse interpretations of law, not to her general state of mind; otherwise, under Florida regulations, she would have to be purged from the voter rolls.)
The bad news for defendants Harris and Roberts is that DBT would not take a dive for them in court. Once DBT shut down their Vote-Scrubs-R-Us business, the database operators had nothing to gain by defending the officials that got them in hot water.
The company pleaded for mercy from the NAACP, begging for settlement, thereby avoiding class-action claims.
In July 2002, DBT signed off with People for the American Way, which acts as the NAACP’s law firm, to provide a new purge list—one that comes closer to the work originally promised the state. I had estimated that the list had at best one in ten verifiable names. I was too kind. DBT indicates the new list would contain only one in twenty from the original. In other words, over 50,000 people will be removed from their hit list.
The NAACP’s lawyers didn’t just fall off a hayrick. They know that they can’t reverse the 2000 election. Their goal: to prevent the theft of the races in 2002 and 2004. To this end, armed with DBT’s admissions, the NAACP simply asked the state to return voting rights to those they acknowledge were wrongly named as felons. You’d think after DBT confessed and cut the poisonous list by 95 percent, Harris, Jeb and Clay Roberts would at least do right by those they had wronged. Not a chance. DBT has removed 50,000 names from their list. . . but not Harris. Her office refuses to return their civil rights. You can see her logic: What’s the use of stealing the 2000 race if you have to give it all back in 2002? Like a confessed bank robber who hides the loot and tells his victims, “It’s still mine, suckers!” the state is using every technical and legalistic trick in the book to keep illegally purged Black registrations buried for good.
But eventually, those votes must rise. How, then, can the Jeb Bush team keep the voter rolls whiter than white? The answer: new “felon” lists for 2002 and 2004. But creating new lists runs into a new obstacle: the law. Following the Salon and Nation stories, an embarrassed Florida legislature voted to bar the secretary of state from ever again hiring an outside firm like DBT to generate a purge list. The legislature directed Harris to turn over this work to the experts, the Florida Association of Court Clerks. The problem for Republicans is that the Clerks had done this work before and in a reasonably fair, accurate and notably unbiased way. After all, felons were removed from voter rolls long before Mortham, Harris and DBT came along.
Harris overcame the problem of the new law in a forthright manner: She broke it. The law says her office “may not hire an outside firm. . .” The law couldn’t be clearer. Yet, in December 2001, Harris cut off a series of meetings with the county Clerks—and she hired an outside firm. Her hit man Roberts told local papers the Clerks were dumped because they requested $300,000 for their costs to assess the current system. He must have had a good laugh at that one. The fee he’s agreed to pay the new consultant: $1.6 million.
With DBT out, who is this new firm with whom Florida is entrusting its citizens’ civil rights? Accenture—alias of Arthur Andersen Consulting.
The Harris Touch
One can’t sabotage democracy with felon lists alone. Ballot-eating machines worked well in Gadsden and other Black counties, but cyberspace offers even more opportunities for fun and games. This time, it’s “touch screen” voting. No paper trail, no audit path, no, fights over recounts: recounts are impossible*
*Investigator Ronnie Dugger has warned of the dangers of computerized voting for years. See The New Yorker, November 7, 1988.
Florida is the first state to adopt this video-game voting technology. Secretary of State Harris immediately certified the reliability of one machine, the iVotronic, from Election Systems and Software of Omaha. On their Web site, there is a neat demo of their foolproof system you can tryout. I did—and successfully cast an “over-vote,” a double vote for one candidate. Then the site crashed my laptop. But hey, the bugs will be worked out… or worked in.
The question is, who else is touching the touch screen? In the case of the iVotronics, it’s Sandra Mortham. Ring a bell? She was Harris’s Republican predecessor as secretary of state, the one who hired DBT. Now she’s iVotronics representative in Florida.
The New American Apartheid: Race and the Bush Brothers
In 2002 Harris told a campaign rally, “Before God, before my family, before my friends, before my nation, before the nation, I sleep well at night.”
You’re thinking, “With whom?” Well, shame on you. My thoughts were more sobering. Harris had, after all, effectively admitted in her note to Harper’s that she’d moved to disenfranchise thousands of innocent Black folks. Even if she believes she wasn’t at fault, how could she sleep at night? I suspect she—and the government and press—would have been a bit more troubled if the wrongly purged voters came from country-club membership rolls: moneyed, important and white.
Don’t kid yourself: the color of the excluded voters had an awful lot to do with why this investigation was dismissed by the U.S. media for so long. The “liberal media,” as Harris calls them, would never recognize their own subtle prejudices. Remember my story of Pastor Johnson of Alachua, convicted in New York and therefore entitled to vote in Florida? Publication was rejected by a U.S. outlet because of the doubts of one reporter. The preppy white Ivy Leaguer could not understand why a middle-aged Black man, an ex-con to boot, did not raise a ruckus in a county office in the rural South to demand his rights. Why didn’t Pastor Johnson pound the table? After all, voters in Palm Beach had no problems complaining publicly.
Of the victims I spoke with, the only African Americans who would agree to talk on camera were the three clerics, whose collars afforded them a kind of cultural protection. Alachua County, Okeefenokee . . . this is still the Old South where, within the memory of many of these people, Black voters were hanged from trees. The deep, wounding history of Jim Crow explains the initial quiet of so many victims of the illegal purge, a caution echoed and affirmed by the silence of the Democratic Party.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, America is back to asking the question we thought resolved by the 1965 Voting Rights Act: Should Black people be allowed the vote?
So far, we’ve discussed only the purge of citizens falsely accused of having felony records. Even if that wrong is righted, a good half a million Floridians will still be barred from voting. And we know their color. One-third of all Black men in Florida have lost their right to vote.
And the Bush Brothers like it that way.
Within two months of the 2000 election, President Bush convened a Bi-BURP, a Bipartisan Blue Ribbon Panel to recommend reforms to prevent “another Florida.”
Our president, to ensure that we understood clearly he had no intention whatsoever of heeding his panel’s findings and recommendations, put two men in charge of the Bi-BURP for whom he has the fondest disregard: Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Relieved of the pressure of having to produce a plan that might be implemented, Carter and Ford got right to the heart of the matter on the faux felon purge: race. The former presidents called for an end to barring the vote to people who have served their time and gone straight. After all, only thirteen states hold on to these exclusion laws, originally passed by Deep South legislatures after Reconstruction while the Ku Klux Klan’s night riders successfully cleared the voter rolls by more direct means.
Neither President Bush nor Governor Bush have bothered with even a false gesture toward implementing the Carter-Ford call to restore the rights of these (un-white) citizens. Jeb Bush’s reforms are limited to multi-dollar contracts for Arthur Andersen Consulting and the Mortham-matic touch screens.
I know what you’re thinking: They all do it. Republicans and Democrats both. Yes, but not on this scale, not so successfully. I remember my years in Chicago, watching Boss Daley’s machine hacks carry stacks of absentee ballots into nursing homes, then carry out the same stack, all “signed,” every vote for every office Democratic. But this is a new game, vote rustling of the future.
Opening night in Florida was so successful, the Republicans are taking their show on the road. Since the 2000 elections, politicians have been busy “Floridizing” state elections procedures from, sea to shining sea. The race for the White House in 2004 may already be decided for you, the voting only a formality.
The Florida vote count vaudeville has been used as cover to monkey with voting systems in several states—all under the grinning disguise of “reform.” These reforms suspiciously repeat the methods pioneered by Florida: centralized, computer purge lists. Who is the carrier of this ill “reform” wind? One vector is the high-sounding Voter Integrity Project, based just outside Washington, DC. The conservative, nonprofit advocacy organization has campaigned in parallel with the Republican Party against the 1993 motor voter law that resulted in a nationwide increase in voter registration of 7 million, much of it among minority voters. Its founding chairwoman? Helen Blackwell, wife of Ronald Reagan’s staffer Morton Blackwell. Just before the November 2000 election, VIP presented its special Voter Integrity Award to DBT—at a VIP conference substantially paid for by . . . DBT. Noting proudly that “DBT is the company tasked with helping Florida clean up the State’s voter registration records,” VIP then launched into a campaign to take DBT’s Florida methods to other states. VIP announced it had “entered into an agreement with DBT Online to identify small communities with demonstrated need for similar pro bono voter rolls ‘scrubbing.’ ” Offers were extended to Pennsylvania and Tennessee, with Florida, the states considered toss-ups in the Gore-Bush race.*
*According to the stellar research of Catherine Danielson, it looks like AI Gore won Tennessee—a less sophisticated operation than Florida’s but just as odoriferous.
After the election, when the name DBT lost its marketing appeal, VIP told me their joint offer with the company was “void,” like an expired coupon for detergent. But Republican senator Chris Bond, joined at a press conference by VIP’s chairwoman, announced he was introducing a bill to force Florida’s voting methodologies on the entire nation. Then-Senator Bob Torricelli stood with him—which proves one can always find Democrats willing to attend their own political funeral.
In June 2001, the Washington Post finally, and in the most cautious tones, re-reported the Salon and Nation stories on the theft of the last election. And they granted me a platform to warn about this theft of race in 2004:
“The Wrong Way to Fix the Vote”
Washington Post, June 10, 2001
Lord, save us from “reform.” If you liked the way Florida handled the presidential vote in November, you’ll just love the election reform laws that have passed since then in 10 states, and have been proposed in 16 others. These laws mandate a practice that was at the heart of the Florida debacle: computer-aided purging of centralized voter files. The laudable aim is to rid registries of the names of the dead, as well as of felons and others legally barred from voting. But the likely result will be the elimination of a lot of legitimate voters and an increased potential for political mischief.
You would think other states would run from Florida’s methods. But in their current legislative sessions, Colorado, Indiana, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Kansas, Montana and Washington have passed bills that—while varying in specifics—would follow the Sunshine State’s lead in centralizing, computerizing and cleansing voter rolls. Senator Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) has introduced a bill in which certain conditions in any state would trigger mandatory voter list purges.
To a large extent, these bills are a response to “motor voter” legislation, which has added millions of citizens, particularly minorities, to voter registries. Since minority voters tend to be Democratic, it is not surprising that “motor voter” laws are popular among Democrats, and most of the bills attempting to purge the rolls are sponsored by Republicans.
But many factors go into the ill-advised rush to reform. Take the case of Georgia. The day before the November 2000 election, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV jointly reported that records indicated that deceased Georgians had voted 5,412 times over the last 20 years. They specifically cited one Alan J. Mandel, who apparently cast his ballot in three separate elections after his demise in 1997. Subsequently, a very live Alan J. Mandell (note the two L’s) told the secretary of the state that local election workers had accidentally checked off the wrong name on the list. But in the midst of the chad mania that dominated the headlines in November 2000, details became less important than the newly energized drive for so-called reform.
If the reformers succeed, look out. Florida’s Blackhunt purge began under the cover of the voting “reform” law passed by the state in 1998. Under a law signed April 18, 2001—an imitation of the ill Florida code—Georgia’s Secretary of state now controls “list maintenance” and has taken over the power of deleting the names of dead voters.
The centralization of state voter registries hands an all-too-tempting monopoly to whichever party controls the office of secretary of state. The highly technical (and, where contractors are involved, commercially confidential) nature of computer-aided purges makes bias in the cleansing of supposed felons, deceased voters and duplicate voters astonishingly easy to carry out and difficult to uncover.
Even uncovered, apparent bias is difficult to challenge.
After all, one man’s overzealous purge is another man’s inauguration.
Democracy and the People Who Count: A Conclusion
This story of stolen elections—the last one, the next one—is not about computers, database management or voting machinery. If the theft of the U.S. election could have been prevented by fixing our voting methods and equipment, we could solve our problems by the means suggested by the Russian Duma. The Russians voted a resolution demanding that American presidential elections, like Haiti’s and Rwanda’s, should be held under the auspices of the United Nations.
The solution to democracy’s ills cannot be found in computer fixes or in banning butterfly ballots. All that stuff about technology and procedure is vanishingly peripheral to this fact: In 2000, the man who lost the vote grabbed the power. I reported these stories from Europe, where simple minds think that the appropriate response to the discovery that the wrong man took office would be to remove him from that office.
So where do we turn? The Democrats’ employing William (son of Boss) Daley as their spokesman during the Florida vote count, and Al Gore’s despicably gracious concession speech, show that both political parties share, though in different measure, a contempt for the electorate’s will.
Two other presidential elections were nearly stolen in the year 2000, in Peru and in Yugoslavia. How ironic that in those nations, though not in the United States, the voters’ will ultimately counted. Peruvians and Yugoslavs took to heart Martin Luther King’s admonition that rights are never given, only asserted. They knew: When the unelected seize the presidential palaces, democrats must seize the streets.
The complete book: Greg_Palast_-_The_Best_Democracy_Money_Can_Buy_2003_