Florida's flawed "voter-cleansing" program - Salon.com's politics story of the year


Monday, December 4, 2000

If Vice President Al Gore is wondering where his Florida votes went, rather than sift through a pile of chad, he might want to look at a "scrub list" of 173,000 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 that included purported "felons" provided by a private firm with tight Republican ties.

Early in the year, the company, ChoicePoint, gave Florida officials a list with the names of 8,000 ex-felons to "scrub" from their list of voters.

But it turns out none on the list were 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 eligible voters may have been turned away at the polls.

Florida is the only state that pays a private company that promises to "cleanse" 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. In compiling a list by looking at felons from other states, Florida could, in the process, single out citizens who committed felons in other states but, after serving their time or successfully petitioning the courts, had their voting rights returned to them. According to Florida law, felons can vote once their voting rights have been reinstated.

And if this unfairly singled out minorities, it unfairly handicapped Gore: In Florida, 93 percent of African-Americans voted for the vice president.

In the 10 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 decided not to use the central voter file, essentially breaking the law and possibly letting some ineligible felons vote.

On Friday, the Miami Herald reported that after researching voter records in 12 Florida counties -- but primarily in Palm Beach and Duval counties, which didn't use the file -- it found that more than 445 felons had apparently cast ballots in the presidential election.

But Palm Beach and Duval weren't the only counties to dump the list after questioning its accuracy. 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 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 mistake did get corrected and law enforcement officials were quite apologetic, Howell decided not to use the state list anymore 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 lists. Starlet Cannon, Dixie's deputy assistant supervisor of elections, said, "I'm scared to work with it because of 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 10 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 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 in June 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.

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 DBT 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 given 90 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 Gov. 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 4 billion public and not-so-public records, has come under fire for misuse of private data from government computers.

In January, 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 DBT's records and the counties' records -- that fail-safe check simply did not exist.

In its defense, the company proudly points to an award it received from Voter Integrity Inc. on April 1 for "innovative excellence [in] cleansing" Florida voter rolls. 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. DBT Online partnered with Voter Integrity Inc. three days later, setting up a program to let small counties "scrub" their voting lists, too.

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 and executive roster are packed with Republican stars, including billionaire Ken Langone, a company director who was chairman of the fund-raising committee for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's aborted run against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Langone is joined at ChoicePoint by another Giuliani associate, former New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir.

And Republican power lobbyist and former congressman Vin Weber lobbies for ChoicePoint in Washington. Just before his death in 1998, Rick Rozar, president of a Choicepoint company, CDB Infotek, donated $100,000 to the Republican Party.

(Alicia Montgomery, Daryl Lindsey and Anthony York contributed to this story.)

Gregory Palast's other investigative reports can be found at www.GregPalast.com where you can also subscribe to Palast's column.

Gregory Palast's column "Inside Corporate America" appears fortnightly in the
Observer's Business section. Nominated Business Writer of the Year (UK Press
Association - 2000), Investigative Story of the Year (Industrial. Society - 1999), Financial Times David Thomas Prize (1998).

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