flawed "voter-cleansing" program
Secretary of State Katherine Harris hired a firm
to vet the rolls for felons, but that may have wrongly kept thousands,
particularly blacks, from casting ballots.
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By Gregory Palast
Dec. 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
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
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. Secretary
of State Harris approved in 1998 the $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.
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, obtained an unprecedented agreement 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
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,
ChoicePoint founder Rick Rozar donated $100,000 to the Republican Party.