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Stealing the Election in Florida


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The Unreported Story of How They Fixed the Vote in Florida
From the book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Penguin 2003)
by Greg Palast

Reprinted in part from Pelast's book by workingforchange.com.

'This series is part of the WorkingForChange campaign, in cooperation with Martin Luther King III of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to prevent the theft of the presidential election of 2004. There is a link included to sign onto the WorkingForChange/King petition.

A Black-List Burning for Bush

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 [Bush's gold mines? see Chapter 2 of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy>], when English newshound Solomon Hughes caught 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 officialsˇand 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 Al 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.

When the Observer report hit the streets (of London), Gore was still in the race. Columnist Joe Conason pushed his bosses at 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 our Salon team 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 wrote, "Florida's Ethnic Cleansing of the Voter Rolls," printed in Salon.com. It began:

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.

How did we know the "felons" were innocent? We asked a county elections official, Linda Howell, of Madison County, Florida. In March 2000, Harris sent the supervisor a list of criminals -- and Ms. Howell's own name was on it.

"I was very upset," Howell said. "I know I'm not a felon." Howell, a white Republican, refused to remove her own name from the voter rolls and threw out the Harris list. In another county, an elections official restored the rights of one "felon" on the list -- a local judge.

But not everyone on the list was treated so delicately.

"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 Hillsborough County. Smith was concerned that African-Americans made up 54 percent of the people on the original felons list, though they constitute only 11.6 percent of the county's voting population. He challenged the state on this but was told by Harris' office that since most criminals are Black the figure was not surprising.

On the Hillsborough list, in hundreds of cases, names of felons and voters did not match, nor birthdates, nor even gender. Smith added that the ChoicePoint 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.

By the rules established by Harris' 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. While there was much about the lists that bothered Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Iorio, she felt she didn't have a choice but to use them.

Of the 3,258 names on the original list, the county concluded that more than 15 percent were in error, and tried to restore as many as possible. If that ratio held statewide, no fewer than 7,000 voters were incorrectly targeted for removal from voting rosters. Gore lost by 537 votes.

Hillsborough County's attempt to do the right thing was rare. In rural Florida, the mostly-Black purge list met little opposition.

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 Űf' for felon -- and the date that we received it," Rosado said.

"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, ŰWait 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 ŰThank 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.

She failed to add that in the two cases of black voters who did raise a complaint, her office threatened them with arrest if they voted and were proven later ineligible.

Florida was the only state in the nation to contract the first stage of removal of voting rights to a private company. And that company, ChoicePoint Inc. of Atlanta, had big plans. "Given the outcome of our work in Florida," said their PR spokesman, "and with a new president in place, we think our services will expand across the country."

Especially with a President 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.

Thursday, 2 a.m., December 7, 2000. 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 Choice- Point'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 had quite a pedigree for this solemn task. The company's Florida subsidiary, Database Technologies (now DBT Online), was founded by one Hank Asher. When U.S. 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. Just before the election, when counties 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.


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