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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.

Florida's Disappeared Voters

December 10, 2000. Gore was hours away from going to the mat. In Britain's Observer newspaper I suggested an alternative:

Hey, Al, take a look at this. Every time I cut open another alligator, I find the bones of more Gore voters. This week, I was hacking my way through the Florida swampland known as the Office of Secretary of State Katherine Harris and found a couple thousand more names of voters electronically "disappeared" from the vote rolls. About half of those named are African-Americans. They had the right to vote, but they never made it to the balloting booths.

On November 26, the Observer reported that the Florida Secretary of State's office had, before the election, ordered the elimination of 8,000 Florida voters on the grounds that they had committed felonies in Texas. None had. For Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his brother, the Texas blacklist was a mistake made in Heaven. Most of those targeted to have their names "scrubbed" from the voter roles were African-Americans, Hispanics and poor white folk, likely voters for Vice-President Gore.

We don't know how many voters lost their citizenship rights before the error was discovered by a few skeptical county officials before ChoicePoint, which has gamely 'fessed up to the Texas-sized error, produced a new list of 57,700 felons. In May, Harris sent on the new, improved scrub sheets to the county election boards. Maybe it's my bad attitude, but I thought it worthwhile to check out the new list. Sleuthing around county offices with a team of researchers from Internet newspaper Salon, we discovered that the "correct" list wasn't so correct.

Our ten-county review suggests a minimum 15 percent misidentification rate. That makes another 7,000 innocent people accused of crimes and stripped of their citizenship rights in the run-up to the presidential race, a majority of them Black.

Now our team, diving deeper into the swamps, has discovered yet a third group whose voting rights were stripped. The state's private contractor, ChoicePoint, generated a list of about two thousand names of people who, earlier in their lives, were convicted of felonies in Illinois and Ohio. Like most American states, these two restore citizenship rights to people who have served their time in prison and then remained on the good side of the law.

Florida strips those convicted in its own courts of voting rights for life. But Harris's office concedes, and county officials concur, that the state of Florida has no right to impose this penalty on people who have moved in from these other states. (Only 13 states, most in the Old Confederacy, bar reformed criminals from voting.) Going deeper into the Harris lists, we find hundreds more convicts from the 37 other states that restored their rights at the end of sentences served. If they have the right to vote, why were these citizens barred from the polls? Harris didn't return my calls. But Alan Dershowitz did. The Harvard law professor, a renowned authority on legal process, said: "What's emerging is a pattern of reducing the total number of voters in Florida, which they know will reduce the Democratic vote."

How could Florida's Republican rulers know how these people would vote? I put the question to David Bositis, America's top expert on voting demographics.

Once he stopped laughing, he said the way Florida used the lists from a private firm was "a patently obvious technique to discriminate against Black voters." In a darker mood, Bositis, of Washington's Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the sad truth of American justice is that 46 percent of those convicted of felony are African-American. In Florida, a record number of Black folk, over 80 percent of those registered to vote, packed the polling booths on November 7. Behind the curtains, nine out of ten Black people voted for Gore.

Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project, Washington, pointed out that the "White" half of the purge list would be peopled overwhelmingly by the poor, also solid Democratic voters.

Add it up. The dead-wrong Texas list, the uncorrected "corrected" list, plus the out-of-state ex-con list. By golly, it's enough to swing a presidential election. I bet the busy Harris, simultaneously in charge of both Florida's voter rolls and George Bush's presidential campaign, never thought of that.

Yet Another 40,000 Located. I Repeat: 40,000

Now it gets weird. Salon.com ran my reports from London and was showered with praise -- by columnists in the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post and Cleveland Plain Dealer , who were horrified by, as Bob Kuttner of the Boston Globe put it, Florida's "lynching by laptop." And still no news editor from print or television called me (except the CBS Evening News producer who ran away with tail tucked as soon as Governor Jeb denied the allegations).

My work was far from over. On a tip, I began to look into the rights of felons in Florida -- those actually convicted.

Every paper in America reported that Florida bars ex-criminals from voting. As soon as every newspaper agrees, you can bet it probably isn't true. Someone wants the papers to believe this. It did not take long to discover that what everyone said was true was actually false: some ex-cons could vote, thousands in fact. I knew it . . . and so did Governor Jeb Bush. Was Jeb Bush involved?

So I telephoned a clerk in First Brother Jeb's office, who whispered, "Call me tomorrow before official opening hours." And then I did call the next morning, this heroic clerk spent two hours explaining to me, "The courts tell us to do this, and we do that." She referred to court orders that I'd gotten wind of, which ordered Governor Bush to stop interfering in the civil rights of ex-cons who had the right to vote.

I asked Jeb's clerk four times, "Are you telling me the governor knowingly violated the law and court orders, excluding eligible voters?"

And four times I got, "The courts tell us to do this [allow certain felons to vote] and we do that [block them]."

But Salon, despite a mountain of evidence, stalled -- then stalled some more.

Resentment of the takeover of the political coverage by an "alien" was getting on the team's nerves. I can't blame them. And it didn't help that Salon was facing bankruptcy, staff were frazzled and it was nearly Christmas.

The remains of the year were lost while I got hold of legal opinions from top lawyers saying Bush's office was wrong; and later the Civil Rights Commission would also say Bush was wrong. While Salon dithered, the political clock was ticking and George W. was oozing toward the Oval Office. E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post told me, "You have to get this story out, Greg, right away!" Notably, instead of directing me to the Post's newsroom, E. J. told me to call The Nation, a kind of refugee center for storm-tossed news reports.

After double-checking and quintuple-checking the facts, the Nation held its breath and printed the story of the "third group" of wrongly purged ex-felon voters (numbering nearly three thousand), and a fourth group of voters wrongly barred from registering in the first place -- yet another 40,000 of them, almost all Democratic voters.

This was a gutsy decision by Nation. The 57,000 voters I had already reported on in Salon were innocents wrongly tagged as ex-cons; the new group prevented from voting were indeed convicted felons who nevertheless had the legal right to vote in Florida. There's not a lot of editors out there with sympathy for convicts; even the Democrats stayed mum on this one despite the cost to their party.

Here's what I discovered: It has been well reported that Florida denies its nearly half a million former convicts the right to vote. However, Florida's own courts have repeatedly told the governor he may not take away the civil rights of Florida citizens who have committed crimes in other states, served their time and had their rights restored by those states.

People from other states who have arrived in Florida with a felony conviction in their past number "clearly over 50,000 and likely over 100,000," says criminal demographics expert Jeffrey Manza of Northwestern University, are no fewer than 40,000 reformed felons eligible to vote in Florida.

Nevertheless, agencies controlled by Harris and Bush ordered county officials to reject attempts by these eligible voters to register, while, publicly, the governor's office states that it adheres to court rulings not to obstruct these ex-offenders in the exercise of their civil rights. Further, Harris's office used sophisticated computer programs to hunt those felons eligible to vote and ordered them thrown off the voter registries.

David Bositis, the Washington, DC, expert on voter demographics, suggests that the block-and-purge program "must have had a partisan motivation. Why else spend $4 million if they expected no difference in the ultimate vote count?"

White and Hispanic felons, mostly poor, vote almost as solidly Democratic as African-Americans. A University of Minnesota study estimates that, for example, 93 percent of felons of all races favored Bill Clinton in 1996. These qualified voters kept out of the polling booths on November 7 represented several times George W. Bush's margin of victory in the state.

The disfranchisement operation began in 1998 under Katherine Harris's predecessor as secretary of state, Sandra Mortham. Mortham was a Republican star, designated by Jeb Bush as his lieutenant governor running mate for his second run for governor. (A financial scandal caused Jeb to replace her with Harris.)

Under Mortham, the elections unit within the office of the secretary of state immediately launched a felon manhunt with a zeal and carelessness that worried local election professionals. A friendly official slipped me an internal Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections memo, dated August 1998, which warns Mortham's office that it had wrongly removed eligible voters in a botched rush "to capriciously take names off the rolls." However, to avoid a public row, the supervisors agreed to keep their misgivings within the confines of the bureaucracies in the belief that "entering a public fight with [state officials] would be counterproductive."

One of the ex-cons with the right to vote and attempted to register was Pastor Thomas Johnson of Gainesville. Johnson ministers to House of Hope, a faith-based charity that guides ex-convicts from jail into working life, a program that has won high praise from the pastor's friend, Governor Jeb Bush. Ten years ago, Johnson sold crack cocaine in the streets of New York, got caught, served his time, then discovered God and Florida -- where, early last year, he attempted to register to vote. But local election officials refused to accept his registration after he admitted to the decade-old felony conviction from New York. "It knocked me for a loop. It was horrendous," said Johnson of his rejection.

Beverly Hill, the election supervisor of Alachua County, where Johnson attempted to register, said that she used to allow ex-felons like Johnson to vote. Under Governor Bush, that changed. "Recently, the [Governor's Office of Executive] Clemency people told us something different," she said. "They told us that they essentially can't vote."

Both Alachua's refusal to allow Johnson to vote and the governor's directive underlying that refusal are notable for their timing -- coming after two court rulings that ordered the secretary of state and governor to recognize the civil rights of felons arriving from other states. In the first of these decisions, Schlenther v. Florida Department of State, issued in June 1998, Florida's Court of Appeal ruled unanimously that Florida could not require a man convicted in Connecticut twenty-five years earlier "to ask [Florida] to restore his civil rights. They were never lost here." Connecticut, like most states, automatically restores felons' civil rights at the end of their sentence, and therefore "he arrived as any other citizen, with full rights of citizenship."

The Schlenther decision was much of the talk at a summer 1998 meeting of county election officials in Orlando. So it was all the more surprising to Chuck Smith, a statistician with Hillsborough County, that Harris's elections division chief Clayton Roberts exhorted local officials at the Orlando meeting to purge all out-of-state felons identified by DBT.

But when Pastor Johnson attempted to register in Alachua County, clerks refused and instead handed him a fifteen-page clemency request form. The outraged minister found the offer a demeaning Catch-22. "How can I ask the governor for a right I already have?" he says, echoing, albeit unknowingly, the words of the Florida courts.

Had Johnson relented and chosen to seek clemency, he would have faced a procedure that is, admits the clemency office's Tawana Hayes, "sometimes worse than breaking a leg." For New Yorkers like Johnson, she says, "I'm telling you it's a bear." She says officials in New York, which restores civil rights automatically, are perplexed by requests from Florida for nonexistent papers declaring the individual's rights restored. Without the phantom clemency orders, the applicant must hunt up old court records and begin a complex process lasting from four months to two years, sometimes involving quasi-judicial hearings, the outcome of which depends on Jeb Bush's disposition.

Little wonder that out of tens of thousands of out-of state felons, only a hardy couple of hundred attempted to run this bureaucratic obstacle course before the election. (Bush can be compassionate: he granted clemency to Charles Colson for his crimes as a Watergate conspirator, giving Florida resident Colson the right to vote in the presidential election.)

How did the governor's game play at the ballot box? Jeb Bush's operation denied over 50,000 citizens their right to vote. Given that 80 percent of registered voters actually cast ballots in the presidential election, at least 40,000 votes were lost. By whom? As 90 percent or more of this targeted group, out-of-state ex-cons, votes Democratic, we can confidently state that this little twist in the voter purge cost Al Gore a good 30,000 votes.

Was Florida's corrupted felon-voter hunt the work of cozy collusion between Jeb Bush and Harris, the president-elect's brother and state campaign chief, respectively? It is unlikely we will ever discover the motives driving the voter purge, but we can see the consequences.

Three decades ago, Governor George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door and thundered, "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" but failed to block entry to African-Americans. Governor Jeb Bush's resistance to court rulings, conducted at whisper level with high-tech assistance, has been far more effective at blocking voters of color from the polling station door. Deliberate or accidental, the error ridden computer purge and illegal clemency obstacle course function, like the poll tax and literacy test of the Jim Crow era, to take the vote away from citizens who are Black, poor and, not coincidentally, almost all Democrats. No guesswork there: Florida is one of the few states to include both party and race on registration files.

Pastor Johnson, an African American wrongfully stripped of his vote, refuses to think ill of the governor or his motives. He prefers to see a dark comedy of bureaucratic errors: "The buffoonery of this state has cost us a president." It was now February 5, 2001 -- so President Bush could read The Nation exposÈ from the Oval Office. If this is buffoonery, then Harris and the Bushes are wise fools indeed.

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