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