FW: Florida 'felon purge' may have affected presidential election

Craven, Jim jcraven at SPAMclark.edu
Wed May 23 13:59:49 MDT 2001

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From: portsideMod at netscape.net [mailto:portsideMod at netscape.net]
Sent: Wednesday, May 23, 2001 12:00 PM
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Subject: Florida 'felon purge' may have affected presidential election

Los Angeles Times
Monday, May 21, 2001

Florida Net Too Wide in Purge of Voter Rolls
Thousands were wrongfully called felons.
Errors may have affected presidential election.

By LISA GETTER, Times Staff Writer

MIAMI--Harry Sawyer, election supervisor in Key West, was
stunned when Florida officials sent him a list of 150
convicted felons to cut from county voter rolls in

Among those named: an election employee, another worker's
husband--and Sawyer's own father. None was a felon. "It
was just a mess," Sawyer said.

More mess was to come. Indeed, a little-known program
aimed at curbing voter fraud in Florida was so badly
designed and run that it wrongly targeted thousands of
legitimate voters during the 2000 presidential election.

Even worse, state officials in Tallahassee ignored clear
warnings about the mounting mistakes and actually
loosened criteria for matching voters' names with those
of felons, putting more innocent people at risk of losing
their right to vote.

The so-called felon purge drew little attention during
the bitter 36- day recount battle between Texas Gov.
George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore last fall. But
a review by The Times of thousands of pages of records,
reports and e-mail messages suggests the botched effort
to stop felons from voting could have affected the
ultimate outcome.

The reason: Those on the list were disproportionately
African American. Blacks made up 66% of those named as
felons in Miami- Dade, the state's largest county, for
example, and 54% in Hillsborough County, which includes

Those individuals' politics are unknown, but African
Americans voted more than 9 to 1 for Gore across the
state. And Bush ultimately won Florida by only 537 votes
of nearly 6 million cast. No evidence has emerged to
indicate that anyone illegally conspired to keep African
Americans from voting in November. Gov. Jeb Bush, the
president's brother, has denied that state officials
tried to disenfranchise anyone.

But many Democrats, especially minorities, charge that
the felon purge is proof enough.

"I don't feel like it was an honest mistake," said
Sandylynn Williams, a black Tampa resident and Gore
supporter who wasn't allowed to vote because she was
wrongly identified as a felon. "I felt like they knew
most of the minorities was going to vote against Bush."

Williams, 34, said she had voted in every election since
she was 18 and had passed a government background check
for a job with a military contractor. County officials
finally restored her right to vote 10 days after the

"They sent me a letter of apology," she said. "That meant
nothing to me. I felt like I was cheated."

The felon lists were compiled by Database Technologies
Inc. (DBT), now part of ChoicePoint Inc., an Atlanta-
based company. In 1998, DBT won a $4-million contract
from the Florida secretary of state's office to cross-
check the 8.6 million names registered to vote in the
state with law enforcement and other records.

Over the next two years, DBT built a database that was
used to identify--and all too often misidentify--about
100,000 felons and dead people still registered to vote.

DBT officials blame state officials for casting too wide
a net in their search for illegal voters. "It defied
logic," company spokesman James Lee said.

No one knows how many legitimate voters were on that
database or were stopped from voting. Some county
elections officials were so outraged at the errors that
they simply tossed out the lists. Some tried to correct
them. And some knew they were faulty but used them

"We removed a lot of people from the rolls when I know
this was not a truly accurate list," said David Leahy,
the Miami-Dade election supervisor.

"I don't doubt at all that there were many names of
individuals removed statewide that were incorrect," said
Pam Iorio, the Hillsborough election supervisor. "Some of
those people may not even know to this day that they have
been taken off the rolls."

Florida is one of 12 states that bar felons from voting
unless they apply for and win clemency from a state
board, an arduous and expensive process. Most states,
including California, automatically restore a felon's
right to vote after completion of the sentence.

Records show, however, that more than 2,000 alleged
felons from other states were put on Florida's felon
lists last year even though those states had restored
their voting rights.

Among the supposed felons was 19-year-old Michael Jones
of Valrico, near Tampa. Jones made the list when DBT
erroneously linked his name to an Ohio felony conviction.
But Ohio restores felons' voting rights after they do
their time.

Even worse, it was the wrong Michael Jones. The Ohio
criminal was black; the Valrico voter was white.

After the presidential election, Florida clarified its
policy on out-of- state voters and declared that those
whose rights had been restored could cast ballots in the
future. The state Legislature also repealed the statute
that authorized hiring DBT. Members voted instead to
provide up to $2 million to create a reliable statewide
voter registration database that will be accessible from
the Internet.

It's unclear whether such moves will satisfy the U.S.
Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which is
investigating the felon program, or the U.S. Commission
on Civil Rights, which has held hearings on the issue.

The commission is expected to report next month that the
felon purge and other election-related problems had a
disproportionate effect on African Americans and thus
violated the Voting Rights Act. That law calls for civil
remedies if a policy or practice unfairly harms a
minority voting group, even if the effect is unintended.

Details of the felon purge were first reported earlier
this year by The Nation, a liberal magazine based in New

Ironically, the effort to stop Florida's felons from
voting came after a voter fraud scandal in Miami's 1997
mayoral race led to calls for statewide reform.

Hired soon after, DBT proposed cross-checking voter lists
with an array of federal, state and county records, from
convictions to address changes. The company also urged
searching only for voters with the same exact name as a

But Florida officials told DBT to include names that were
merely similar or had matching birth dates or Social
Security numbers. An 80% match was sufficient, state
officials said.

Not surprisingly, problems--and warnings--erupted from
the start.

In March 1999, for example, Emmet "Bucky" Mitchell, a
lawyer for Florida's Division of Elections, sent an e-
mail to Marlene Thorogood, the DBT project manager,
urging her to loosen the criteria as far as possible.

"Obviously, we want to capture more names that possibly
aren't matches and let [county election] supervisors make
a final determination rather than exclude certain matches
altogether," Mitchell wrote.

"Unfortunately, programming in this fashion may supply
you with false positives," or misidentifications,
Thorogood replied.

Once computers had matched the names, DBT sent the data
to Tallahassee. State officials then passed the lists to
the 67 county election supervisors, with instructions to
notify everyone identified.

Official letters soon advised voters across the state
that they had 30 days to send their fingerprints to the
Florida Department of Law Enforcement for verification if
their names were "confused with that of a felon." In
essence, they had to prove they were innocent.

Even that led to screw-ups. One Madison County voter
wrote to the state police, as instructed. But a clerk
there misread it and wrote to Linda Howell, the county
supervisor of elections. The letter said Howell was a
felon and would be cut from the voter rolls.

"Needless to say, I was very upset," Howell said. "It
seemed they were taking their job too lax. You could ruin
a person with something like that."

Norman Weitzel, a Jacksonville resident, also got a
letter. The law- abiding Republican said he was "floored"
to be told that he was a felon--and outraged at the
effort required to correct the record. "It started out
like I was guilty and had to prove I wasn't," he said.

DBT was hardly apologetic.

Checking felony data from other states, it mistakenly
used a list of 8,000 Texans who had committed
misdemeanors, not felonies. But DBT officials had little
sympathy when some of the transplanted Texans complained
of getting letters warning that they could not vote
because they were felons.

"There are just some people that feel when you mess with
'their right to vote,' you're messing with their life,"
Thorogood groused in an e-mail.

She also advised other DBT employees on how to deal with
county officials who complained about such errors. Tell
them, she wrote, that "this is THEIR duty to research--
not pass the buck to DBT. . . . We were not contracted
for that."

Lee, the DBT spokesman, said the company will never again
attempt a project like Florida's felon purge.

"When it comes to performing work which may impact a
person's right to vote," he said in a recent speech, "we
are not confident any of the methods used today can
guarantee legal voters will not be wrongfully denied the
right to vote."

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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