Florida Net Too Wide in Purge of Voter Rolls
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 mid-1999.
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 Tampa.
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 election.
“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 anyway.
“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 York.
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 felon.
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.”