Felon Follies

A problem that marred the 2000 ballot is back

DBT was paid $4.2 million to make this comparison, then provide lists of felons to be removed. In 1999 and 2000 combined, DBT submitted to the state the list of possible felons. According to David Host, department of state communications director under both Katherine Harris and her successor, Jim Smith, the state whittled those lists down to some 71,600 names after removing duplicates and checking clemency records. The state then divided up the lists by county and sent them to the individual supervisors of elections.

The partisan context of this felon purge is particularly troubling. A Republican state legislature passed the law; the law was administered by a Republican secretary of state who was also the statewide campaign chair of her boss's brother's presidential campaign; the contract was awarded to a firm with strong ties to the Republican Party; and those voters who were targeted for removal would in all likelihood have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.

There were also some early glitches, such as the inclusion of 8,000 names of former residents of Texas who actually were guilty of misdemeanors, not felonies. But the most controversial aspect of the DBT list was how imprecise it was. Indeed, this lack of precision was exactly what the Department of State told DBT it wanted. George Bruder, a high-ranking employee of DBT/ChoicePoint, said in a deposition for the NAACP lawsuit that he had informed the state in 1999 that the list would result in "a significant number of false positives."

Michael Shavalier

The state's response? "They wanted to make it broader and capture more names and let the supervisor go through the list and pull out those they could not verify," Bruder said.

Host concedes that the state had asked DBT, in effect, to cast a wider net in searching for possible felons. "The number of variations is extraordinary," Host states, citing both clerical errors and the frequent use of aliases by felons. "If you're going to do a thorough job... you have to go further than an exact match of names."

The breadth of this search had the effect of disproportionately targeting black voters for disenfranchisement. As first reported by London Observer columnist Greg Palast in a December 4, 2000, story for Salon.com, more than half of these putatively felonious voters were black. The list also included one supervisor of elections. Thus, by the time the state sent out the "felon" lists to the counties, the supervisors were highly skeptical.

"We'd heard from other counties that they'd found people on there who were upstanding citizens and shouldn't have been on there," Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore remembers. "We started to wonder, is this very accurate? We did some spot-checking, and we found more errors than actualities."

After these spot checks, LePore decided not to use the list at all, despite the probability that some ineligible felons would remain on the rolls. "I'm going to err on the side of the voter," she declares now. "In my opinion, let 'em vote."

Jane Carroll, the long-time supervisor of elections in Broward County who recently retired, also decided not to use the list, as did several of her counterparts statewide. "We realized early on that the information contained in that list was dubious at best," says Joe Cotter, who served as assistant supervisor of elections under Carroll and recently returned to administer the office under Miriam Oliphant. "We sent 4,800 certified letters out to people on the list; the responses we started getting back said that this was inaccurate. We began to suspect that this was not data that we wanted to use to remove people from the voter rolls."

In Tallahassee, Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho received a list of 694 names from the state. "Looking at the data they gave us, it was overbroad in its matching criteria." Sancho recalls. "I was shocked. This list was absolutely useless, worse than useless. I could see how it could lead to the illegal disenfranchisement of Florida voters. And it was clearly disproportionately negative to the African-American voters of the state of Florida." After assiduously checking the names on the list, Sancho and his staff removed only 34 felons.

But the supervisors in two large Florida counties took an opposite approach. In Miami-Dade, Supervisor of Elections David Leahy followed the same procedure that Carroll did in Broward: In both 1999 and 2000, his office sent out certified letters to every registered voter on his scrub list. According to documents filed in the NAACP case, the total number was 7,150. The 1,277 who responded got a hearing with the supervisor's office. Of these, 808 were determined to be felons; the other 469 either came up clean or had had their voting rights restored.

And what of the people who didn't respond? They were kicked off the rolls. "The law dictated that we do that," Leahy says. Of these, at least 3,357 were black. That's 62 percent. The population of Miami-Dade County is 20 percent black.

In Hillsborough County, supervisor Pam Iorio followed the same procedure. She recalls that she received "a little over 3,000 names" and ultimately removed about 2,300 people from her voter rolls. She says 54 percent of those on the list were black. "As I viewed the statute, we had to do something," Iorio says. "I cannot fault other supervisors for not using the list. In hindsight, that might have been the best move."

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