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The Best Democracy Money Can
Greg Palast is an internationally recognized expert on the control of corporate power working with labor unions and consumer groups in the USA, South America and Europe. In America, among his more noted cases, he directed government investigations and prosecution of racketeering by nuclear plant builders and, for the Chugach Natives of Alaska, probed charges of fraud by oil companies in the grounding of the Exxon Valdez.
Five years ago, Palast turned his investigative skills to journalism. His 1998 undercover expose of corruption at the heart of Tony Blair's cabinet, "Lobbygate," earned him the distinction of being the first journalist in memory berated personally on the floor of Parliament by a prime minister - as well as an award for Story of the Year. His column for Britain's Observer newspaper, "Inside Corporate America," and other writings, have won him the Financial Times David Thomas Prize (1997) and nomination as Business journalist of the Year (1999).
In America, Palast broke the story of how Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush removed thousands of Black and Democratic voters from registration roles prior to the presidential election. The series of revelations appeared in The Nation, the Washington Post, Harper's, the Guardian - and in Salon.com which named the expos Politics Story of the Year. Palast's investigative reports can also be seen on BBC Television - "Newsnight's own Sam Spade."
Publication of Democracy and Regulation, Palast's lectures at Cambridge University and the University of Sao Paulo, coauthored by Theo MacGregor and Jerrold Oppenheim, is forthcoming. He divides his time between London and New York.
Some comments on Greg Palast's writings:
"The journalist I admire most. His amazing work puts all the rest of us journalists to shame. I'm an avid reader of everything Palast writes - can never get enough of it." George Monblot, Guardian
"Hearsay and misinformation." Official spokesman, International Monetary Fund (IMF)
"Great writing on the Evil Empire of the IMF." Jude Warmiski, former editorial page editor, Wall Street Journal
"The world's greatest investigative reporter you've never heard of." Cleveland Free Times
"To Americans who cannot read his stories printed in Britain's Observer, he is America's journalist hero of the Internet." Alan Colmes, Fox Television
"Intrepid investigative reporter who first broke the news that tens of thousands of likely Democratic voters were disenfranchised in Florida before the 2000 election." US journalism Hall of Fame
"The Most Evil Man in the World." Private Eye
"Amazing reporting. I can't wait for the next installments.' David Ruppe, ABC News
"The Liar! Sleaze Reporter!" Mirror
" [Palast's reports) have not one shred of evidence!" Prime Minister Tony Blair
"Tony Blair's nightmare." Harper's & Queen
"George Bush's nightmare." Laura Flanders, Working for Change Radio
"The information is a hand grenade." John Pilger, New Statesman
"Rubbish ... rubbish." Official spokesman, World Trade Organization (WTO)
"Courageous writing (on the WTO) - when no one else will do it." Maude Barlowe, Council of Canadians
"The type of investigative reporter you don't see anymore - a cross between Sam Spade and Sherlock Holmes." Jim Hightower
"All power to Palast's pen!" Will Hutton, author, The State We're In
'Should be read all over America." Andrew Tobias, author, The Invisible Bankers
"Greg Palast is investigative journalism at its best. No one has exposed more truth about the Bush Cartel and lived to tell the story." Baltimore Chronicle
Forewords by Joe Conason and Will Hutton
the Lexus, Burn the Olive Tree: Globalization and its Discontents
Towns, Small Minds
4 Pat Robertson, General Pinochet, Pepsi-Cola and the Anti-Christ: Special Investigative Reports Award-winning investigative reports.
Inside Corporate America
Best Democracy Money Can Buy
- "Lobbygate": the Real Story of Blair and the Sale of
Kissing the Whip
Forewords Joe Conason and Will Hutton
When I first knew Greg Palast years ago in New York, he was an extraordinarily determined and talented investigator, toiling away for a consortium of labor unions. Among the frustrations of his job was the necessity of explaining complex financial issues to doltish journalists. At some point since then, very much to the public benefit, he decided to pick up the pen himself and take on the world.
This fascinating book is really a world tour with Palast as guide. Those who join him will learn the previously unrevealed secrets of globalization, a term which really is a new "brand name" for very old forms of international investment and exploitation.
joining the techniques and values of investigative journalism with his background in economics, Palast scrutinizes the global marketplace in ways that enlighten readers and frighten corporate chieftains. It is a salutary occupation that brings a touch of moral hygiene to institutions that badly need cleaning. Palast's bracing hosedown is a rare experience for the denizens of the corporate sector, who are accustomed to "business reporting" focused on stock prices and balance sheets.
It is ironic that we in the USA must turn to Britain for this American's unfettered reporting about our businesses and institutions - including some of the most important stories about last year's disputed presidential election. Readers who think they can no longer be shocked by that assault on democracy are ... well, they're in for a shock.
Palast is a tough and salty character, but one wishes he weren't quite so unique. A few more reporters chasing these stories with his passion and perspicacity might be able to change the world.
Joe Conason, New York Salon.com and New York Observer
Those in authority will not agree, but we need more Greg Palasts. Palast is instinctively on the side of the underdog, and knows that those with power and money are generally being economical with the truth. A journalist to his quick, he also takes the view that news is something that someone somewhere does not want in the public domain. Greg is determined to get it there.
I first met him during the Observer's famous scrape with authority over the Cash-for-Access Lobbygate scandal when I was editor. Greg had gone undercover to expose corporate lobbyists' influence on Tony Blair's New Labour government, and his revelations were devastating (see Chapter 7). This was investigative journalism at its best brave, painstaking and more than justified by the results.
His collection in this book is tribute to his techniques. As his reputation has grown so has the flow of the anonymous documents reaching his desk, again a tribute to the way he is seen by those inside and outside authority. You are not sent documents unless the sender believes in your capacity to understand and use them to maximum effect. Greg can be relied upon for both.
But Greg is not just an effective journalist dedicated to cocking a nihilistic snook at the powers that be. He has the best of America's commitment to genuine democracy and the ability of well-informed citizens to make rational judgements and hold the powerful to account - if only they have the information. Greg does pretty well by himself, but if we had a dozen Palasts the world would be a very different place.
Will Hutton, London Author of The State We're In
For LINDA LEVY, whose work is here plagiarized without mercy.
For video links to these stories, documentation and updates, go to www.GregPalast.com
Who Gives a Shit? An Introduction
You read the papers and you watch television, so you know the kind of spiderbrained, commercially poisoned piece-of-crap reporting you get in America. If you're reading this in Britain, you stand a chance of getting some real information, but your news is so censored and twisted in a knot that ... well, that's another story (read Chapter 8, "Kissing the Whip").
You could call this book: What You Didn't Read in the New York Times.
Five months before the November 2000 election, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida moved to purge 57,700 people from the voter rolls, supposedly criminals not allowed to vote. Most were innocent of crimes, but the majority were guilty of being Black.
I wrote that expos for page 1 of the nation's top newspaper. But it was the wrong nation, Britain. It ran in the Guardian and its Sunday sister paper, the Observer. You could see it on television too, on BBC TV's Newsnight, which airs my investigative reports.
(Want to know what was in that diseased sausage called a presidential election? Read Chapter 1, "Jim Crow in Cyberspace",which contains reports never printed in the US and new investigative material not yet reported on either continent.)
There's a lot more not printed in the US, barely seen in Britain. There's the story about Monsanto's genetically modified, milk-making hormone. It turns out, the company's test cows dripped pus into the milk buckets. Yummy. Monsanto fixed that problem the easy way - by burying test data. US officials helped out, slipping the company confidential regulatory documents. (See, "The Ignoble Prize in Chemistry", in Chapter 5.)
And you didn't read about accusations from inside the FBI and CIA that, prior to September 11, 2001, Bush's national security chiefs killed investigation into Saudi Arabian billionaires' funding of terror networks.
You didn't read about how the "Reverend" Dr Pat Robertson secretly, illicitly used his Christian Crusade jihad assets to boost his berserker get-rich-quick business schemes.
Nor did you read about Anibal Veron, an Argentine bus driver. Last year, Veron hadn't received his pay for nine months, protested in the road and was shot dead. Demonstrators charged that the IMF had a plan to force Argentina to cut wages. Anti-globalization conspiracy theory? I'll show you the document. You'll find Veron's story in Chapter 2, "Sell the Lexus, Burn the Olive Tree: Globalization and its Discontents". If you read the pro-globalization gurus such as Thomas Friedman or Anthony Giddens, you get the line that the New World Order is all about the communications revolution and cell phones that will call your broker and do your laundry at the same time. Wow. And if you're against it, you're against the future. The kids in the streets are just a bunch of unsophisticated jack-offs. That's what you get in the media and, in the US especially, there's no dissent from this slaphappy view of globalization.
I'm not going to argue with Friedman and Giddens and the guys in favor of The Future. What I will do is show you documents: Country Assistance Strategies, an Article 133 diplomatic letter, the GATS committee memos. Most are marked "confidential", "not for public disclosure" - and walked out of filing cabinets inside the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization and related agencies you've probably never heard of.
There's nothing in those documents about mobile phones for the Incas. Rather, there's a lot about raising water prices and what one insider described as "The IMF riot", the social explosion the World Bank expects and figures into its plans.
Not all of my work is so grim. In July 1998, I was in London and caught the front page of the Mirror, one of Britain's biggest-selling papers. The whole front page was a picture of this nasty-looking bald guy - me - under a four-inch-tall headline: THE LIAR. And I thought, "Damn, it doesn't get any better than this.'
I didn't have time to enjoy it: my deputy editor and Prime Minister Tony Blair and my wife were all planning my punishments, for varied if related reasons. (See Chapter 8.) The Mirror did not like a story I had written with Antony Barnett for the Observer. To get the story, I'd gone undercover and exposed a stinky little deal-making operation running through Blair's cabinet.
That story "Cash for Access - Lobbygate" grew out of this idea: Why not apply the techniques of investigations I've conducted in government racketeering cases to news reporting? This would be a quantum leap in dig-out-the-facts methodologies rarely used even by "investigative" journalists. That's what makes these writings a bit different - lots of facts, many from documents thought by their writers to be hidden away in desk drawers, from missent faxes and from tape recordings made when big mouths didn't know who they were talking to.
If Britain's government was selling its nation, corporate America was buying. That's my main beat: "Inside Corporate America", the title of my column in the Observer. Those columns - updated, all fresh material - are in Chapter 5 - There you will get, for example, the skinny on Wal-Mart ("What Price a Store-gasm?") and the tale of the strange little deal cut by a big-time environmental group and the number one lobbyist representing polluters ("How the Filth Trade Turned Green").
So why have you not seen these stories, or few? Take that story of the theft of the US election. In America, editors looked at their shoes and whistled - and hoped it would go away. Though not everyone ignored it: I got lots of letters like this one: "Stay out of our politics, you English pig!" I hate to quibble, but I'm not British.
I'm from Los Angeles. Actually, the scum-end of LA, in the San Fernando Valley, raised in a pastel house between the power plant and the city garbage dump. It was not as glamorous as abject poverty, but not far above it. Half the kids in my school were Mexican-American and, brown or white, we were pretty much tagged as America's losers. You graduated, worked minimum wage at Bob's Big-Boy Burger on Van Nuys Boulevard, got your girlfriend pregnant and, if Vietnam didn't kill you, overtime at the Chevy plant would.
America was a carnivore and we were just food. Anyway, I got out and so did my sister - how we did is neither interesting nor remarkable.
Am I bitter? Why shouldn't I be when I look at the privileged little pricks that call the shots on this planet, whose daddies could make the phone calls, write the checks, make it smooth? Daddy Bush, Daddy Koch, Daddy Bin Laden - I've got a list.
As a scholarship kid at the University of Chicago, I witnessed the birth of the New World Globalization Order. It was the mid-1970s and I'd worked my way into Milton Friedman's postgraduate seminar and into a strange clique, which later became known as the "Chicago Boys". That was the little cabal of South America's budding dictators and "neoliberal" economists who would turn Chile into an experiment in torture and free markets.
Even then I was undercover, working for Frank Rosen, head of the United Electrical Workers Union, and Eddie Sadlowski, the dissident steel workers' leader, for a greater purpose I could only dimly understand.
I avoided journalism. Starting in 1975, from a desk in the basement of the electrical workers' union hall, I began grinding through account books of US corporations. Using their own abstruse financial codes, I challenged gas company heating charges. I negotiated contracts for steel and iron workers. I was broke and I was in heaven. My dad had been a furniture salesman. He hated furniture. If it were up to him, we would have eaten sitting on the floor. Mom worked in the school cafeteria (you know, hairnet and creamed corned) until she. became a hypnotist for McDonald's (really - see Chapter 3). From them, I gained a deep and abiding fear of working for a living.
Bang: One minute I was this dead-broke anti-corporate scourge with his head buried in bureaucratic file cabinets - and the next I was "America's number one expert on government regulation bar none" (I read that in the papers), with an office bigger than God's hairpiece on the 50th floor of the World Trade Center in New York City, giving lectures in Sao Paolo.
Still, I kept my nose in the dusty files. I found things like this: Executives of a megalith power company, Long Island Lighting of New York, swore under oath that their nuclear plant would cost $1.8 billion. Internal confidential memos said the plant would cost $3.2 billion. I convinced the government to charge them with civil racketeering, and a jury said they should pay $4.8 billion. Then, the governor of New York, a slick operator named Mario Cuomo, called the chief federal judge in New York and poof! - the jury's verdict was thrown out. That's when I learned about love, and that there is no love greater than the love of politicians for the captains of finance.
So am I bitter? See above.
Then I quit. It was during my investigation of the Exxon Valdez crack-up (see Chapter 4). 1 was working for the Chugach natives of Alaska. Our team quickly discovered the oil spill was no accident: before the tanker's grounding, Exxon shut off the ship's radar to save money and a British Petroleum affiliate had faked the safety equipment reports.
That's when I realized, from a kyak in the Prince William Sound, who can hear you scream? The press had f-d up the Exxon Valdez story something awful. That was five years ago. I decided from then on I'd write these stories myself, an idea immediately encouraged by the Guardian's Alex Brummer, the Observer's Will Hutton and Ben Laurance (all since moved to more lucrative venues), then producer Meirion Jones at BBC's Newsnight.
While American journalists spent those years smothered in Monica Lewinsky's panties, I had the luxury of diving into the filing cabinets of the Reverend Pat Robertson, the World Trade Organization and George Bush's favorite billionaires.
Not all my work is undercover gumshoe stuff. For those hungry for the grand theory behind all this journalism, Pluto Press is issuing a companion policy book, Regulation and Democracy, in cooperation with the United Nations International Labor Organization, which grew out of my lectures at Cambridge University and the University of Sao Paolo. Theo MacGregor and Jerrold Oppenheim are co-authors.
So where are you, America? Don't you want to know how your president was elected? How the IMF spends your money?
I got a hint of the answers from Mike Isikoff, a reporter with the Washington Post Newsweek group. A couple of years ago, he passed me some truly disturbing information on President Clinton, not the usual intern-under-the-desk stuff. I said, "Mike, why don't you print this?" And he said, "Because no one gives a shit.
But if you're one of the few who do, here's your book.
In the days following the presidential election, there were so many stories of African-Americans erased from voter rolls you might think they were targeted by some kind of racial computer program. They were.
Silence of the Lambs: American journalism Hears No Evil, Sees No Evil, Reports No Evil
Here's how the president was elected:
In the months leading up to the November balloting, Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered local elections supervisors to purge 57,700 voters from registries on grounds they were felons not entitled to vote in Florida. As it turns out, these voters weren't felons, at most a handful. However, the voters on this "scrub list" were, notably, African-American (about 54 per cent) and most of the others wrongly barred from voting were white and Hispanic Democrats.
Weeks after the election, first reports of this extraordinary news ran, as they should, on page 1 of the country's leading paper. The country: Britain. In the US, it ran on page 0 - the story was not covered on the news pages. The theft of the presidential race in Florida was also given big television network coverage. But again, it was on the wrong continent: on BBC television, in London.
Was this some off-the-wall story that the British press misreported? The chief lawyer for the US Civil Rights Commission called it the first hard evidence of a systematic attempt to disenfranchise Black voters; and the Commission held dramatic hearings on the evidence.
So why was this story investigated, reported and broadcast in Europe, for God's sake?
I'd like to know the answer. That way I could understand why a Southern California ho'daddy with his wife and kiddies has to commute to London to tell this and other stories about my country. How did 100,000 US journalists sent to cover the election fail to get the vote theft story and print it (preferably before the election)? Investigative reports share three things: they are risky, they upset the wisdom of the established order and they are very expensive to produce. Do profitconscious enterprises, whether media companies or widget firms, seek extra costs, extra risk and the opportunity to be attacked? Not in any business text I've ever read. I can't help but note that my paper, the Guardian and its Sunday sister, the Observer, are the world's only leading newspapers owned by a notfor-profit corporation, as is BBC television.
But if profit-lust is the ultimate problem blocking significant investigative reportage, the more immediate cause of comatose coverage of the election and other issues is what is laughably called America's "journalistic culture". If the Rupert Murdochs of the globe are shepherds of the New World Order, they owe their success to breeding a flock of docile sheep - the editors and reporters snoozy and content with munching on, digesting, then reprinting a diet of press releases and canned stories provided by officials and corporation public relations operations.
Take this story of the list of Florida's faux felons that cost Al Gore the presidential election. Shortly after the UK story hit the world wide web, I was contacted by a CBS TV network news producer ready to run their own version of the story. The CBS hotshot was happy to pump me for information: names, phone numbers, all the items one needs for a quickie TV story.
I also freely offered up to CBS this information: the office of the Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican presidential candidate, had illegally ordered the removal of the names of felons from voter rolls - real felons, but with the right to vote under Florida law. As a result, another 40,000 legal voters (in addition to the 57,700 on the purge list), almost all Democrats, could not vote.
One problem: I had not quite completed my own investigation on this matter. Therefore, CBS would have to do some actual work, reviewing documents and law, obtaining statements. The next day I received a call from the producer who said, "I'm sorry, but your story didn't hold up." Well, how did the multibillion dollar CBS network determine this? Answer: "We called Jeb Bush's office." Oh. And that was it.
I wasn't surprised by this type of "investigation". It is, in fact, standard operating procedure for the little lambs of American journalism. One good, slick explanation from a politician or corporate chieftain and it's case closed, investigation over. The story ran on television anyway: I reported it on the BBC's Newsnight.
Let's understand the pressures on the CBS TV producer that led her to kill the story on the basis of a denial by the target of the allegations. The story required a massive and quick review of documents, hundreds of phone calls and interviews, hardly a winner in the slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am US school of journalism. Most difficult, the revelations in the story required a reporter to stand up and say that the big name politicians, their lawyers and their PR people were freaking liars. It would be much easier, a heck of a lot cheaper and no risk at all to wait for the US Civil Rights Commission to do the work, then cover the Commission's canned report and press conference. No one ever lost their job writing canned statements from a press release. Wait! You've watched Murphy Brown or The Front Page so you think reporters hanker every day to uncover the big scandal. Bullshit. Remember, All the President's Men was so unusual they had to make a movie out of it.
Meanwhile, back in sunny England ...
My paper received about 2,000 bless-you-Britain-for-telling-us-the-truth-about our-elections letters from US Internet readers circulating the samizdat presidential elections coverage. And I received a few like this:
You pansey brits seem to think that the average American is as undereducated and stupid as the average british subject. Well comrad, I'm here to tell you ...
which ended with some physically unfeasible suggestions of what to do with the Queen.
Meanwhile, back in the US ...
Salon.com, the Internet magazine, ran my story on the theft of the elections. It wasn't exactly "print", but at least it was American. And now columnists like Bob Herbert of the New York Times picked it up, and some radio talk shows ... but still not one news editor called, not even from my "sister" paper, the Washington Post, with whom the Guardian shares material.
From a news view, and the flood of site hits, this was Salon's biggest politics story ever - and they named Part I their political story of the year. But where was Part 11? On their web-site and on radio programs the magazine was announcing Part 11 would appear in two days ... and in two days ... and in two days ... and nothing appeared. Part 11 was the story blown off by the CBS Nightly News about an additional 40,000-plus voters whom Jeb Bush barred from voting. The fact that 90 per cent of these 40,000 voters were Democrats should have made it news ... because this maneuver alone more than accounted for Bush's victory.
I was going crazy: Gore had not yet conceded ... the timing of Part 11 was crucial. Where the hell was it? Finally, an editor told me, "The story doesn't check out. You see, we checked with Jeb Bush's office and they said
Agh! It was deja vu all over again.
Another staffer added, as a kind of explanation, "The Washington Post would never run this story."
Well, he had me there. They hadn't, they didn't. Not yet. At least Salon helped me sneak the first report past the border patrols. So God bless America. While waiting for America to awaken, I took my BBC film crew to Florida, having unearthed the "smoking gun" documents proving that Florida's Republican officials had knowingly knocked thousands of innocent Black voters off the Florida voter roles before the election. I had a page marked "confidential" from the contract between the state of Florida and the private company that had purged the voter lists. The document contained cold evidence that Florida knew they were taking the vote away from thousands of innocent voters, most of them Black.
It was February. I took my camera crew into an agreed interview with Jeb Bush's director of the Florida Department of Elections. When I pulled out the confidential sheet, Bush's man ripped off the microphone and did a 50-yard dash, locking himself in his office, all in front of our cameras. It was killer television and wowed the British viewers. We even ran a confession from the company. Newsworthy? Apparently not for the US.
My program, Newsnight, has a film-trading agreement with ABC Nightline, a kind of "sister" show. Over 20,000 netheads in the US saw the BBC webcast, a record; and they banged ABC TV with demands to broadcast the BBC film, or at least report on it. Instead, Nightline sent down its own crew to Florida for a couple of days. They broadcast a report that ballots are complex and Blacks are not well educated about voting procedures. The gravamen of the story was, Blacks are too frigging dumb to figure out how to vote. No mention that in white Leon County, machines automatically kicked back faulty ballots for voter correction; whereas in Gadsden County, very Black, the same machines were programmed to eat mismarked ballots. That was in our story, too.
Why didn't ABC run the voter purge story? Don't look for some big Republican conspiracy. Remember the three elements of investigative reporting: risk, time, money. Our BBC Guardian stories required all of those, in short supply in US news operations.
Finally, in February, my Part Il on the theft of the elections found asylum in that distant journalistic planet not always visible to the naked eye, Nation Magazine. Bless them.
In May, the US Civil Rights Commission prepared to report on the election in Florida. They relied heavily on the material uncovered by BBC for the core of their Commission's finding of systematic voter disenfranchisement in Florida. Our documents were their main evidence used in witness cross-examinations.
And then, mirabile dictu, the Washington Post ran the story of the voter purge on page 1, including the part that "couldn't stand up" for CBS and Salon ... and even gave me space for a by-lined comment. Applause for the Post's courage!
Would I be ungrateful if I suggested otherwise? The Post ran the story in June; though they had it at hand seven months earlier when the ballots were still being counted. They waited until they knew the findings of the US Civil Rights Commission Report, so they could fire from behind that big safe rock of Official Imprimatur. In other words, the Post had the courage to charge out and shoot the wounded. Black-out in Florida
These are the stories you weren't supposed to see: the reports that ran in Britain's Observer and Guardian, bits of script from the BBC television investigation and, to help set out the facts, the US stories from Salon, Nation and the Washington Post - and new material, never before printed nor broadcast on either continent Documents keep bubbling up from the cesspool of the Florida state offices. I've saved it for you here, having run out of the patience needed to knock heads with "respectable" US papers and networks.
In June last year, an editor at one of the biggest newspapers in the US told me, "The Committee has decided not to continue printing stories about the presidential vote. We think it's over. We don't want to look partisan. "
I thought, what "Committee"? And I picked up that I wasn't supposed to ask.
The first story of the voter purge ran on November 26, 2000, in my column, "Inside Corporate America" in the Observer, under the heading, "Black-out in Florida".
A Columbia University journalism student had posted a note on the Mother Jones Internet bulletin board flagging a story in the Palm Beach Post from months before the election that 8,000 voters had been removed from the voter rolls - by mistake. A researcher passed it to me. Given the Sturm und Drang in Florida, you'd think that an American journalist would pick up the story. Don't hold your breath. Undoubtedly, any curious reporter might have been waylaid by the Post's assurances that the "mistake" had been corrected.
But what if the Florida press puppies had been wrong? What if they had stood on their hind legs and swallowed a biscuit of bullshit from state officials? It was worth a call.
From London, for the Observer, I contacted a statistician at the office of the County Elections Supervisor in Tampa. Such an expert technician would have no reason to lie to me. The question at the top of my list: "How many of the voters on the scrub list are Black?"
And the statistician said, "You know, I've been waiting for someone to ask me that."
This is what I wrote.
Vice-President Al Gore would have strolled to victory in Florida if the state hadn't kicked up to 66,000 citizens off the voters' registers five months ago as former felons. In fact, only a fraction were ex-cons. Most were simply guilty of being African-American. A top-placed election official told me that the government had conducted a quiet review and found surprise! - that the listing included far more African-Americans than would statistically have been expected, even accounting for the grievous gap between the conviction rates of Blacks and Whites in the US. One list of 8,000 supposed felons was supplied by Texas. But these criminals from the Lone Star State had committed nothing more serious than misdemeanors such as drunk driving (like their governor, George W. Bush).
The source of this poisonous blacklist: Database Technologies, acting under the direction of Governor Jeb Bush's frothingly partisan secretary of state, Katherine Harris. My thanks to investigator Solomon Hughes for informing me that DBT, a division of ChoicePoint, is under fire for misuse of personal data in state computers in Pennsylvania. ChoicePoint's board is loaded with Republican sugar daddies, including Ken Langone, finance chief for Rudy Giuliani's aborted Senate run against Hillary Clinton.
Florida's Ethnic Cleansing of the Voter Rolls
At the end of November 2000, the vote count in Florida was still on; Gore was still in the race. Word was, Gore's camp was split, with warriors fighting the gray-heads of the Establishment pushing the Democrat to lie down and play dead, advice he'd ultimately follow.
But at that time the race was wide open. Joe Conason, maybe the toughest investigative reporter in the US, insisted to his editors at Salon that they bring my story back to America. That would not be easy or cheap. The Texas list error - 8,000 names - was corrected, said the state. That left the tougher question: what about the 5 7,700 other people named on that list?
The remaining names on the list were, in the majority, Black - not unusual in a nation where half of all felony convictions are against African-Americans. But as half the names were Black and if this included even a tiny fraction of innocents, well, there was the election for Bush.
The question was, then, was the "corrected" list in fact corrected? Finding the answer would not be cheap for Salon. It meant big bucks; redirecting their entire political staff to the story and making hotshot reporters knuckle down to the drudgery of calling and visiting county elections offices all over Florida.
just before we hit the electronic streets with it, someone called a key player in the White House and Gore's inner circle about the story Salon would soon break. The Big Insider said, "That's fantastic! Who's the reporter?" The tipster said, "This American, he's a reporter in Britain, Greg Palast."
Mr White House Insider replied, "Shit! We hate that guy."
But that's another story. In the meantime, the Salon team - especially contributors Alicia Montgomery, Daryl Lindsey and Antony York (thank you all) - came back with a mother-load of evidence that, by the most conservative analysis, Florida had purged enough innocent Black voters to snatch the presidency from Al Gore. I said, "Well God bless America," and, on December 7, 2000, wrote this. If Vice-President Al Gore is wondering where his Florida votes went, rather than sift through a pile of chad, he might want to look at a "scrub list" of 5 7,700 names targeted to be knocked off the Florida voter registry by a division of the office of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. A close examination suggests thousands of voters may have lost their right to vote based on a flawridden list of purported "felons" provided by a private firm with tight Republican ties.
Early in the year, the company ChoicePoint gave Florida officials a list with the names of 8,000 ex-felons to "scrub" from their list of voters.
But it turns out none on the list was guilty of felonies, only misdemeanors. The company acknowledged the error, and blamed it on the original source of the list - the state of Texas.
Florida officials moved to put those falsely accused by Texas back on voter rolls before the election. Nevertheless, the large number of errors uncovered in individual counties suggests that thousands of eligible voters have been turned away at the polls.
Florida is the only state that pays a private company that promises to provide lists for "cleansing" voter rolls. The state signed in 1998 a $4 million contract with DBT Online, since merged into ChoicePoint, of Atlanta. The creation of the scrub list, called the central voter file, was mandated by a 1998 state voter fraud law, which followed a tumultuous year that saw Miami's mayor removed after voter fraud in the election, with dead people discovered to have cast ballots. The voter fraud law required all 67 counties to purge voter registries of duplicate registrations, deceased voters and felons, many of whom, but not all, are barred from voting in Florida. In the process, however, the list invariably targets a minority population in Florida, where 31 per cent of all Black men cannot vote because of a ban on felons.
If this unfairly singled out minorities, it unfairly handicapped Gore: in Florida, 93 per cent of African-Americans voted for the vice-president.
In the ten counties contacted by Salon, use of the central voter file seemed to vary wildly. Some found the list too unreliable and didn't use it at all. But most counties appear to have used the file as a resource to purge names from their voter rolls, with some counties making little - or no - effort at all to alert the "purged" voters. Counties that did their best to vet the file discovered a high level of errors, with as many as 15 per cent of names incorrectly identified as felons.
News coverage has focused on some maverick Florida counties that decided not to use the central voter file, essentially breaking the law and possibly letting some ineligible felons vote.
Three weeks after the election, the Miami Herald reported that after researching voter records in twelve Florida counties but primarily in Palm Beach and Duval counties, which didn't use the file - it found that more than 445 felons had apparently cast ballots in the presidential election.
But Palm Beach and Duval weren't the only counties to dump the list after questioning its accuracy. Madison County's elections supervisor, Linda Howell, had a peculiarly personal reason for distrusting the central voter file. She had received a letter saying that since she had committed a felony, she would not be allowed to vote.
Howell, who said she has never committed a felony, said the letter she received in March 2000 shook her faith in the process. "It really is a mess," she said.
I was very upset," Howell said. "I know I'm not a felon." Though the one mistake did get corrected and law enforcement officials were quite apologetic, Howell decided not to use the state list because its "information is so flawed". She's unsure of the number of warning letters that were sent out to county residents when she first received the list in 1999, but she recalls that there were ,many problems. "One day we would send a letter to have someone taken off the rolls, and the next day, we would send one to put them back on again," Howell said. "It makes you look like you must be a dummy."
Dixie and Washington counties also refused to use the scrub list. Starlet Cannon, Dixie's deputy assistant supervisor of elections, said, "I'm scared to work with it because of lot of the information they have on there is not accurate. "
Carol Griffin, supervisor of elections for Washington, said, "It hasn't been accurate in the past, so we had no reason to suspect it was accurate this year,"
But if some counties refused to use the list altogether, others seemed to embrace it all too enthusiastically. Etta Rosado, spokeswoman for the Volusia County Department of Elections, said the county essentially accepted the file at face value, did nothing to confirm the accuracy of it and doesn't inform citizens ahead of time that they have been dropped from the voter rolls.
"When we get the con felon list, we automatically start going through our rolls on the computer. If there's a name that says John Smith was convicted of a felony, then we enter a notation on our computer that says convicted felon -we mark an 'F for felon - and the date that we received it," Rosado said. "They're still on our computer, but they're on purge status," meaning they have been marked ineligible to vote.
"I don't think that it's up to us to tell them they're a convicted felon," Rosado said. "If he's on our rolls, we make a notation on there. if they show up at a polling place, we'll say, 'Wait a minute, you're a convicted felon, you can't vote.' Nine out of ten times when we repeat that to the person, they say 'Thank you and walk away. They don't put up arguments."
Rosado doesn't know how many people in Volusia were dropped from the list as a result of being identified as felons.
Hillsborough County's elections Supervisor, Pam Iorio, tried to make sure that the bugs in the system didn't keep anyone from voting. All 3,2S8 county residents who were identified as possible felons on the central voter file sent by the state were sent a certified letter informing them that their voting rights were in jeopardy. Of that number, SS I appealed their status, and 245 of those appeals were successful. Some had been convicted of a misdemeanor and not a felony, others were felons who had had their rights restored and others were simply cases of mistaken identity.
An additional 279 were not close matches with names on the county's own voter rolls and were not notified. Of the 3,258 names on the original list, therefore, the county concluded that more than 15 per cent were in error. If that ratio held statewide, no fewer than 7,000 voters were incorrectly targeted for removal from voting rosters.
Iorio says local officials did not get adequate preparation for purging felons from their rolls. "We're not used to dealing with issues of criminal justice or ascertaining who has a felony conviction," she said. Though the central voter file was supposed to facilitate the process, it was often more troublesome than the monthly circuit court lists that she had previously used to clear her rolls of duplicate registrations, the deceased and convicted felons. "The database from the state level is not always accurate," Iorio said. As a consequence, her county did its best to notify citizens who were on the list about their felony status. "We sent those individuals a certified letter, we put an ad in a local newspaper and we held a public hearing. For those who didn't respond to that, we sent out another letter by regular mail," Iorio said. "That process lasted several months."
"We did run some number stats and the number of Blacks [on the list] was higher than expected for our population," says Chuck Smith, a statistician for the county. Iorio acknowledged that African-Americans made up 54 per cent of the people on the original felons list, though they constitute only 11.6 per cent of Hillsborough's voting population.
Smith added that the DBT computer program automatically transformed various forms of a single name. In one case, a voter named "Christine" was identified as a felon based on the conviction of a "Christopher" with the same last name. Smith says ChoicePoint would not respond to queries about its proprietary methods. Nor would the company provide additional verification data to back its fingering certain individuals in the registry purge. One supposed felon on the ChoicePoint list is a local judge.
While there was much about the lists that bothered Iorio, she felt she didn't have a choice but to use them. And she's right. Section 98,0975 of the Florida Constitution states: "Upon receiving the list from the division, the supervisor must attempt to verify the information provided. If the supervisor does not determine that the information provided by the division is incorrect, the supervisor must remove from the registration books by the next subsequent election the name of any person who is deceased, convicted of a felony or adjudicated mentally incapacitated with respect to voting."
But the counties have interpreted that law in different ways. Leon County used the central voter file sent in January 2000 to clean up its voter rolls, but set aside the one it received in July. According to Thomas James, the information systems officer in the county election office, the list came too late for the information to be processed. According to Leon election supervisor Ion Sancho, "there have been some problems" with the file. Using the information received in January, Sancho sent 200 letters to county voters, by regular mail, telling them they had been identified by the state as having committed a felony and would not be allowed to vote. They were given 30 days to respond if there was an error. "They had the burden of proof," he says.
He says 20 people proved that they did not belong on the list, and a handful of angry phone calls followed on election day. "Some people threatened to sue us," he said, "but we haven't had any lawyers calling yet."
In Orange County, officials also sent letters to those identified as felons by the state, but they appear to have taken little care in their handling of the list. "I have no idea," said June Condrun, Orange's deputy super-visor of elections, when asked how many letters were sent out to voters. After a bit more thought, Condrun responded that "several hundred" of the letters were sent, but said she doesn't know how many people complained. Those who did call, she said, were given the phone number of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement so that they could appeal directly to it,
Many Orange County voters never got the chance to appeal in any form. Condrun noted that about one-third of the letters, which the county sent out by regular mail, were returned to the office marked undeliverable. She attributed the high rate of incorrect addresses to the age of the information sent by DBT, some of which was close to 20 years old, she said.
Miami-Dade County officials may have had similar trouble. Milton Collins, assistant supervisor of elections, said he isn't comfortable estimating how many accused felons were identified by the central voter file in his county. He said he knows that about 6,000 were notified, by regular mail, about an early list in 1999. Exactly how many were purged from the list? "I honestly couldn't tell you," he said. According to Collins, the most recent list he received from the state was one sent in January 2000, and the county applied a "two-pass system". If the information on the state list seemed accurate enough when comparing names with those on county voter lists, people were classified as felons and were then sent warning letters. Those who seemed to have only a partial match with the state data were granted "temporary inactive status". Both groups of people were given 90 days to respond or have their names struck from the rolls.
But Collins said the county has no figures for how many voters were able to successfully appeal their designation as felons.
ChoicePoint spokesman Martin Fagan concedes his company's error in passing on the bogus list from Texas. ("I guess that's a little bit embarrassing in light of the election," he says.) He defends the company's overall performance, however, dismissing the errors in 8,000 names as "a minor glitch - less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of the electorate" (though the total equals 15 times Governor George W. Bush's claimed lead over Gore). But he added that ChoicePoint is responsible only for turning over its raw list, which is then up to Florida officials to test and correct. Last year, DBT Online, with which ChoicePoint would soon merge, received the unprecedented contract from the state of Florida to "cleanse" registration lists of ineligible voters - using information gathering and matching criteria it has refused to disclose, even to local election officials in Florida.
Atlanta's ChoicePoint, a highflying dot-corn specializing in sales of personal information gleaned from its database of four billion public and not-so-public records, has come under fire for misuse of private data from government computers.
In January 2000, the state of Pennsylvania terminated a contract with ChoicePoint after discovering the firm had sold citizens' personal profiles to unauthorized individuals.
Fagan says many errors could have been eliminated by matching the Social Security numbers of ex-felons on DBT lists to the Social Security numbers on voter registries. However, Florida's counties have Social Security numbers on only a fraction of their voter records. So with those two problems - Social Security numbers missing in both the DBT's records and the counties' records - that fail-safe check simply did not exist.
In its defense, the company proudly points to an award it received from Voter Integrity Inc. for "innovative excellence [in] cleansing" Florida voter rolls. The conservative, non-profit advocacy organization has campaigned in parallel with the Republican Party against the 1993 motor voter law which resulted in a nationwide increase in voter registration of seven million, much of it among minority voters. DBT Online partnered with Voter Integrity Inc. three days later, setting up a program to let small counties "scrub" their voting lists, too.
Florida is the only state in the nation to contract the first stage of removal of voting rights to a private company. And ChoicePoint has big plans. "Given the outcome of our work in Florida," says Fagan, "and with a new president in place, we think our services will expand across the country."
Especially if that president is named "Bush". ChoicePoint's board, executive suite and consultant rosters are packed with Republican stars, including former New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir and former ultra-Right congressman Vin Weber, ChoicePoint's Washington lobbyist.
A Blacklist Burning for Bush
By this time we were confident that at least 7,000 innocent voters had been removed from voter rolls, half of them Black, and that swung the election. But my investigation was far from over - and I round yet another 1, 704 eligible voters targeted for the purge, almost all Democrats. (Bush won the official Florida count by only 537 votes.) It was December 10, 2000 - Gore was still hanging in there - I wrote this in the Observer for British readers. 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, we 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 per cent 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 1,704 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 35 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 demo graphics. 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 per cent of those convicted of felony are African-American. In Florida, a record number of Black folk, over 80 per cent 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.
And at the bottom of the story I added ChoicePoint's reaction.
It was Thursday, December 7, 2 am. On the other end of the line, heavy breathing, then a torrent of words too fast for me to catch it all. "Vile ... lying ... inaccurate ... pack of nonsense ... riddled with errors ..." click! This was not a ChoicePoint whistleblower telling me about the company's notorious list. It was ChoicePoint's own media communications representative, Marty Fagan, communicating with me about my "sleazy disgusting journalism" in reporting on it.
I was curious about this company that appears to have chosen the next president for America's voters.
They have quite a pedigree for this solemn task. The company's Florida subsidiary, Database Technologies (now DBT Online), was founded by one Hank Asher. When US law enforcement agencies alleged that he might have been associated with Bahamian drug dealers - although no charges were brought - the company lost its data management contract with the FBI. Hank and his friends left and so, in Florida's eyes, the past is forgiven.
Thursday, 3 am (I should say both calls were at my request). A new, gentler voice gave me ChoicePoint's upbeat spin. "You say we got over 15 per cent wrong - we like to look at that as up to 85 per cent right!" That's 7,000 votesplus - the bulk Democrats, not to mention the thousands on the faulty Texas list. Gore may lose the White House by 500 votes.
I contacted San Francisco-based expert Mark Swedlund. "It's just fundamental industry practice that you don't roll out the list statewide until you have tested it and tested it again," he said. "Dershowitz is right: they had to know that this jeopardized thousands of people's registrations. And they would also know the [racial] profile of those voters."
"They" is Florida State, not ChoicePoint. Let's not get confused about where the blame lies. Harris's crew lit this database fuse, then acted surprised when it blew up. Swedlund says ChoicePoint had a professional responsibility to tell the state to test the list; ChoicePoint says the state should not have used its "raw" data.
Until Florida privatized its Big Brother powers, laws kept the process out in the open. This year, when one county asked to see ChoicePoint's formulas and back-up for blacklisting voters, they refused - these were commercial secrets. So we'll never know how America's president was chosen.
Florida's Disappeared Voters: Yet Another 40,000 Located. Let Me Repeat That: 40,000
Now it gets weird. Salon was showered with praise - by the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer columnists (almost to a one Black or Jewish) hot-rifled by, as Bob Kuttner of the Boston Globe put it, Florida's 'lynching by laptop'. But no news editors or news producers called me (except the CBS Network News producer who ran away with tail tucked as soon as Governor Jeb denied the allegations).
So, in London, they read about the "third group", the 1,700 felons from outside Florida who had a right to vote, but were illegally bounced off the registries.
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. And as soon as every newspaper agrees, that's the first signal it probably isn't true. Someone wants the papers to believe this. So I reached a clerk in First Brother jeb's office who said, "Call me tomorrow before official opening hours." And this heroic clerk spent two hours the next morning telling me, "The courts tell us to do this, and we do that."
I asked 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. And Salon's fact-checkers got a message that stops US news outlets like a cross freezes a vampire: a flat-out denial and soft-shoe explanation from a state official. Jeb Bush's people said they were innocent, they had the right to block these voters.
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. But the political clock was ticking and George W. was oozing toward the Oval Office. And there was another problem that delayed the story. I had written about the case of a Black pastor in Alachua County illegally barred from voting. Doubts were raised about the story by reporters who saw my drafts. They could not understand why a middle-aged Black man, an ex-con to boot, did not raise a ruckus in a county office in the rural South to demand his rights. After all, voters in Palm Beach had no problems complaining publicly.
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, he told me to call Nation, a kind of refugee center for storm-tossed news reports.
After double-checking and quintuple-checking the facts, Nation printed a summary of my research, "Scrub Helps Shrub", and the story of the "third group" of wrongly purged ex-felon voters (the list now hit 2,800), and a fourth group of voters wrongly barred from registering in the first place - yet another 40,000 of them, almost all Democratic voters.
It was now February 5, 2001 - so President Bush could read this report in Nation from the White House ...
In Latin America they might have called them votantes desaparecidos, "disappeared voters". On November 7, 2000, tens of thousands of eligible Florida voters were wrongly prevented from casting their ballots - some purged from the voter registries and others blocked from registering in the first instance. Nearly all were Democrats, nearly half of them AfricanAmerican. The systematic program that disfranchised these legal voters, directed by the offices of Florida's Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris, was so quiet, subtle and intricate that if not for George W. Bush's 500-vote eyelash margin of victory, certified by Harris, the chance of the purge's discovery would have been vanishingly small.
The group prevented from voting - felons - has few defenders in either party. It has been well reported that Florida denies its nearly half a million former convicts the right to vote. However, the media have completely missed the fact that 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. Manza estimates that 80 per cent arrive with voting rights intact, which they do not forfeit by relocating to the Sunshine State. In other words, there 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, with the aid of a Republican-tied database firm, Harris's office used sophisticated computer programs to hunt those felons eligible to vote and ordered them thrown off the voter registries. David Bositis, senior research associate at the joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC, 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?" Bositis notes that, based on nationwide conviction rates, AfricanAmericans would account for 46 per cent of the ex-felon group wrongly disfranchised. Florida's Black voters gave Al Gore nine out of ten of their votes.
White and Hispanic felons, mostly poor, vote almost as solidly Democratic as African-Americans. A recently released University of Minnesota study estimates that, for example, 93 per cent of felons of all races favored Bill Clinton in 1996. Whatever Florida's motive for keeping these qualified voters out of the polling booths on November 7, the fact is that they represented several times George W. Bush's margin of victory in the state. Key officials in Bush's and Harris's agencies declined our requests for comment. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, tipped off to the racially suspect voter purge by early reports of this investigation, added the tainted felon hurit to its lawsuit, filed on January 10, 2001, against Harris, her elections unit chief Clay Roberts and their private database contractor. The suit accuses them of violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Constitution's equal protection amendment. The NAACP demands an immediate injunction to halt the felon purge.
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.
Six months prior to the gubernatorial contest, the Florida legislature passed a "reform" law to eliminate registration of ineligible voters: those who had moved, those who had died and felons without voting rights. The legislation was promoted as a good government response to the fraud-tainted Miami mayoral race of 1997.
But from the beginning, the law and its implementation emitted a partisan fragrance. Passed by the Republican legislature's majority, the new code included an extraordinary provision to turn over the initial creation of "scrub" lists to a private firm. No other state, either before or since, has privatized this key step in the elimination of citizens' civil rights.
In November 1998 the Republican-controlled Office of the Secretary of State handed the task to the single bidder, Database Technologies, now the DBT Online unit of ChoicePoint Inc. of Atlanta, into which it merged last year.
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. The Nation has obtained 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".
That November, Jeb Bush had an unexpectedly easy walk to the governor's mansion, an election victory attributed, ironically, to his endorsement by Black Democratic politicians feuding with their party.
Over the next two years, with Republicans in charge of both the governorship and the Secretary of State's Office, now under Harris, the felon purge accelerated. In May 2000, using a list provided by DBT, Harris's office ordered counties to purge 8,000 Florida voters who had committed felonies in Texas. In fact, none of the group was charged with anything more than misdemeanors, a mistake caught but never fully reversed. ChoicePoint DBT and Harris then sent out "corrected" lists, including the names of 437 voters who had indeed committed felonies in Texas. But this list too was in error, since a Texas law enacted in 1997 permits felons to vote after doing their time. In this case there was no attempt at all to correct the error.
The wrongful purge of the Texas convicts was no one-of-a-kind mishap. The Secretary of State's Office acknowledges that it also ordered the removal of 714 names of Illinois felons and 990 from Ohio - states that permit the vote even to those on probation or parole. According to Florida's own laws, not a single person arriving in the state from Ohio or Illinois should have been removed. Altogether, DBT tagged for the scrub nearly 3,000 felons who came from at least eight states that automatically restore voting rights and who therefore arrived in Florida with full citizenship.
A ChoicePoint DBT spokesman said, and the Florida Department of Elections confirms, that Harris's office approved the selection of states from which to obtain records for the felon scrub. As to why the department included states that restore voting rights, Janet Modrow, Florida's liaison to ChoicePoint DBT, bounced the question to Harris's legal staff. That office has not returned repeated calls.
Pastor Thomas Johnson of Gainesville is minister 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 25 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, systems administrator with Hillsborough County, that Harris's elections division chiefs exhorted local officials at the Orlando meeting to purge all out of-state felons identified by DBT. Hillsborough was so concerned about this order, which appeared to fly in the face of the court edict, that the county's elections office demanded that the state put that position in writing - a request duly granted.
The Nation has obtained the text of the response to Hillsborough. The letter, from the Governor's Office of Executive Clemency, dated September 18, 2000, arrived only seven weeks before the presidential election. It orders the county to tell ex-felons trying to register that even if they entered Florida with civil rights restored by another state's law, they will still be "required to make application for restoration of civil rights in the state of Florida, " that is, ask Governor Bush for clemency - the very requirement banned by the courts. The state's directive was all the more surprising in light of a second ruling, issued in December 1999 by another Florida court, in which a Florida district court judge expressed his illdisguised exasperation with the governor's administration for ignoring the prior edict in Schlenther.
Voting rights attorneys who reviewed the cases for the Nation explained that the courts relied on both Florida statute and the "full faith and credit" clause of the US Constitution, which requires every state to accept the legal rulings of other states. "The court has been pretty clear on what the governor can't do," says Bruce Gear, assistant general counsel for the NAACP. And what Governor Bush can't do is demand that a citizen arriving in Florida ask him for clemency to restore a right to vote that the citizen already has.
Strangely enough, the Governor's Office does not disagree. While Harris, Bush and a half-dozen of their political appointees have not returned our calls, Tawanna Hayes, who processes the requests for clemency in the Governor's Office, states unequivocally that "we do not have the right to suspend or restore rights where those rights have been restored in another state". Hayes even keeps a copy of the two court decisions near her desk and quotes from them at length. So, why have the governor and secretary of state ordered these people purged from the rolls or barred from registering? Hayes directed us to Greg Munson, Governor Bush's assistant general counsel and clemency aide. Munson has not responded to our detailed request for an explanation.
A letter dated August 10, 2000, from Harris's office to Bush's office, obtained under Florida's Freedom of Information Act, indicates that the chief of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections also questioned Harris's office about the purge of ex-cons whose rights had been restored automatically by other states. The supervisors' group received the same response as Hillsborough: strike them from the voter rolls and, if they complain, make them ask Bush for clemency.
While almost all county supervisors buckled, Carol Griffen did not. Griffen, Washington County's elections chief, concluded that running legal voters through Jeb Bush's clemency maze would violate a 1993 federal law, the National Voter Registration Act, which was designed to remove impediments to the exercise of civil rights. The law, known as "motor voter", is credited with helping to register seven million new voters. Griffen quotes from the Florida section of the new, NVRA-certified registration form, which says: "I affirm I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my rights relating to voting have been restored," "That's the law," says the adamant Griffen, "and I have no right stopping anyone registering who truthfully signs that statement. Once you check that box there's no discussion." Griffen's county refused to implement the scrub, and the state appears reluctant to challenge its action.
But when Pastor Johnson attempted to register in Alachua County, clerks refused and instead handed him a 15-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 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 quasijudicial 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.)
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." If this is buffoonery, then Harris and the Bushes are wise fools indeed. What Really Happened In Florida? BBC Television's Newsnight Investigates
What did the Nation story tell us? About 80 per cent of registered voters actually vote in presidential elections, and about 90 per cent of this illegally excluded group, outof-state ex-felons, vote Democratic. Therefore, about 36,000 would have voted for Gore, 4,000 for Bush. You do the arithmetic: that was the election right there.
And that would be the last new investigative report on the matter in the US press and TV news. America had, as Katherine Harris requested, 'moved on'.
... But I hadn't.
A few things still bothered me. As always, it was the money. I looked into state files and discovered that ChoicePoint's DBT was not the first contractor on the job. The Florida Department of Elections terminated a contract with a small operator who won the work with a bid of $5,700. Florida then gave the job to DBT for a fee of $2,317,800 - no bidding. When I contacted database industry experts about the fee paid by Florida, 27 cents per record, their eyes popped out - "Wow!' "Jeez!" 'Scandalous!" - easily ten times the industry norm.
Something else bothered me: it was the weird glee, the beaming self-congratulations, from the ChoicePoint public relations man over my reporting that 15 per cent of the names on his purge list were wrong (even though the error turned around an election). To ChoicePoint, my story was good news: in effect, they said, I reported their list was "85 per cent" correct. But was it?
The list was 85 per cent "accurate", said ChoicePoint's PR man, because they used Social Security numbers. That was convincing - until I checked the felon scrub lists themselves and almost none of them listed a voter's Social Security number. Floridians, until recently, did not have to provide their Social Security number when registering.
Four days after I ran my first report in England, on November 30, 2000, the Bloomberg business news wire interviewed Marty Fagan of ChoicePoint, one of the PR men who'd spoken to me. Based on the big "success" of its computer purge in Florida, ChoicePoint planned to roll out its voter-purge operation across to every state in the Union. This could become a billion-dollar business.
Fagan crowed to Bloomberg about the accuracy of ChoicePoint's lists. The company, he said, used 1,200 public databases to cross-check "a very accurate picture of an individual," including a history of addresses and financial assets. That was impressive. And indeed, every database expert told me, if you want 85 per cent accuracy or better, you will need at least those three things: Social Security numbers, address history and a check against other databases. But, over the weeks and months I discovered:
ChoicePoint used virtually no Social Security numbers for the Florida felon purge;
¥ of its 1,200 databases with which to "check the accuracy of the data", ChoicePoint used exactly none for crosschecking;
¥ as to the necessary verification of address history of the 66,000 named .potential felons", ChoicePoint performed this check in exactly zero cases.
There was, then, not a chance in hell that the list was "85 per cent correct". And we knew this:
one county, Leon (Tallahassee), had done the hard work of checking each name, one by one, to verify independently that the 694 named felons in Tallahassee were, in fact, ineligible voters. They could verify only 34 names - a 95 per cent error rate. That is killer information. In another life, decades ago, I taught "Collection and Use of Economic and Statistical Data" as an adjunct professor at Indiana University. Here's a quicky statistics lesson. The statewide list of felons is "homogeneous" as to its accuracy. Leon County provides us with a sample large enough to give us a "confidence interval" of 4.87 at a confidence "level" of 99 per cent. Are you following me, class? In other words, we can be 99 per cent certain that at least 90.2 per cent of the names on the Florida list are not felons - 52,000 wrongly tagged for removal.
OK, you want to argue and say not everyone tagged was actually removed. There might be some problems in the sample group. Maybe it's not 52,000 wrong names, but 42,000 or 32,000. Excuse me, but Gore "lost" by 537 votes. But I digress.
Now I was confident the list was junk - it had to be, because ChoicePoint did not use the most basic tools of verification. But why didn't they? Is ChoicePoint incompetent, didn't know how to verify a list? That's unlikely - this is the company hired by the FBI for manhunts, and the FBI doesn't pay for 90 per cent wrong.
And why would ChoicePoint lie about it? How did it happen? Did someone want it wrong? Could someone, say, want to swing an election with this poisoned list? And more documentary evidence piled up: including one sheet marked "DBT CONFIDENTIAL AND TRADE SECRET".
"When the going gets weird," Hunter Thompson tells journalists, "the weird turn pro." In London, I showed this "CONFIDENTIAL" sheet to the ultimate pro, Meirion Jones, producer with BBC Television's Newsnight. He said, "How soon can you get on a plane to Florida?"
Our BBC Newsnight broadcast began with a country and western twang off the rental car radio:
"After hundreds of lies ... fake alibis.,.'
Newsnight's camera followed me up to the 18th floor of the Florida's Capitol Building in Tallahassee to my meeting with Clayton Roberts, the squat, bullnecked Director of Florida's Division of Elections.
Roberts, who works directly under Secretary of State Katherine Harris, had agreed to let us film our chat. We exchanged pleasantries as we both sat in his reception sofa outside his office. His eyes began to shift, then turned into panic as he read the heading of the paper on the sofa next to me: "CONFIDENTIAL". He certainly knew what I had when I picked up the paper and asked him if the state had checked whether DBT (the ChoicePoint company) had verified the accuracy of a single name on the purge list before they paid the company millions.
Roberts responded by saying, "No I didn't ask DBT," sputtered a few halfstarted sentences, ripped off his lapel microphone, jumped up and charged over the wires and slammed the office door on me and the camera crew giving chase. We were swiftly escorted out of the building by very polite and very large state troopers.
Before he went into hiding and called the Smokies, Roberts whipped around and pointed an angry finger at the lens, "Please turn off that camera!"
Which we did - BBC rules. But he didn't add, "and turn off the microphone", so our lawyers ruled we could include his parting shot, "You know if y'all want to hang this on me that's fine." I will. Though not him alone. By "this" he meant the evidence in the document, which I was trying to read out to him on the run.
You can watch the film of Roberts's bunny-hop by visiting: http://news.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/cta/progs/newsnight/palast.ram
What was so terrorizing to the Republican honcho? The "CONFIDENTIAL" page, obviously not meant to see the light of day, said that DBT would be paid $2.3 million for their lists and 'manual veriflcation using telephone calls and statistical sampling'. No wonder Roberts did a runner. He and Harris had testified under oath to the US Civil Rights Commission that verification of the voter purge list was left completely up to the county elections supervisors, not to the state or the contractor, ChoicePoint DBT.
In fact, it was the requirement to verify the accuracy of the purge list that justified ChoicePoint's selection for the job as well as their astonishingly high fee. Good evening, Mr Smith. Are you the same Mr John Smith that served hard time in New York in 1991? That becomes expensive repeated thousands of times, but necessary when civil rights are at stake. Yet DBT seems to have found a way to cut the cost of this procedure: by not doing it. At least, there is no record of DBT having made extensive verification calls. And even if the manual verification process was implemented, why didn't it catch the fact that every single record on the Texas felon list was wrong?
(Later, I confronted DBT at their Florida headquarters about the verification calls, but our camera crew was barred entry. After returning to London, we received a call from one of their executives explaining that "manual verification by telephone" did not "require us to actually make telephone calls" to anyone on the list. Oh, I see,)
From the evidence, BBC broadcast that the faux felon purge and related voting games cost Al Gore 22,000 votes in Florida. One could quibble with the sum, but, tweak it as you will, it was 40 times the margin of victory for Bush certified by Katherine Harris. Now the British public knew who won the election.
Jim Crow in Cyberspace: New Unreported Evidence
But I had more questions, leading to the big one: was it planned - the purge of innocents and other voting games? A company charging $5,700 is booted out for one, with big Republican ties, charging $2.3 million, with no competitive bidding. A "little birdie" told George Bruder, ChoicePoint DBT's senior vice-president, to enter that astonishing bid, he said later. What else did the little birdie tell him?
The evidence piled up.
The missing statistician
First, there's the matter of the missing statistician. Florida's contract states:
During the verification phase, DBT shall use academically-based and widely utilized statistical formulas to determine the exact number of records necessary to represent a valid cross-section [sample] of the processed files. DBT shall consult a professional statistician ... Upon the return of the processed data, DBT shall supply the formulas and mathematical calculations and identify the professional statistician used during the verification process.
The 8,000-name Texas list had a 100 per cent error rate - which seemed a wee bit high to me. What kind of "academicallybased formula" was used to verify the accuracy of these data? Who was the statistician? Inscrutably silent on whether he or she exists or existed, ChoicePoint DBT referred me back to Clay Roberts. His Department of Elections cannot name this Man of Mystery either, although the contract requires DBT to provide evidence of the statistician's hiring and analysis. The name, the info, were not in state files.
No independent technician, no expert to see it go rotten, no one to blow the whistle.
Millions and millions of records - ignored
And what happened to the 1,200 databases, the millions and millions of records that DBT used in its Carl Saganesque sales pitch to the state? In fact, the state paid for this vital cross-check - or at least DBT's bid said that for their bigbucks bid, they offered artificial intelligence for "cross-referencing, linked databases ... simultaneously searching hundred of data sources, conducting millions of data comparisons, compiling related data for matching and integration". In all, they had four billion records to check against. Under "Offer and Bid" it read:
DBT will process total combined records from:
8,250,000 Criminal Conviction Records 62,000,000 National Change ofAddress ...
And so on. The phone calls, the massive data-crunching, it all justified the big
pay-off to DBT and scared away competitors who could not match DBT s database firepower, a bid promising, "273,318,667 total records to be processed".
But once the contract was nailed, another little birdie in the state told DBT not to bother with all that expensive computing work. In the state files, on the DBT bid, I found a hand-written notation, "don't need", next to the listing of verification databases (the 62 million address histories, etc.), though this work was included in the price.
These cross-checks were the justification for hiring DBT without competitive bidding, and for its high price. For example, Republican officials told the federal government that DBT's special expertise was needed to obtain and analyze out-of-state felon lists. Yet Janet Modrow, the state's liaison with DBT, confessed to me that DBT merely downloaded the lists from the dozen states that make the data available publicly, such as Texas. Any high school kid with a Mac and a credit card could have grabbed the names off the Internet. And that was OK with the state, even though eight of the eleven states should not even have been used. Had the state told DBT to complete its cross-check as paid for, the 57,700 list would have been cut to a fraction of the original number, allowing thousands more Black citizens to vote. When I asked DBT to provide evidence that they had made the required calls to verify felons list or performed any other of the cross-checks, the company sent me, instead of evidence, a Miami Herald article stating, "the responsibility of verifying the accuracy was" left to the "67 county supervisors of elections". That was repeated by Harris and Jeb Bush to the US Civil Rights Commission under oath: verification was in the hands of the counties.
While I would not normally question a public official testifying under penalty of perjury, nor any fact printed by such an august journal as the Miami Herald, I thought it best to direct DBT to the contract itself. It says in black and white: "DBT will then verify the accuracy of the data contained in the output files", the scrub lists given to the state. The means of verification - "manual, telephone, and statistical methods" are detailed.
So we have this: the state of Florida pays a contractor what appears to be several times more than a standard fee for services and then does not object when the costly part of the work is simply not done - or done so poorly that it is worse than not done at all. DBT's seeming negligence in passing on the bogus Texas list cost Florida and its counties a pretty penny to attempt to reverse the error. Yet Mudrow, in Harris's office, says the state has either demanded reimbursement nor sought any penalty as permitted under the contract, In fact, the state awarded DBT another contract renewal, bringing total fees to over $4 million. Why didn't the watchdog bark? (Following my first reports, when the stats hit the fan, ChoicePoint DBT agreed to a one-year extension of their contract without charge.)
One can only conclude that Harris's office paid an awful lot of money for either (a) failed, incomplete, incompetent, costly, disastrous work that stripped innocent citizens of their rights or (b) services performed exactly as planned. "Wanted there to be more names than we can verify ... "
Was DBT paid to get it wrong? Every single failure - to verify by phone, to sample and test, to cross-check against other databases - worked in one direction: to increase the number of falsely accused voters, half of them Black. ChoicePoint, such an expert outfit, did such a horrendous job, without complaint from their client, you'd think their client, the state, ordered them to get it wrong.
They did. just before we went on air in February 2000, ChoicePoint's vicepresident, James Lee, called us at the BBC's studios with the first hint that the state of Florida told the company to give them the names of innocents. The state, he said, "wanted there to be more names than were actually verified as being a convicted felon."
We broadcast the story with their statement - and ChoicePoint went ballistic, demanding in writing to network chiefs in London that we retract it all. On the Internet, a self-proclaimed expert on a pro-Bush web-site wrote that we had faked the Roberts tape, "unethical as you can get," because we clearly must have hidden away "the two-hour interview that preceded" Roberts's running away - fantasy footage that would have made Roberts look honest.
The BBC wouldn't back down an inch, detailing evidence we had yet to broadcast. Jones of Newsnight roared back at the Internet wingnuts. The BBC had unexpected proof that we didn't play editing games with the Roberts interview. While I taped Roberts, a documentary film crew taped me taping Roberts (a truly postmodernist scene). The cameramen with Counting on Democracy, by Emmy Award winning producer Danny Schechter, filmed the interview from handshake to door slam.
Following the broadcast, I received a call from Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who represents Atlanta, home of ChoicePoint's headquarters. She demanded their executives appear before a special hearing in Atlanta. The company would not answer questions from me, but if they came from her they might hesitate about shucking and jiving a member of the US Congress. On April 17, ChoicePoint's James Lee opened his testimony before the McKinney panel with notice that, despite its prior boast, ChoicePoint was getting out of the voter purge business. Then the company, in highly technical, guarded language, effectively confessed to the whole game, fingering the state.
For example, Lee said that the state had given DBT the truly insane directive to add to the purge list people who matched 90 per cent of a last name - if Anderson committed a crime, Andersen lost his vote. DBT objected, knowing this would sweep in a huge number of innocents. The state ordered DBT to shift to an 80 per cent match. It was programmed-in inaccuracy. Names were reversed - felon Thomas Clarence could knock out the vote of Clarence Thomas. Middle initials were skipped, "Jr" and "Sr" suffixes dropped, nicknames and aliases were added to puff up the list. And DBT sent in - quite quietly - its objections in e-mails it now produced. Were these true objections to this slaughter of civil rights - or just "CYA" (Cover Your Ass) memos? No matter. "DBT told state officials," testified Lee, "that the rules for creating the [purge] list would mean a significant number of people who were not deceased, not registered in more than one county or not a felon would be included on the list. Likewise, DBT made suggestions to reduce the numbers of eligible voters included on the list."
But the state said, Forget about it.
ChoicePoint's "confession" made my work easier, though I already had many of these state e-mails, like one (of June 14, 2000) about the "tweaked" data on middle names and "short names" - e.g. allowing Edward and Edwin to match.
Experts told me the state could have chosen criteria that could have brought down the number of "false positives" to less than a fragment of I per cent (as is done for medical records). One, Mark Hull, said it made him ill to learn what the company had agreed to do. He had been senior programmer for CDB Infotek, a ChoicePoint company.
Hunting the Black voter
They were hunting for innocents and, it seems, the blacker the better. To swing an election, there would be no point in knocking off thousands of legitimate voters if they were caught randomly - that would not affect the election's outcome. The key was color. And here's where the computer game got intensely sophisticated. How could it be that some 54 per cent of the list were Black? Yes, half of America's felons are Black, but how could it be that the innocent people on the list were mostly Black?
In November, ChoicePoint's PR men jumped up and down insisting in calls to me that "race was not part of the search criteria" - which the company repeated in press releases after they were sued by the NAACP for participating in a racist conspiracy against citizens' civil rights. DBT complained to editors, to the investigators. Race was not a search criterion, period! Then, I obtained a letter dated June 9, 2000 from ChoicePoint DBT's Vice-President Bruder written to all county elections supervisors:
The information used for the matching process included first, middle, and last name; date of birth; race; and gender; but not Social Security Number.
But they had not lied to me. Read closely. They used race as a match criterion, not a search criterion. The company used this confusion between "match" and "search" criteria to try to pull the BBC off the track. They tried to slide the race question by the US Civil Rights Commission. But, at the Commission's request, on the morning of February 16, the day after our broadcast, I had faxed the Commission the June 9 letter and other key documents. Later that day, the Commission questioned Bruder. COMMISSION: Was race or party affiliation a matching criterion in compiling that list?
BRUDER: [under oath] No ...
COMMISSION: [June 9 letter read into record.] Did you write this letter? It has your signature on it.
BRUDER: Can I see it, please?
COMMISSION: So, you misinformed the Florida Supervisors of Elections that race would be used as a matching criterion?
Wise answer, Mr Bruder. Misleading elections officials is not a crime, perjury would be, He pleaded confusion. So if race was not a match criterion, how did Black people get matched to felons?
I was mightily confused until I looked again at the scrub sheets: ChoicePoint DBT simply identified race for every real felon, and the Secretary of State provided the race of the voters. It was left to the county supervisors to finish the Jim Crow operation: reasonably, they would accept racial matches as "proof" that the right person was named. Therefore, a Black felon named Will Whiting - this is an actual case - wiped out the registration of an innocent Will Whiting (Black) but not the rights of an innocent Will Whiting (White).
This methodology also explained another discovery. While Blacks made up about half the list of 57,700 targeted for the purge, of those ultimately expunged from the voter rolls, it appears over 80 per cent are African-American.
And then, evidence began to disappear.
The counsel for the Civil Rights Commission told me he was most concerned about the purge of the 2,834 felons who did have a right to vote (he'd read my Nation article) - a wilful violation of two court orders. Proof of the illegal procedure was a September 18, 2000 letter to county supervisors. The letter was read to me by a county clerk, not sent.
So I called Janet Keels in Governor Jeb Bush's Office of Executive Clemency; I wanted a hard copy of the letter. A crew filming An American Coup captured the call on camera ...
My name is Gregory Palast and I'm calling from London.
My name is Troy Walker.
Troy, maybe you can help me. There is a letter from Janet Keels'[Governor's] Office of Executive Clemency, dated September 18, 2000. This is to Hillsborough Board of Elections dealing with registration of voters who moved to the state, committed a felony but have received executive clemency. I'm sure you have a copy of it ...
We do have a letter referencing something close to that.
OK, what date is that letter?
This letter is dated February 23, 2001. What? He then read me a letter from Keels saying the exact opposite of the September 18 memo.
September 18 (before the elections): convicts from other states moving to Florida "would be required to make application for restoration of civil rights in the State of Florida".
February 23 (after the election): out-of-state convicts "need not apply for restoration of civil rights in Florida".The tenacious Dave Ruppe of ABC.com news discovered this document switch-a-roo independently, though the network did not broadcast the story.
The post-election letter was drafted one week after the Civil Rights Commission began to question Florida about the illegal maneuver - and now Troy was telling me there was no record of the first letter in Keels's files, or in the office's files, or in the state computers. From other sources, I obtained the incriminating September 18 memo, on Governor Bush's letterhead with Keels's signature.
The pre-clearance deception
The US Voting Rights Act assumes something very unkind about Florida, that the Old South state will twist the process to stop African-Americans from voting. Florida cannot be trusted to change voting procedures on its own. So, with the handful of other states named in the 1965 Act, Florida must "preclear" voting operations changes with the US Justice Department. The state must certify any new voter registration process will have no "disparate impact" on Black voters.
How in the world did Florida zing this racially bent felon purge scheme past the Feds? In 1998, the Justice Department smelled something rotten and asked a few questions, including, Why did Florida need to hire an outside contractor? On July 21, 1998, a lowly state legislative aide drafted a soothing memorandum of law to the Justice Department, dismissing the purge operation as mere administrative reform. The aide - Clayton Roberts - worked with a State Senator - Katherine Harris. In 1998 they sowed; in 2000 they reaped. A huge amount of follow-up research on the presidential race (and other stories in this book) was conducted by a large team of researchers, most unpaid volunteers, some the top names in their technical fields, some inspired amateurs. The intensely complex research unravelling Florida's deceptive moves to obtain pre-clearance was conducted by Paul Lukasiak.
Voting machine apartheid
The office of Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho is right across the road from the State Capitol in Tallahassee. While researching files in his office on the felon purge, the camera crew with Counting on Democracy asked to take a picture of me "voting" - putting my paper ballot into the practice voting machine set up in the Elections Office, to get what we call "B-roll" atmospheric footage. I deliberately made a mistake - voting both Nader and Buchanan. I put my pretend ballot into the machine and - grrrr-zunt! - it shot back into my hands. In other words, you could not make a voting mistake on this machine, called an "Accuvote". Mighty cool. So I asked a clerk: does every county using paper ballots have this machine? Yes and no. The adjoining county, Gadsden, also had machine-read paper ballots, but did not activate the reject mechanism. It's incredibly easy to make a wrong mark on a paper ballot. Make one wrong mark on your ballot in Gadsden, the machine accepts it - then the ballot is not counted.
So I asked what I call The Florida Question: "By any chance, do you know the racial profile of counties where machines accept bad ballots?" continua >>>
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