The Wrong Way To Fix
the Vote --by Gregory Palast The Washington Post Sunday,
June 10, 2001 - Outlook, page 1
Reprinted with permission
If you liked the way Florida handled the presidential vote in November,
you'll just love the election reform laws that have passed since then
in 10 states, and have been proposed in 16 others.
These laws mandate a practice that was at the heart of the Florida debacle:
computer-aided purging of centralized voter files. The laudable aim
is torrid registries of the names of the dead, as well as of felons
and others legally barred from voting. But the likely result will be
the elimination of a lot of legitimate voters and an increased potential
for political mischief.
Traditionally, American voter registries are managed at the county level,
and they've been managed pretty well. Certainly there are flaws, but
in the overwhelming majority of cases these are clerical errors, not
election fraud. Think about it: A citizen dies, another one leaves town.
But the dead guy doesn't vote, and the one who moved simply registers
and votes from his new home. No harm, no foul.
Trying to cure that relatively minor problem by creating a single, statewide
database of voters is overkill. More importantly, it cannot be counted
on to fix a very different problem that really is worth worrying about
-- purposeful voter fraud. Rather, it creates the potential for new
errors on a much greater scale and opens to the door to political manipulations
that are harder to detect than the old ballot-stuffing games, and nearly
impossible to prosecute.
In Florida, a state-run purge removed thousands of legal voters -- more
than half of them black -- in the months leading up to last fall's election.
Most had no idea what had happened until they showed up at the polls.
As the U.S. Civil Rights Commission wrote in a report made public last
week, it was this "widespread voter disenfranchisement" --
much more than any hanging chads or butterfly ballots -- that was the
"extraordinary feature" of the dubious Florida vote.
What happened there in 2000 can too easily be repeated in 2002 and thereafter,
anywhere computer-aided purges are mandated.
Florida adopted its purge program in the aftermath of the 1997 Miami
mayoral race, which was so marred by crooked voting that courts later
reversed the outcome. The state contracted with Database Technologies
(which soon was bought by ChoicePoint Inc. of Atlanta) to compile a
central list of Floridians who were ineligible to vote -- notably, convicted
felons -- and cross-match them with voter rolls.
In June 2000, on the basis of ChoicePoint's results, the Florida Division
of Elections ordered county election officials to remove from their
registries some 58,000 residents unless the counties had evidence that
they were not in fact convicted felons.
One of those 58,000 was Linda Howell, who says she has never committed
a felony. Her protest was immediately taken seriously, since she happens
to be Madison County's election supervisor. The false accusation shook
her faith in the purge process: "It really is a mess," she
told me afterward.
Another was the Rev. Willie D. Whiting Jr. In fact, Whiting's rap sheet
contains a single traffic ticket. His biggest "crime" was
his resemblance on paper to Willie J. Whiting (no Jr.), a convicted
felon born two days after the reverend.
Fortunately, Whiting lives in Leon County -- which, alone among Florida's
67 counties, independently researched every name on its scrub list.
The county could only verify that 34 of the 694 cited -- 5 percent --
had criminal records. Because officials were skeptical of the list,
Whiting was able to convince them he should be permitted to vote when
he turned up on Election Day.
Researchers from Salon.com who investigated the lists in 13 Florida
counties found that at least 15 percent of the names should not have
been there. ChoicePoint spokesmen subsequently told me they don't dispute
that figure, and they consider it a reasonable rate of error.
However, the company also defends its scrub list as "accurate"
-- because its standard is that the list accurately records all names
found in accordance with the specifications devised by the state officials
who supervised the work.
And that's the problem.
The reason so many wrong names ended up on the scrub list is that Florida
ordered ChoicePoint to input questionably broad matching certain to
its sophisticated computer programs. According to various statements
by ChoicePoint officials, the criteria were:
First four letters of the first name. Middle initial. Gender. At least
80 percent of the letters in the last name. Approximate date of birth.
Last four digits of Social Security number when available -- which was
not often, since fewer than 10 percent of Floridians had that number
on their voter registration forms. Certain variations were also programmed
in (Willie could match William; John Richard could match Richard John).
There are a lot of Whitings and Howells -- and Browns and Brownes and
Harwoods and Haywoods -- so given these rough standards, massive misidentification
was almost guaranteed.
The results were then skewed because of another piece of data passed
on to local officials: the voter's race. Next to every alleged felon's
name was the designation "BLA" or "WHI." This meant
that if someone named, say, John Smith was identified as a felon, and
10 matches came up, only the ones of the same race were likely to be
purged. This is logical, but consider the implications: Since about
half of felony convictions involve African Americans -- while barely
one in seven Floridians are black -- this methodology ensured that a
disproportionate number of law-abiding black voters would be disenfranchised.
If Salon's 15 percent error figure is right -- and data like Leon County's
indicates it is much higher -- almost 9,000 of the 58,000 names on the
scrub list belonged to rightful voters. (Furthermore, 2,883 other names
belonged to people convicted of felonies in states that restore voting
privileges after a sentence is served. These people were also purged
-- even though they should not have lost their civil rights merely by
moving to Florida.)
Database experts say the state could have reduced mismatches to one
in 500 by expanding the match criteria -- making name matches more specific
and adding such elements as current and prior address and suffixes like
But Florida officials counter that if they had done that, they would
have erred equally in the opposite direction -- allowing ineligible
people to vote.
You would think other states would run from Florida's methods. But in
their current legislative sessions, Colorado, Indiana, South Dakota,
Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Kansas, Montana and Washington have passed
bills that -- while varying in specifics -- would follow the Sunshine
State's lead in centralizing, computerizing and cleansing voter rolls.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) has introduced a bill in which certain
conditions in any state would trigger mandatory voter list purges.
To a large extent, these bills are a response to "motor voter"
legislation, which has added millions of citizens, particularly minorities,
to voter registries. Since minority voters tend to be Democratic, it
is not surprising that motor voter laws are popular among Democrats,
and most of the bills attempting to purge the rolls are sponsored by
But many factors go into the ill-advised rush to reform. Take the case
The day before the November election, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
and WSB-TV jointly reported that records indicated that deceased Georgians
had voted 5,412 times over the last 20 years. They specifically cited
one Alan J. Mandel, who apparently cast his ballot in three separate
elections after his demise in 1997.
Subsequently, a very live Alan J. Mandell (note the two L's) told the
secretary of state that local election workers had accidentally checked
off the wrong name on the list. That may or may not explain what really
happened -- but in the midst of the chad-mania that dominated the headlines
last fall, details became less important than the newly energized drive
for so-called reform. Under a law signed April 18, Georgia's secretary
of state controls "list maintenance" and, for example, has
taken over the power of deleting the names of dead voters.
This is too big a response to a little problem. In a state of 8 million
people, 5,412 possibly bad votes -- not in one election, but in all
the primaries, local elections and general elections that were held
over 20 years -- is an extremely small number. If reformers really want
to clean up voting lists, they should consider more funding for local
election boards so they can do the job more directly, and better.
The centralization of state voter registries hands an all-too-tempting
monopoly to whichever party controls the office of secretary of state.
The highly technical (and, where contractors are involved, commercially
confidential) nature of computer-aided purges makes bias in the cleansing
of supposed felons, deceased voters and duplicate voters astonishingly
easy to carry out and difficult to uncover.
Even uncovered, apparent bias is difficult to challenge. Florida officials
defend their methods, saying they wanted to cast the widest net to catch
the highest number of ineligible voters. Who is to say that, despite
the devastating racial imbalance in the roster of those wrongly purged,
Florida chose the wrong match criteria? One Florida Democratic leader
admitted to me (on condition of anonymity) that, if he and his party
had control of the voter files, they would have been tempted to pick
some elimination criteria of their own.
After all, one man's overzealous purge is another man's inauguration.
Greg Palast investigated the Florida vote for BBC television, the Observer
of London, Salon.com and the Nation magazine.
You can read, subscribe to and comment on Greg Palast's columns and
investigative reports at gregpalast.com
© 2001 The Washington Post Company.
as I maintain the ownership of the words, I grant a general, no-fee
right to produce. GP]