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Bogus Felons List Results in Suppression of Florida Votes

Bogus Felons List Results In Suppression of Florida Votes

by Ronald A. Young

Undoubtedly, it was the politically motivated decision handed down by five U.S. Supreme Court justices to put a halt to counting untallied Florida votes which actually decided the outcome of Presidential election 2000. Some folks, this writer included, have believed for years that ultimate political power in America resides with this nine-member junta. This flagrant power-play exhibited by its conservative wing should dispel any further doubts.

But intervention by the Supremes would have been unnecessary if things in Florida had not gotten so messy. And the reason Florida turned into an electoral quagmire in the first place was due to various acts and omissions by state officials and police agencies which resulted in the systematic suppression of legitimate voters (mostly African-American, Hispanic, and poor white).

One particularly odious practice revolves around the use of a dubious "felons" list by the Office of Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican. Harris bought the list from a Boca Raton company, Database Technologies, and distributed it to county elections supervisors, who are required to attempt to verify the information and "scrub" ineligible voters from the rolls.

"It was a very inaccurate list," said Madison County Supervisor of Elections Linda Howell. Howell was so upset by the errors that she refused to use the list. How could she be so sure the new list identified innocent people as felons? Because her own name was on it. "I assure you, I am not a felon," she said.

It turns out that approximately 8,000 eligible voters had been erroneously listed as being ex-felons, who are not allowed to vote under Florida law unless their civil rights have been restored. Some of those scrubbed voters were returned to county voters' rolls, but the large number of errors uncovered in individual counties suggests that thousands of eligible voters may have been turned away at the polls. Invariably most of those voters were African-Americans, Hispanics, and poor white folks who would have most likely cast their ballots for Vice President Gore.

Chuck Smith, a statistician for Hillsborough (Tampa) County, found that 54 percent of the names on the scrub list belonged to African-Americans, even though they constitute only 11.6 percent of Hillborough's voting population. The inevitable outcome of this was to unfairly handicap Gore since 93 percent of Florida's African-American voters cast their ballots for the vice president. Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project in Washington, DC, pointed out that the white half of the purge list would be peopled by the poor.

The Florida state legislature passed a law in 1999 requiring the state to create a database of ineligible voters after dead people's names were used for voting in Miami's 1998 elections. Database Technologies was contracted for the job and later the company was purchased by Atlanta-based ChoicePoint, whose board and executive roster is a veritable who's-who of Republican stars, including billionaire Ken Langone and Home Depot tycoon Bernard

Marcus, both big funders of Republicans. Florida is the only state to hire an outside firm to determine who should lose the right to vote.

ChoicePoint spokesman Martin

Fagan concedes his company's error, but blamed it on the original source of the list, which of all places just happened to be Governor George w. Bush's state of Texas. "I guess that's a little bit embarrassing in light of the election," Fagan said. Still, he dismisses the errors in 8,000 names as "a minor glitch-less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the electorate," though the election was decided by less than 500 votes. But Fagan added that ChoicePoint is responsible only for turning over raw data, which is then up to officials to test and correct.

Fagan is correct in saying that Florida officials are the ones to blame. But let's take the naive blinders off and look at the reality of things. Is it really practical to trust a state to safeguard the voting rights of minorities when that same state continues to use Jim Crow-era laws to disenfranchise 31 percent of all African-American men? At the beginning of the 21st century we would like to believe that things have changed and such blatant suppressions of civil rights no longer exist. But, then, after the farce of election 2000, we would only be fooling ourselves.

Source: Associated Press; The Observer (UK);

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