by Julian Borger and Gregory Palast for The Guardian
The US civil rights commission was yesterday investigating allegations by the BBC’s Newsnight that thousands of mainly black voters in Florida were disenfranchised in the November election because of wholesale errors by a private data services company.
Information supplied by the company, Database Technologies (DBT), led to tens of thousands of Floridians being removed from the electoral roll on the grounds that they had felonies on their records.
However, a Guardian investigation in December confirmed by Newsnight found that the list was riddled with mistakes that led to thousands of voters – a disproportionate number of them black – being wrongly disenfranchised.
The scale of the errors, and their skewed effect on black, overwhelmingly Democratic voters, cost Al Gore thousands of votes in Florida in an election that George Bush won by just 537 votes. Moreover the Florida state government, where Mr Bush’s brother Jeb is governor, did nothing to correct the errors, and may have encouraged them.
Under DBT’s contract, seen by Newsnight, the company was obliged to check its data by “manual verification using telephone calls and statistical sampling”. DBT was paid $4.3m for its purge of the voters’ roll, but company officials confirmed that they did not call voters they had included on their list to check if they had identified the right person.
James Lee, a vice-president of ChoicePoint, which bought DBT last May, said: “Florida law prevents names from being removed from the voting roll unless the information is confirmed by local officials – not us.” But he told Newsnight that the Florida state government made it clear that it “wanted there to be more names than were actually verified as being a convicted felon”.
Blacks make up about 15% of the overall Florida population, but half the state’s prison population, so the errors tended to erase their names disproportionately from the electoral roll.
State officials have denied it was their responsibility to check the felons list, arguing that it was the duty of the individual counties.
A few counties found it was so full of mistakes that they dumped the list altogether. Some sent out warning letters to the people who had been stripped of their voting rights, putting the burden on them to appeal. But most simply accepted the flawed list, and removed thousands of names from the rolls.
The civil rights commission was due to question ChoicePoint executives yesterday about their role. One commissioner, Christopher Edley, said: “There is a lot of public concern that the contractor who was selected to do this is a firm that seems to have ties to the Republican party.”
Under a 19th-century Florida law, convicted felons are barred from voting for life. DBT was hired, in part, to comb through computerised records around the country to identify former felons registered to vote in Florida. After wrongly identifying 8,000 Florida voters with Texas misdemeanour records as felons, it supplied a revised list of 57,770 “possible felons” to Florida’s secretary of state, Katherine Harris.
The list was full of mistakes mainly because of the criteria DBT used. It compared its list of felons with the Florida voting rolls by looking for a rough match between the names and dates of birth. Thus, a Christine Smith could have been disqualified if there had been a Christopher Smith of the same age with a felony record somewhere in the US. DBT also used race as a matching criterion, skewing the impact of the errors even more against black voters, of whom nine in ten 10 voted for Mr Gore.
A Guardian investigation in Hillsborough county, Florida , found that many black voters who had participated in previous elections suddenly found themselves barred in the 2000 poll. One found he had lost his vote because of a 1959 arrest for sleeping on a public bench.
For more information on Greg Palast’s investigation of the US election, see ‘A blacklist burning for Bush’ published in Britain’s Sunday paper, The Observer.
An investigation of funding of the Bush campaign appears at the Observer (London) ‘Best democracy money can buy’
Gregory Palast’s other investigative reports can be found at www.GregoryPalast.Com where you can also subscribe to Palast’s column.