Florida's 'Disappeared Voters': Disfranchised by the GOP
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 secretary of state's office immediately launched a felon manhunt with a zeal and carelessness that worried local elections 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 past two years, with Republicans in charge of both the governorship and the secretary of state's office, now under Harris, the felon purge has 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 were 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 indeed had 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.