How the GOP Gamed the System in Florida
In its assurances to the state before contracts were signed, DBT promised, on August 14, 1998, that the lists would be checked, including "telephonic verification of random records." But this procedure was later omitted from contracts, and the state never insisted that it be done. In fact, during one meeting between Mitchell and county supervisors in 1999, Mitchell specifically told supervisors not to try to contact listed individuals by phone, but only by the legally required route of the mails. Many would-be voters later said they had never received notification. "Mr. Mitchell said we shouldn't call people on the phone, we should send letters," said Linda Howell, supervisor for Madison County in north Florida. "The best and fastest way to check these matters was by phone, personal contact, but he didn't want that." She added, "We shouldn't have had to do any of this. Elections supervisors are not investigators, and we don't have investigators. It wasn't our responsibility at all."
In his interview with The Nation, Mitchell offered this rationale for the loose standards used in assembling the purge lists: "Just as some people might have been removed from the list who shouldn't have been, some voted who shouldn't have." In other words, because an ineligible person may have voted somewhere else, it was acceptable to deny a legitimate voter the right to vote. Mitchell said the loose parameters employed to create the purge list were approved by former head of the Division of Elections Ethel Baxter, after consultation with Katherine Harris. Neither Baxter nor Harris returned phone calls requesting comment.
The lists targeted black voters in extremely disproportionate numbers. In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, where only 15 percent of voters are black, 54 percent of the names on the purge list were African-Americans. In Miami-Dade, where blacks make up 20 percent of the population, a list of 5,762 people contained the names of 3,794 blacks, or 66 percent. In Leon County, which includes Tallahassee, the state capital, 29 percent of the people are black, but 55 percent of the purge list names were African-Americans.
In one Leon County case, the Rev. Willie David Whiting, a black pastor from Tallahassee, arrived at his polling place to find himself listed as a convicted felon; he was refused the right to vote despite never having spent a day in jail. He says he had never received notification of his disfranchisement. It turned out that he had been confused with a Willie J. Whiting, whose birthdate was two days away from his own, and was considered a match due to a "derived" or approximate name and birthdate. "I felt like I was slingshotted back into slavery," Whiting testified to the civil rights panel. He said he was forced to consider possible motives. "Does someone have a formula for stealing this election?" he says he asked himself.
The Division of Elections and DBT were also sharing their information, some of it false, with law enforcement agencies. Whiting said he was relieved he had not been stopped "by the wrong policeman" during the time he was incorrectly listed as a convicted felon. "Who knows what would have happened?" A Jacksonville resident, Richard Haywood, whose one felony marijuana conviction in 1972 had been expunged from his record, suddenly found himself not only on a purge list but also with the record of his conviction released by the state to a school to which he had applied for student aid. "I complied with the law and my record was expunged," said Haywood. "What they did was violate the law by releasing that information, and they messed with my life." Madison County Supervisor Howell agreed. "They were not taking their job seriously," she said, referring to state officials. "That could destroy a person's life."
It is impossible to know how many voters were unfairly kept away from the voting booth because of the purge. Votes not cast are not tallied. Some former prisoners who were notified they were on the purge lists expressed interest in applying for clemency and voting, but they were often faced with daunting amounts of paperwork. For example, if they had been convicted in a different county, they had to write away for certified copies of court records, some of them decades old, and then apply to Tallahassee. "Some of them had convictions in the 1940s and 1950s and had been voting for years," said Larry Roxby, deputy elections supervisor in Bay County.
Meanwhile, according to Roxby, the Office of Executive Clemency in Tallahassee had a backlog of six months to a year. "I'd say I had about sixty such people come to me over the past three years, and only about three of them ever got their clemency," said Roxby. "Seven or eight out of ten were blacks." Other supervisors reported similar instances of former prisoners who had been active voters for years but who were discouraged by the suddenly enforced clemency process. State law enforcement officials later said that based on past voting records, only about 10 percent of former prisoners might be expected to vote. In a highly contested election such as the one in 2000, that could be expected to increase. But even if one uses the state's own figures, out of 187,000 former prisoners who had completed parole but had not received clemency, close to 20,000 might have voted if they'd been permitted. State statisticians say, based on race and economic factors, that group could be expected to vote Democratic 75 percent of the time.