Published on Sunday, May 27, 2001 in the Palm Beach Post
George W. Bush's America
Felon Purge Sacrificed Innocent Voters
by Scott Hiaasen, Gary Kane and Elliot Jaspin
 
PALM BEACH - While millions of Floridians spent Nov. 7 casting their votes for president, Clarence Mayville was fighting, and failing, to clear his name.

Mayville went to his precinct in Polk County's Auburndale that Tuesday morning to cast his vote for George W. Bush. Poll workers told him he was on a state list of suspected felons, making him ineligible to vote.


Civil rights groups saw it as a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise black voters: Blacks accounted for 44 percent of those removed from the rolls, though they make up only about 11 percent of Florida's voters.

Mayville, 50, a diesel mechanic and Army veteran, said it was a mistake. But a day of haggling with election workers failed to clear up the mess.

"I'm madder than hell," Mayville said. "I called them over there (at the elections office) and I raised hell. . . . You can't get an answer from them."

Finally Mayville tore up his voter registration card and stomped out without voting. It wasn't until March that he received a letter from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement telling him what he already knew: He had no criminal record. By then, the damage was done.

In the months since the election, no one has been able to say with any certainty just how many legitimate Florida voters like Mayville were turned away from the polls.

But a Palm Beach Post computer analysis has found at least 1,100 eligible voters wrongly purged from the rolls before last year's election -- the collateral damage from an aggressive and ill-conceived state plan to prevent felons from voting.

With Bush winning Florida and the presidency by a scant 537 votes over Democrat Al Gore, these voters -- some wrongly identified as felons, and many more wrongly turned away based on felony convictions in other states -- could have swayed the election had they been allowed to vote.

And while the state's attempt to police the voter rolls victimized scores of legitimate voters, it still failed to prevent thousands of felons from casting their ballots. In Florida, felons are banned for life from voting unless granted clemency.

State lawmakers decided to weed out felons and other ineligible voters in 1998 after a Miami mayoral election was overturned because votes had been cast by the convicted and the dead. Election officials subsequently hired Database Technologies Inc. of Boca Raton to help with the daunting task of scanning the state's massive database of registered voters for felons and dead people. They paid DBT $3.3 million during the past two years.

The company, now a subsidiary of ChoicePoint of Atlanta, produced a list of 42,389 "probable" and "possible" felons before last year's election. The list identified thousands of legal voters as criminals, forcing them to prove their innocence before they could cast a ballot.

But that was just one of many damaging consequences of the state's anti-felon campaign -- an effort born of an unwieldy law, founded on less-than-reliable data and made worse by decisions of elections officials, The Post found. For example:

At least 108 law-abiding people were purged from the voter rolls as suspected criminals, only to be cleared after the election. DBT's computers had matched these people with felons, though in dozens of cases they did not share the same name, birthdate, gender or race. One Naples man was told he couldn't vote because he was linked with a felon still serving time in a Moore Haven prison.

Florida officials cut from the rolls 996 people convicted of crimes in other states, though they should have been allowed to vote. Before the election, state officials said felons could vote only if they had written clemency orders, although most other states automatically restore voting rights to felons when they complete their sentences. This policy conflicted with a 1998 court ruling that said Florida had "no authority" to deny civil rights to those who had them restored in other states. After the election, the state changed its policy.

State officials told DBT to use broad parameters to identify as many likely felons as possible, despite warnings that this would disenfranchise legitimate voters.

County elections supervisors were told not to discount names on the list, even if they didn't match.

Records used to create the felon list were sometimes wrong. A state database of felons wrongly included dozens of people whose crimes were reduced to misdemeanors. Furthermore, clemency records were incomplete.

Skeptical of the list's accuracy, elections supervisors in 20 counties (including Palm Beach) ignored it altogether, thereby allowing thousands of felons to vote.

Since the election, the felon purge has become a public-relations nightmare for the state.

Civil rights groups saw it as a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise black voters: Blacks accounted for 44 percent of those removed from the rolls, though they make up only about 11 percent of Florida's voters.

The list was a major issue in post-election hearings before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and it's being challenged in an NAACP lawsuit.

But a review of state records, internal e-mails of DBT employees and testimony before the civil rights commission and an elections task force showed no evidence that minorities were specifically targeted.

Blacks make up nearly 49 percent of the felons convicted in the state, according to the FDLE, so any purge of felons would include a disproportionate number of blacks.

Records show that DBT told the state it would not use race as a criterion to identify felons. The list itself bears that out: More than 1,000 voters were matched with felons though they were of different races.

DBT officials say they aren't to blame for snaring legal voters.

They simply followed the state's orders, handed down by officials who were too cavalier about the felon purge. James Lee, a spokesman for ChoicePoint, said his company will never again get involved in cleansing voting rolls.

"We are not confident any of the methods used today can guarantee legal voters will not be wrongfully denied the right to vote," Lee told a group of Atlanta-area black lawmakers in March.

Clay Roberts, director of the state Division of Elections, said legislation signed this month by Gov. Jeb Bush should provide more safeguards for legitimate voters.

The state will soon create a new voter database accessible to local supervisors and using more reliable court data to identify suspected felons.

"The benefit of the doubt is going to go to the voter," Roberts said. "If the supervisor cannot be absolutely sure they are felons, they should leave them on" the rolls.

Input always imperfect

Some problems with the felon purge were inevitable. Computer databases are never perfect; they're only as accurate as the people putting information into them.

So state officials were left with two unpalatable options: Use strict guidelines in identifying felons and risk losing some, or use broad guidelines and risk catching non-felons in the net. The state chose the latter.

Even so, the number of voters wrongly disenfranchised by the felon purge appears to be far less than the "thousands" its critics have claimed.

Though DBT developed the list, it was up to the 67 county elections supervisors to use it.

The supervisors wrote warning letters to the suspected felons, giving them one to two months to appeal before they were dropped from the rolls.

Several supervisors said they ignored "possible" matches that were obviously wrong.

Many counties didn't use the list at all.

Ultimately, less than half of the names on the DBT list were purged, state records show.

"There were names on the list that I knew were not felons," said Babs Montpetit, the elections supervisor in Union County. "One was a youth director in our church."

Said Leon County supervisor Ion Sancho: "If you weren't careful, you would disenfranchise people."

People like Matt Frost.

The 33-year-old Tampa businessman and Gore supporter was linked by DBT with a convict named Chadwick Chowanetz. Based on this "match," the Hillsborough County elections office sent Frost a letter saying he couldn't vote unless he could prove the list wrong.

Frost, whose only brush with the law was a misdemeanor reckless driving charge, appealed to the state. When he received notice that his polling precinct had changed, he assumed he had been cleared.

On election day, Frost went to his new precinct only to be told he couldn't vote because he was a felon. "Right in front of a bunch of people," Frost said. "The more I'm going to protest, the more it looks like I've got something to hide."

Embarrassed, Frost walked away -- but not before grabbing an "I voted" decal. He couldn't take the shame of going home without the little sticker on his shirt. "God, it was humiliating," he said.

As it turns out, Frost's name is one of six aliases used by Chowanetz, a Tampa man convicted in 1995 of fraudulent use of a credit card. Even Chadwick is a false name, according to the FDLE; his name is really Shawn.

Races, sexes didn't match

Stories like Frost's illustrate the potential dangers of the purge -- dangers that went largely unheeded.

Some of the "matches" compiled by DBT were puzzling.

For example, more than 1,300 registered voters were matched with felons although their races or sexes were different, The Post found.

Local election supervisors sometimes found voters identified as felons though they were convicted only of misdemeanors. And DBT's use of criminal records that included aliases further increased the odds that legal voters would be confused with felons.

Flawed data robbed Floredia Walker of her vote.

When Walker entered Pleasant Grove Church in St. Petersburg to vote for Al Gore, poll workers said she wasn't on the rolls. She was told that her name had popped up on a list of convicted felons.

"I was devastated," she recalled. "I've voted in every election. I've even worked the polls. There was never a problem in the past."

Compounding her exasperation was the fact that as an employee of the state Department of Corrections, Walker was subjected to periodic background checks. She couldn't hold her job if she had a criminal record.

The problem was traced to the theft of her purse in 1986. The thief was using Walker's driver's license and other identification when she was arrested on several theft charges. Walker said she heard about the arrest from her employer and immediately notified FDLE about the mix-up.

"I thought it was all taken care of," she said.

Walker said she received no advance notice that she was ineligible to vote. To the contrary, she was mailed a new voter registration card a month before the election.

Old system didn't work

Felons have been banned from voting in Florida since 1868.

Until three years ago, county election supervisors relied mainly on local court clerks to report felons. But the 1997 Miami election, in which one dead man and 100 felons voted, indicated that system wasn't working.

The legislature directed the Division of Elections to conduct a felon hunt using a database of all Florida voters.

Lawmakers instructed the division to hire computer experts to help.

Determined to let no felon slip by, state officials asked DBT to use loose guidelines when matching criminal and voter records. They also told DBT to search records from other states to find felons who moved to Florida.

Both decisions would disenfranchise legitimate voters.

At first, the state expected its hired experts to identify ineligible voters using only exact matches on felons with the same names, birthdates and genders.

But that changed in March 1999, when Emmett "Bucky" Mitchell, a lawyer for the state elections office and its point-man on the felon purge, asked DBT to broaden its scope, state records show.

Felons would fall through the cracks if computers flagged only exact matches.

A transposed number in a birthdate or an abbreviated name in a database of criminal records would foil any attempt to find a match among registered voters.

The solution was to program the computer to loosen its criteria for matches. But DBT warned Mitchell that searching the data this way would yield more "false positives," or mismatches. Mitchell's response: Let each county elections supervisor deal with it.

"The people who worked on this (for DBT) are very adamant . . . they told them what would happen," ChoicePoint's Lee said. "The state expected the county supervisors to be the failsafe."

Mitchell, now with the state's education department, would not comment for this story.

The list DBT produced last year identified more than 42,000 potential felons among the state's registered voters. But the data did not match exactly in 6,500 cases, according to The Post's analysis.

Many of these were the kinds of near-misses the state was looking for -- birthdates that were slightly off, names misspelled.

Thousands of these records matched two clearly different people.

"There were people on that list that never even had a traffic citation," said Debbie Morris, the elections supervisor in Holmes County in the Panhandle.

Morris and other local officials distrusted the list and used it cautiously.

Five times since 1998 the state had to recall a felon list because of errors -- most recently, DBT had to take back its list last June because it wrongly fingered 8,000 voters as having felony records in Texas.

With that in mind, officials in 20 counties rejected the list. Others felt pressure to use it because of Miami's dubious legacy.

"If we hadn't used the list, after the election you guys (the news media) would have gone and found felons who voted," said Kurt Browning, Pasco County's elections supervisor.

While some supervisors were being careful, others were being advised to take a more aggressive approach.

Before the election, FDLE officials told some supervisors that seemingly obvious mismatches may still be valid because the voter could be linked with a criminal alias, said Miami-Dade elections supervisor David Leahy.

"We were told even if things didn't match to go ahead and consider them a convicted felon," Leahy said.

That's how the state wrongly snared Robert C. Inskip of Naples.

Inskip, 34, was thrown off the rolls because his name is on criminal records as an alias of Duwane Edward Muller, 37, of North Port.

The mismatch should have been easy enough to detect: While Inskip is residing on the Gulf Coast, Muller is still serving a 7-year prison term for lewd assault on a child.

Acknowledging the problems, the state set up an appeals process for those who claimed they had no criminal past.

Most people singled out by DBT's computers were alerted months before the election that they could complain to the FDLE.

The FDLE fielded more than 5,400 appeals, and found that more than 2,500 people on the list were not felons.

But the process could be slow and cumbersome. Many people had to provide fingerprints to confirm their identities. At least 108 legitimate voters couldn't cast their ballots because they weren't cleared until after the election.

Mobile ex-felons mishandled

Though voting-rights activists, politicians and even some election officials have lambasted the computerized cleansing of the voter rolls, it wasn't responsible for the bulk of wrongly disenfranchised voters, according to The Post's analysis.

That distinction belongs to people who moved to Florida with felony records in other states.

Last year was the first time the state sought to exclude felons from other states. DBT compared Florida voter records against criminal databases from Ohio, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Kentucky.

State officials decided these felons should be treated just like Florida felons: Unless they have clemency, they can't vote.

But this blanket rule didn't account for differences in state voting laws.

Most states automatically grant clemency to felons once they finish their sentences, allowing them to vote. Other states allow felons to vote a few years after their release.

DBT recognized this as early as March 1999, when it decided not to include felons from South Carolina and Texas because those states automatically restore voting rights.

But that was reversed nine months later when Janet Keels, head of the state Office of Executive Clemency, said no felon could vote without a written clemency order from his home state.

Even those who received automatic clemency would have to apply for clemency in Florida.

This stance contradicted a 1998 ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

The court said the state could not take away a man's weapons permit based on his conviction in Connecticut, where his civil rights were automatically restored in 1973.

"Once another state restores the civil rights of one of its citizens . . . they are restored and the state of Florida has no authority to suspend or restore them at that point," the court said.

Keels could not be reached for comment.

Keels' standard removed 996 voters although their voting rights were restored in the states where they were convicted.

Three months after the election, the state reversed its position. Now, the clemency office will review all cases in which out-of-state felons say they have their rights restored but can't provide documentation; if confirmed, these people will be allowed to vote.

Felons had been voting

Controversy aside, most of the people the state prevented from voting probably were felons.

Of the 19,398 voters removed from the rolls, more than 14,600 matched a felon by name, birthdate, race and gender.

More than 6,500 were convicted in counties other than where they voted, suggesting they would not have been found by local officials without the DBT list.

Many of these felons were convicted years ago, and they had no idea that they did not have their civil rights.

Many had been voting and unwittingly breaking the law for years.

Ellic Land, 81, had not missed an election in Lee County in at least 10 years before he was stricken from the rolls last year, based on a 30-year-old conviction he barely remembers.

In 1971, Land was charged with carrying a concealed weapon for wearing a pistol in his waistband at a Fort Myers restaurant.

Land, a World War II veteran, said he only paid a fine at the time and didn't realize he had lost his civil rights.

Now he must ask the governor for clemency to vote again.

"Dodging bullets for this country and then he can't even vote," said his wife, Ruby. "It's not right."

Washington Bureau reporters Melanie Eversley and Christine Xu contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2001, The Palm Beach Post

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