Jim Crow in Cyberspace:
The Unreported Story of
How They Fixed the Vote in Florida
excerpted from the book
The Best Democracy Money
by Greg Palast
Plume Books, 2003, paper
In the days following the presidential election, there were so
many stories of African Americans erased from voter rolls you
might think they were targeted by some kind of racial computer
program. They were.
I have a copy of it: two silvery CD-ROM
disks right out of the office computers of Florida Secretary of
State Katherine Harris. Once decoded and flowed into a database,
they make for interesting, if chilling, reading. They tell us
how our president was elected-and it wasn't by the voters.
Here's how it worked: Mostly, the disks
contain data on Florida citizens-57,700 of them. In the months
leading up to the November 2000 balloting, Florida Secretary of
State Harris, in coordination with Governor Jeb Bush, ordered
local elections supervisors to purge these 57,700 from voter registries.
In Harris's computers, they are named as felons who have no right
to vote in Florida.
Thomas Cooper is on the list: criminal
scum, bad guy, felon, attempted voter. The Harris hit list says
Cooper was convicted of a felony on January 30, 2007.
You may suspect something's wrong with
the list. You'd be right. At least 90.2 percent of those on this
"scrub" list, targeted to lose their civil rights, are
innocent. Notably, over half-about 54 percent-are Black and Hispanic
voters. Overwhelmingly, it is a list of Democrats.
Secretary of State Harris declared George
W. Bush winner of Florida, and thereby president, by a plurality
of 537 votes over Al Gore. Now do the arithmetic. Over 50,000
voters wrongly targeted by the purge, mostly Blacks. My BBC researchers
reported that Gore lost at least 22,000 votes as a result of this
smart little blackbox operation.
The first reports of this extraordinary
discovery ran, as you'd expect, on page one of the country's leading
paper. Unfortunately, it was in the wrong country: Britain. In
the USA, it ran on page zero-the story was simply not covered
in American newspapers. The theft of the presidential race in
Florida also grabbed big television coverage. But again, it was
the wrong continent: on BBC Television, broadcasting from London
worldwide everywhere, that is, but the USA.
Now, after two years of peeling the Florida elections onion, we
put the number of voters wrongly barred from voting at over 90,000,
mostly Blacks and Hispanics, and by a wide majority, Democrats.
Florida is the only state in the nation to contract the first
stage of removal of voting rights to a private company. And ChoicePoint
/ DBT has big plans. "Given the outcome of our work in Florida,"
says [ChoicePoint spokesman Martin] Fagan, "and with a new
president in place, we think our services will expand across the
Especially if that president is named
"Bush." ChoicePoint's board, executive suite and consultant
rosters are packed with Republican stars, including former New
York Police Commissioner Howard Safir and former ultra-Right congressman
Vin Weber, ChoicePoint's Washington lobbyist.
How did the governor's game play at the ballot box? Jeb Bush's
operation denied over 50,000 citizens their right to vote. Given
that 80 percent of registered voters actually cast ballots in
the presidential election, at least 40,000 votes were lost. By
whom? As 90 percent or more of this targeted group, out-of-state
ex-cons, votes Democratic, we can confidently state that this
little twist in the voter purge cost Al Gore a good 30,000 votes.
Was Florida's corrupted felon-voter hunt
the work of cozy collusion between Jeb Bush and Harris, the president-elect's
brother and state campaign chief, respectively? It is unlikely
we will ever discover the motives driving the voter purge, but
we can see the consequences. Three decades ago, Governor George
Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door and thundered, "Segregation
now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" but failed
to block entry to African-Americans. Governor Jeb Bush's resistance
to court rulings, conducted at whisper level with high-tech assistance,
has been far more effective at blocking voters of color from the
polling station door. Deliberate or accidental, the error-ridden
computer purge and illegal clemency obstacle course function,
like the poll tax and literacy test of the Jim Crow era, to take
the vote away from citizens who are Black, poor and, not coincidentally,
almost all Democrats. No guesswork there: Florida is one of the
few states to include both party and race on registration files
Based on this new evidence, BBC broadcast that the faux felon
purge and related voting games cost Al Gore at least 22,000 votes
in Florida-forty times Bush's margin of victory as certified by
Harris. Quibble with that estimate, tweak it as you will, we now
knew the rightful winner of the election. Or at least the British
I now began to understand the brilliant deviltry of the purge
game. It did not matter if, on Day One of the purge process, Republicans
had some grand plan, some elaborate conspiracy, to eliminate the
vote of African-American innocents. Rather, document after document
suggested that, once the operatives saw the demographics of the
raw lists-tens of thousands of names of mostly Democratic voters-they
moved heaven and earth to prevent its reduction. A list of 57,000
voters, mostly Black, erased with the flick of a switch was just
The U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 assumes something very unkind
about Florida, that the Old South state will twist the process
to stop African Americans from voting. Florida cannot be trusted
to change voting procedures on its own. So, with the handful of
other states named in the act, Florida must "pre-clear"
voting operations changes with the U.S. Justice Department. The
state must certify any new voter registration process will have
no "disparate impact" on Black voters.
How in the world did Florida zing this
racially bent felon purge scheme past the Feds? In 1998, the Justice
Department smelled something rotten and asked a few questions,
including, Why did Florida need to hire an outside contractor?
On July 21, 1998, a lowly state legislative
aide drafted a soothing memorandum of law to the Justice Department,
dismissing the purge operation as mere administrative reform.
The aide- Clayton Roberts-worked with a state senator-Katherine
Harris. In 1998 they sowed; in 2000 they reaped.
Voting Machine Apartheid
Mary Frances Berry, chairperson of the
U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said the real horror of the 2000
election was not the vote count that so transfixed our media,
but what she calls "the no-count"-the means of keeping
citizens from voting or having their ballots voided.
And Florida used more than the voter purge
in their "no-count" bag of tricks. In February 2001,
I found a doozy.
This fact caught my attention: In a presidential
race decided by 537 votes, Florida simply did not count 179,855
ballots. And whether your vote counted depended a lot on your
color. In Leon (Tallahassee), a primarily white county, only 1
in 500 ballots was uncounted, "spoiled," as they say
in the vote biz, that is, voided for one reason or another. In
neighboring Gadsden, with a high population of Black voters, I
in 8 ballots was never counted.
How could this happen? Exactly how do
votes "spoil"? And why do Black votes spoil so easily?
I found the answer in the Tallahassee
office of Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho. Like
many other counties, Sancho's used paper ballots. These ballots
are read by machine, "optically scanned." He had set
up a voting machine to demonstrate its use. I tried it out, voting
for Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader-a deliberate error as a gag for
a documentary film crew. I marked the ballot, then put it into
a slot in the machine and- grrrr-zunt!-it shot back into my hands,
recognizing my error. You cannot make a voting mistake on this
machine, called an "Accuvote." Mighty cool. But if you
can't make a mistake, how did so many votes "spoil"
in paper ballot counties? I asked a clerk: Does every county using
paper ballots have this machine? The answer- yes and no-was disturbing.
The adjoining county, Gadsden, also had machine-read paper ballots,
but did not activate the reject mechanism. Make one wrong mark
on your ballot in Gadsden and your ballot disappears into the
machine-it will not be counted. For example, some voters had checked
off and written in the name "Al Gore"-yet their vote
did not count for Gore.
So I asked what I call The Florida Question:
"By any chance, do you know the racial profile of counties
where machines accept bad ballots?"
Then I got The Florida Answer: "We've
been waiting for someone to ask us that." The clerk then
pulled out a huge multicolored sheet, listing, for every Florida
county, the number of ballots not counted. The proportion of uncounted
ballots to the Black population, county by county, was a nearly
perfect match. But Ted Koppel's Nightline tells us this was because
Blacks were too ignorant to figure out the ballot. Could Ted have
gotten it wrong? As the Tallahassee officials demonstrated to
me, whether a ballot was counted or not had almost nothing to
do with the voter's education or sophistication-but an awful lot
to do with the type of machine deployed and how the buttons were
One-third of all Black men in Florida have lost their right to
Democracy and the People Who Count: A Conclusion
This story of stolen elections-the last
one, the next one-is not about computers, database management
or voting machinery. If the theft of the U.S. election could have
been prevented by fixing our voting methods and equipment, we
could solve our problems by the means suggested by the Russian
Duma. The Russians voted a resolution demanding that American
presidential elections, like Haiti's and Rwanda's, should be held
under the auspices of the United Nations.
The solution to democracy's ills cannot
be found in computer fixes or in banning butterfly ballots. All
that stuff about technology and procedure is vanishingly peripheral
to this fact: In 2000, the man who lost the vote grabbed the power.
I reported these stories from Europe, where simple minds think
that the appropriate response to the discovery that the wrong
man took office would be to remove him from that office.
So where do we turn? The Democrats' employing
William (son of Boss) Daley as their spokesman during the Florida
vote count, and Al Gore's despicably gracious concession speech,
show that both political parties share, though in different measure,
a contempt for the electorate's will.
Two other presidential elections were
nearly stolen in the year 2000, in Peru and in Yugoslavia. How
ironic that in those nations, though not in the United States,
the voters' will ultimately counted. Peruvians and Yugoslavs took
to heart Martin Luther King's admonition that rights are never
given, only asserted. They knew: When the unelected seize the
presidential palaces, democrats must seize the streets.
Best Democracy Money Can Buy