Jim Crow in Cyberspace:
The Unreported Story of
How They Fixed the Vote in Florida

excerpted from the book

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

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 country."

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 public knew.

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 fine ...

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 set.

One-third of all Black men in Florida have lost their right to vote.

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.

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

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