General Question

shilolo's avatar

Why doesn't Ralph Nader take more responsibility for the mess he got us into?

Asked by shilolo (17993points) July 10th, 2009

As many know, Ralph Nader’s third party campaign in 2000 cost Al Gore enough votes to clearly overcome GWB, even though it was obvious that he would siphon votes away from Gore. Why isn’t this more of an issue today?

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32 Answers

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

That guy’s a mess. He killed any aspirations of ever being taken seriously again after his 2000 nonsense.

Darwin's avatar

Because Nader is never going to win and he has no power anyway. It won’t do any good to beat up on him. Gore has long since gotten over it, and now GWB has been replaced, so it is all water under the bridge.

filmfann's avatar

@Darwin I disagree. With all of the problems still around us caused by W, it is still a valid question.
I blamed him for the election, but I don’t blame him for the mess caused by W. That would deflect the responsablity away from his narrow shoulders.

laureth's avatar

I say this as an Al Gore supporter, but who knows what would have happened if he had been elected, good or bad? Sept 11 hadn’t happened yet, we didn’t have the housing bubble burst or Iraq or Afghanistan or any of that. We simply cannot know how different it would be.

This is why we’re not supposed to mess with the space/time continuum. ;)

shilolo's avatar

Nader knew his was a losing cause, yet he persisted nonetheless in order to advance his personal ambitions. To me, that is/was unconscionable.

filmfann's avatar

@laureth To be honest, I have felt over the last 9 years that someone had already messed with the space/time continuum, and we are in the alternate universe of Bizarro World.

cak's avatar

I’ve wondered the same, but I think it has a lot to do with lack of an outcry by the public. Nader should have bowed out of the race, at that point – to me, it was all ego.

Blondesjon's avatar

Instead of flogging a dead horse why don’t we spend our time and energy finding solutions to our current problems.

If you find somebody to blame you still haven’t solved shit.

kfingerman's avatar

I say a few things (using as many cliched aphorisms as possible):
1) Who knows what would have happened if he’d not been in the race. Maybe FL still would have had a recount, maybe Jeb and the courts still would have tossed it to Dumb Dumb.
2) Hindsight is 20/20. The likelihood of what happened was very small and I have a hard time faulting Ralph in retrospect.
3) You can’t make an omelet (the cracking of the hegemonic 2 party system) without breaking a few eggs (the chance of being seen as a “spoiler”). This is the most important piece for me. The fact that we have no legitimate outlet for minority views in our politics is a big flaw in my opinion. That’s why I voted for Nader and would again (although it’s easy for me to say in CA). The US needs to start using an instantaneous runoff system where I can cast a vote for the candidate I want – sending a message to the parties on where I stand – and a contingency vote for one of the majors in case no one gets a majority.

shilolo's avatar

@Blondesjon Those who cannot remember (and dissect) the past are condemned to repeat it.

Blondesjon's avatar

@shilolo . . .What exactly are we doomed to repeat? We need to remember next time to deny a candidate their constitutional rights and tell them, “No, you can’t run. It might mess the election up for the candidate that I like.”

laureth's avatar

@kfingerman – I agree about the need for dissenting voices. But it’ll be a two-party system as long as the Constitution mandates “winner take all” elections. You’d have to change the Constitution to get what you want – and good luck getting that change through a Congress filled with people who have a strong personal interest in maintaining the two-party system.

shilolo's avatar

@Blondesjon You mentioned moving from blame to activism. I say, understanding peoples’ motives and the consequences of their actions is vital. Nader wanted to push his agenda, but really was all about personal ambition. In fact, his agenda was much more closely aligned with Gore than Bush, but his actions allowed the opposite to happen, and now many of the issues he campaigned for have been decimated by 8 years of Bush.

Blondesjon's avatar

@shilolo . . .I agree but what kind of crystal ball are we supposed to peer into to insure that this never happens again? You are creating a very slippery slope.

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

@Blondesjon I agree that placing blame does little to resolve an existing problem.
@shilolo I agree that learning from the mistakes of the past makes us wiser.

kevbo's avatar

(sigh)

It’s my word of the day.

Blondesjon's avatar

@kevbo . . .Sperling?

AstroChuck's avatar

It’s kind of a bold statement to say that if Ralph Nader hadn’t run then Gore would have been our 43rd president. I highly doubt that Nader cost the democratic party the election. First of all you can’t assume all these Green Party votes came solely from democrats. Most of those who voted for Nader wouldn’t have voted for mainstream candidates anyway because most of these voters were disenfranchised with the choices. If you want to focus on the real culprits, look towards the US Supreme Court.

tinyfaery's avatar

I proudly raise my hand as a Nader voter, in ‘96, ‘00, and ‘04. To say Nader is the reason that Gore didn’t become president is to ignore a whole lotta political corruption, disenfranchisement, and the plain fact that Gore was unappealing to many left leaning voters. Gore couldn’t even win his own state.

filmfann's avatar

@Blondesjon If we try and convict W for misuse of office, or whatever crimes we find he has committed, and send his ass to the Big House, we will still be in the same jam we are if we don’t. However, it will send a message to future presidents that there will be a reckoning for those who misuse their power.

Blondesjon's avatar

@filmfann . . .Why make the taxpayers foot the bill for that, as well. Hit the man where it hurts. Take his money.

dannyc's avatar

Look ahead, what is done is done. There are so many opportunities that are needed to be exploited . Neither Nadar, or Gore, or Bush or Obama have anything to do with what can be..it’s all about what you do to change the future in your immediate world. Do not believe you are not the solution..and you, and you, and me…..

augustlan's avatar

While I agree that the two party system needs reform, the reality is this is what we’ve got for the foreseeable future. Given that, I think third party candidates that clearly have no chance of winning should officially bow out before the general election. That way, they’ve had the entire campaign to get out their message, but don’t screw up the actual election.

gregc's avatar

last time i checked, no one had put a gun to any of the voters’ heads requiring them to vote for him.

Darwin's avatar

Instead of blaming Nader, why don’t we blame any or all of the minor party candidates? Gore only needed 538 votes in Florida to have gotten Florida’s electoral votes, which would have made him the winner. The secondary candidates each got well over that number, so any one of them could have not run and potentially given the election to Gore. They included :

Candidate/ Number of votes in Fla/% of the vote/Party
Ralph Nader / 97,421 / 1.634 / Green
Patrick J. Buchanan / 17,484 / 0.293 / Reform
Harry Browne / 16,415 / 0.275 / Libertarian
John Hagelin / 2,281 / 0.038 / Natural Law/Reform
Howard Phillips 1,378 / 0.023 / Constitution

So if even Phillips had dropped out, potentially Gore could have won.

dalepetrie's avatar

First off, you have to make an assumption that Nader voters would have supported Gore, many have said they wouldn’t have voted, or would have voted for whatever other 3rd party candidate next most closely matched their views. Maybe, and this is even still a big maybe, if after the election had been held, Nader voters could have said, this is my second choice, or if we’d had some sort of instant runoff voting (which would be a more likely scenario) Gore would have won.

Second, it’s a completely unamerican philosophy to say that a 3rd party candidate should step aside. Basically, having this 2 party stranglehold on American politics is what bends us over a barrel and fucks us up the ass by allowing facists like Bush to game the system in the first place. People seem to think that because a 3rd party can’t win, they shouldn’t have the right to compete, but it’s only because you’ve decided that a 3rd party candidate can’t win, that a 3rd party candidate can’t win. Admit it…you don’t think a 3rd party stands a chance in 2012, do you? Or 2016. You’ve probably decided that the two parties are too entrenched to ever let a 3rd party candidate win…and you know what, that’s what they WANT you to think. I used to be the same way, and to a degree I still am. I will not vote for a 3rd party candidate for President when I know that I’d far prefer the Democrat to the Republican and only one can win.

But I had an awakening 10 years ago in Minnesota when Jesse Ventura became Governor. I was not a wrestling fan in the 80s (or ever), his celebrity status did not impress me. But what DID impress me is that when he went to the debates, he made a HELL of a lot more sense than either Norm (I’ve now lost to a Professional Wrestler AND a Professional Comedian, though I did manage to win when my opponent died in a plane crash 10 days before the election) Coleman and Hubert “Skip” (My Dad was a Vice President so I’m the best the Dems can do even though I’m uninteresting as hell) Humphrey III. Jesse said things to the effect of maybe we should look at legalizing drugs and/or prostitution…I mean, at least consider it rather than shutting down debate before it even starts…some places have a model that works, what are they doing that we can’t. Now, in the end however, he was a decent governor, but he failed to accomplish a ton because he couldn’t work within the political system, he would rather butt heads than compromise on anything and so little got done. And instead of blaming his own bullheadedness, he unleashed his anger on the big, bad media, making them wear press passes that said “jackal” on them. So, had he run again, I might have had second thoughts for different reasons, but I would not have discounted him because of his lack or major party status. Indeed, by his winning, he made his party a major 3rd party, now our statewide races have 3 candidates. But here’s what’s important to note. He set an example 2 years before the 2000 election that a 3rd party candidate could do it, and that built on the successes Ross Perot had in 1992 and 1996, because even though he didn’t win, he got enough votes to get major 3rd party status, which meant federal funding.

And for those of you were weren’t in Minnesota, here’s how it happened. It looked like Humphrey was going to beat Coleman, but not by a ton. Coleman, despite being a political chameleon who switched parties from Dem to Republican when the Republicans establishment made him an offer he couldn’t refuse as mayor of St. Paul (where I live now and where I lived when he was Governor), so many distrusted him for that. He was also a New Yorker, not born or raised here but supposedly knew what was good for us (until the opposite became necessary in his view. And finally, as mayor of St. Paul, he lured some large companies downtown with sweetheart deals, then didn’t make them pay any of it back when they skipped town a couple year later, leaving hugh occupancy levels at a time when real estate was actually exploding everywhere else. But he managed to help broker a way to get professional hockey back to the state where the US Hockey Hall of Fame resides, and that accomplishment made him palatable to many who maybe didn’t now or care about the other stuff. So, Jesse starts to debate and suddenly he’s got 10% support, but where’s it coming from…the Democrat more so than the Republican. And what do we hear? Calls for him to drop out so we don’t get stuck with Governor Normie (which would have been hellish, but perhaps not quite as bad as having him as a US Senator for 6 years then having him obstruct his opponent’s being seated for 8 additional months). But then that 10 was 12, then 15, then 17, then we got up to election night, pre election polling had him 10 points behind Coleman, and actually ahead of Humprhrey. And people like me woke up and said, you know what, THIS time, if enough of us liberals don’t just decide a 3rd party candidate won’t win and throw our last minute support behind Ventura, maybe we CAN avoid having the worst candidate thrust upon us. And sure enough 37% of the state voted for Ventura, to Coleman’s 34% and Humprhey’s lackluster 29%. And literally we’re talking about one week after Ventura started to poll in double digits, up to that time it looked like Humphrey was going to win. It CAN change that quickly. And Nader has NOTHING to apologize for because he SAW what happened in Minnesota 2 years before and what had happened nationwide 4 and 8 years before, and his goal was to do well enough to make the Green’s a viable 3rd party. If some Dems actually feared Bush as much as they should have and still voted for Nader thinking Gore had a lock, then if anyone should apologize to the world, it should be them. But having another choice wasn’t the problem…he could have dropped off the ballot and as @Darwin pointed out, any one of 5 other candidates could have been blamed. Or more than 538 people in Florida would probably have written his name in. But Nader not doing something that NO TRUE AMERICAN should even THINK he should have done is not what cost Gore the election, and even if you play the what if game and disagree…that’s how our system works, and we CERTAINLY shouldn’t be pushing to give the two major’s MORE of a stranglehold on our political system than they already have…do you REALLY want to argue for that point?

In reality, the first thing that would have won the election for Gore would have been if he had exercised his right under the law of Florida for a full recount of the entire state. It is mandated in state law that if either candidate requests a full recount, the state has to do it at the state’s expense, in the event that less than one half of one percentage point separates the candidates. Consider that the initial results were even closer than 538 votes, and you have a margin that is statistically a tie. But Gore made the decision to go after certain counties, and to try to block Bush from recounting other counties…he played politics…basically, he cost HIMSELF the election. But the thing is that Gore shouldn’t have even had to have made that decision in the first place.

Even if he hadn’t however, any number of little things would have swung the election his way. For example, the poorly designed butterfly ballot…many Gore voters saw their votes go to Buchanan, you could have gotten more than 538 people in one county to sign an affidavit saying their votes were given to the wrong candidate. Two, an analysis of undervotes in the counties which stopped from recounting 3 days before the state mandated deadline by Katherine Harris when she certified 538, that is ballots which showed clear intent to vote for Gore but which were not counted for him, would have resulted not only in a majority, but a plurality for Gore. Third, overvotes, meaning ballots which were counted twice or where two candidates were marked, causing the ballot to be invalid, would have in and of itself resulted in a Gore victory. Again, all this points to one thing…if Gore had said let’s let the process work, go for a full recount and worked to establish a fair standard for both candidates, rather than trying to pick and choose, he never would have opened the door for some of that wrangling that allowed counting to be stopped, slowed, restarted, invalidated, stopped and started again, then cut off and certified. Gore did EXACTLY what Bush wanted him to do, and he has no one to blame but himself.

But the problem wasn’t Nader, the problem was the George Bush was the governor of Texas, Jeb Bush was the governor of Floriday, Katherine Harris, the Secretary of State of Florida was George Bush’s campaign manager, Justice Scalia had two sons working for the law firm representing Bush, and Justice Thomas’ wife worked for the Heritage Foundation and was actively reviewing Republican resumes to give to Bush for appointment recommendations. All this power was leveraged to steal the election outright, with the help of a company called Choice Point Tehcnologies which was hired to eliminate over 150,000 net Democrat votes from the rolls before Election day.

To give you a quick an dirty idea of how it worked, basically they took the Florida felon registry, AND the Texas felon registry (which had no business being used in Florida), and used it to match names against registered voters in Florida. If your name matched either list, it came off. Fair enough. First big problem though was that Texas’ list didn’t belong there…oh how’d that get there? Well, the governor of Texas (who was that, now) provided it. Second problem, the list wasn’t really cleaned up very well, when you looked at the original source document, there were people on that list who had never committed a felony (or in some of the most outrageous cases, committed a felony in the future somehow). The Florida list would not pass anyone’s review, but it didn’t have to, the SOS’ office used it and they had the say on it. Third problem, when the state of Florida paid Choice Point 4 million dollars, without a competitive bidding process, despite a conflict of interest with the company ownership being in the hands of powerful Republican operatives, they could have insisted on an amazingly robust program and still have overpaid. Fourth problem, rather than ask them to do a 100% match, that is, just take off names that actually matched on they were asked to perform a check with something like 70 or 80% accuracy. Among the parameters were, if only 3 letters of either your first of last name matched the same 3 letters of a first or last name on the felon list, you were off the voter rolls. So the program that they ran, obviously identified FAR more voters to remove from the rolls than should have been removed. So for example, if Santos Jackson committed a felony in Texas, every Sandy Jacobson had her name removed from the voter rolls. Now that would have been somewhat of a net wash if it had been applied statewide, as there were fairly equal numbers of Dems and Republicans in the state at the time, but somehow, these lists of registered voters by and large where only compared to the list of felons by using this program in the counties where Democrats greatly outnumbered Republicans. That in a nutshell alone was the reason Gore lost. Even with more than 50% of the overall vote, even with a popular majority, even though he only lost by a couple electoral votes and even though it was because of 27 corrupted EVs that were essentially stolen outright, by the President elect and his brother and prematurely certified by his campaign manager and upheld in a 5–4 decison by a Supreme Court with 2 people who should have recused themselves (3 if you count Sandra Day O’Connor who declared a better luck next time sentiment on election night when the networks first called Florida for Gore), Gore still had this election stolen from him outright, and it wouldn’t have mattered if there were a hundred Naders had this not been allowed to happen.

There have been many great books written about this, as well as at least a couple good movies, but my favorite, as it’s the most comprehensive and brings you through the story as it unfolded is Greg Palast’s “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.” Now my answer is huge, already, so I’m going to split my post into two posts…this part is mine, the next part is the complete first chapter of Palast’s book, which you can read if you want to or not, but it will explain EXACTLY how this election was stolen, right from the source who discovered what had happened, and indeed tried to give Gore the information he needed, which Gore himself refused, preferring to play the game rather than do the right thing. Bottom line, I blame Gore, after what he did (and didn’t do), as much as it pains me to say it and as much as I wanted Bush to be nowhere near the Oval office, Gore frankly deserved to lose. And to blame Nader, who did nothing more than is Constitutionally guaranteed to him, is lunacy.

dalepetrie's avatar

Excerpt from “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” by investigative journalist Greg Palast”:

JIM CROW IN CYBERSPACE

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 fed into a database, they make for interesting, if chilling, reading. They tell us how our president was electedóand 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. 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 worldwideóeverywhere, that is, but the USA.

Was this some off-the-wall story that the British press misreported? Hardly. The chief lawyer for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission called it the first hard evidence of a systematic attempt to disenfranchise Florida’s Black voters. So why was this story investigated, reported and broadcast only in Europe, for God’s sake? I’d like to know the answer. That way I could understand why a Southern California ho’daddy like me has to commute to England with his wife and kiddies to tell this and other stories about my country.

In this chapter, I take you along the path of the investigation, step by step, report by report, from false starts to unpretty conclusions. When I first broke the story, I had it wrong. Within weeks of the election, I said the Harris crew had tried to purge 8,000 voters. While that was enough to change the outcome of the election (and change history), I was way off. 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.

That will take us to the Big Question: Was it deliberate, this purge so fortunate for the Republicans? Or just an honest clerical error? Go back to the case of Thomas Cooper, Criminal of the Future. I counted 325 of these time-traveling bandits on one of Harris’s scrub lists. Clerical error? I dug back into the computers, the e-mail traffic in the Florida Department of Elections, part of the secretary of state’s office. And sure enough, the office clerks were screaming: They’d found a boatload like Mr. Cooper on the purge list, convicted in the future, in the next century, in the next millennium.

The jittery clerks wanted to know what to do. I thought I knew the answer. As a product of the Los Angeles school system, where I Pledged my Allegiance to the Flag every morning, I assumed that if someone was wrongly accused, the state would give them back their right to vote. But the Republican operatives had a better idea. They told the clerks to blank out the wacky conviction dates. That way, the county elections supervisors, already wary of the list, would be none the wiser. The Florida purge lists have over 4,000 blank conviction dates.

You’ve seen barely a hair of any of this in the U.S. media. Why? How did 100,000 U.S. journalists sent to cover the election fail to get the vote theft story (and preferably before the election)?

Silence of the Media Lambs

Investigative reports share three things: They are risky, they upset the wisdom of the established order and they are very expensive to produce. Do profit-conscious enterprises, whether media companies or widget firms, seek extra costs, extra risk and the opportunity to be attacked? Not in any business text I’ve ever read. I can’t help but note that Britain’s Guardian and Observer newspapers, the only papers to report this scandal when it broke just weeks after the 2000 election, are the world’s only major newspapers owned by a not-for-profit corporation.

But if profit lust is the ultimate problem blocking significant investigative reportage, the more immediate cause of comatose coverage of the election and other issues is what is laughably called America’s “journalistic culture.” If the Rupert Murdochs of the globe are shepherds of the New World Order, they owe their success to breeding a fiock of docile sheep—snoozy editors and reporters content to munch on, digest, then reprint a diet of press releases and canned stories provided by government and corporate public-relations operations.

Take this story of the list of Florida’s faux felons that cost Al Gore the presidential election. Shortly after the U.K. story hit the World Wide Web, I was contacted by a CBS TV network news producer eager to run a version of the story. The CBS hotshot was happy to pump me for information: names, phone numbers, all the items one needs for your typical quickie TV news report. I freely offered up to CBS this information: The office of the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican presidential candidate, had illegally ordered the removal of the names of felons from voter rolls—real felons who had served time but obtained clemency, with the right to vote under Florida law. As a result, another 40,000 legal voters (in addition to the 57,700 on the purge list), almost all of them Democrats, could not vote.

The only problem with this new hot info is that I was still in the midst of investigating it. Therefore, CBS would have to do some actual work—reviewing documents and law, obtaining statements.

The next day I received a call from the producer, who said, “I’m sorry, but your story didn’t hold up.” And how do you think the multibillion-dollar CBS network determined this? Answer: “We called Jeb Bush’s office.” Oh.

I wasn’t surprised by this type of “investigation.” It is, in fact, standard operating procedure for the little lambs of American journalism. One good, slick explanation from a politician or corporate chieftain and it’s case closed, investigation over. The story ran on television, but once again, in the wrong country: I reported it on the BBC’s Newsnight. Notably, the BBC is a publicly owned network—I mean a real public network, with no “funds generously provided by Archer Mobil Bigbucks.”

Let’s understand the pressures on the CBS TV producer that led her to kill the story simply because the target of the allegation said it ain’t so. The story demanded massive and quick review of documents, dozens of phone calls and interviews—hardly a winner in the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am school of U.S. journalism. Most difficult, the revelations in the story required a reporter to stand up and say that the big-name politicians, their lawyers and their PR people were freaking liars.

It would be much easier, a heck of a lot cheaper and no risk at all to wait for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to do the work, then cover the commission’s report and press conference. No one ever lost their job writing canned statements from a press release. Wait! You’ve watched Murphy Brown so you think reporters hanker to uncover the big scandal. Bullshit. Remember, All the President’s Men was so unusual they had to make a movie out of it.

The Election Fix Story Steals Into the States

In London the Guardian and Observer received about two thousand bless-you-Britain-for-telling-us-the-truth-about-our-elections letters from U.S. Internet readers circulating the samizdat presidential elections coverage. I also received a few like this:

You pansey brits seem to think that the average American is as undereducated and stupid as the average british subject..Well comrad [sic], I’m here to tell you . . . . . .which ended with some physically unfeasible suggestions of what to do with the Queen (figure 1.1).

My Observer report went to print within three weeks of the election. The vote count in Florida was still on. Watching the vote-count clock ticking, Joe Conason, the most determined of American investigative reporters, insisted to his editors at Salon.com, the Internet magazine, that they bring my story back to America. Salon posted “Florida’s Ethnic Cleansing of the Voter Rolls” to the Net on December 4, 2000. It wasn’t exactly “print,” but at least it was American. Still, not one U.S. news editor called, not even from my “sister” paper, the Washington Post, with whom the Guardian shares material and prints an international weekly.

From a news perspective, not to mention the flood of site hits, this was Salon’s biggest politics story ever—and they named Part I their political story of the year. But where was Part II? On their Web site and on radio programs the magazine was announcing Part II would appear in two days… and in two days… and in two days… and nothing appeared. Part II was the story blown off by the CBS Evening News about an additional 40,000-plus voters whom Jeb Bush barred from voting. The fact that 90 percent of these 40,000 voters were Democrats should have made it news… because this maneuver alone more than accounted for Bush’s victory.

I was going crazy: Gore had not yet conceded… the timing of Part II was crucial. Where the hell was it? Finally, an editor told me, “The story doesn’t check out. You see, we checked with Jeb Bush’s office and they said…”

Argh! It was deja vu all over again.

Another staffer added, as a kind of explanation, “The Washington Post would never run this story.”

Well, he had me there. They hadn’t, they didn’t. Not yet. At least Salon helped me sneak the first report past the border patrols. So God bless America.

While waiting for the United States to awaken, I took my BBC film crew to Florida, having unearthed a smoking-gun document: I had a page marked “confidential” from the contract between the State of Florida and the private company that had purged the voter lists. The document contained cold evidence that Florida knew they were taking the vote away from thousands of innocent voters, most of them Black.

It was February. I took my camera crew into an agreed interview with Jeb Bush’s director of the Florida Department of Elections. When I pulled out the confidential sheet, Bush’s man ripped off the microphone and did a fifty-yard dash, locking himself in his office, all in front of our cameras. It was killer television and wowed the British viewers. We even ran a confession from the company that was hired to carry out the purge operation. Newsworthy? Apparently not for the United States.

My program, BBC Newsnight, has a film-trading agreement with the ABC television network. A record twenty thousand Net-heads in the United States saw the BBC Webcast; and several banged on the door of ABC TV’s Nightline to run our footage, or at least report what we found. Instead, Nightline sent its own crew down to Florida for a couple of days. They broadcast a story that ballots are complex and Blacks are not well educated about voting procedures. The gravamen of the story was, Blacks are too frigging dumb to figure out how to vote. No mention that in white Leon County, machines automatically kicked back faulty ballots for voter correction; whereas in Gadsden County, very Black, the same machines were programmed to eat mismarked ballots. That was in our story, too.

Why didn’t ABC run the voter purge story? Don’t look for some big Republican conspiracy. Remember the three elements of investigative reporting: risk, time, money. Our BBC/Guardian stories required all of those, in short supply in U.S. news operations.

Finally, in February, my Part II—the report that was too scary and difficult for Dan Rather’s show—found asylum in the Nation magazine, that distant journalistic planet not always visible to the naked eye.

And then, mirabile dictu, the Washington Post ran the story of the voter purge on page one, including the part that “couldn’t stand up” for CBS and Salon . . . and even gave me space for a bylined comment. Applause for the Post’s courage! Would I be ungrateful if I suggested otherwise? The Post ran the story in June,though they had it at hand seven months earlier when the ballots were still being counted. They waited until they knew the findings of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report, which verified BBC’s discoveries, so they could fire from behind that big safe rock of Official Imprimatur. In other words, the Post had the courage to charge out and shoot the wounded.

A Black-List Burning for Bush

How did British newspapers smell the Florida story all the way across the Atlantic? At the time, I was digging into George Bush Sr.‘s gold-mining business [Bush’s gold mines? see Chapter 2 of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy>], when English newshound Solomon Hughes caught a note on the Mother Jones Internet bulletin board flagging a story in the Palm Beach Post printed months before the election. The Post’s back pages mentioned that 8,000 voters had been removed from the voter rolls by mistake. That’s one heck of a mistake. Given the Sturm und Drang in Florida, you’d think that an American journalist would pick up the story. Don’t hold your breath. There were a couple of curious reporters, but they were easily waylaid by Florida’s assurances that the “mistake” had been corrected, which the Post ran as truth.

But what if the Florida press puppies had been wrong? What if they had stood on their hind legs and swallowed a biscuit of bullshit from state officialsóand the “mistakes” had not been corrected?

It was worth a call.

From London, I contacted a statistician at the office of the county elections supervisor in Tampa. Such an expert technician would have no reason to lie to me. The question at the top of my list: “How many of the voters on the scrub list are BLACK?” And the statistician said, “You know, I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that.” From his leads, I wrote “Black-Out in Florida” (The Observer, London, November 26, 2000:

Vice-President Al Gore would have strolled to victory in Florida if the state hadn’t kicked up to 66,000 citizens off the voter registers five months ago as former felons. In fact, not all were ex-cons. Most were simply guilty of being African-American. A top-placed election official told me that the government had conducted a quiet review and found—surprise!—that the listing included far more African-Americans than would statistically have been expected, even accounting for the grievous gap between the conviction rates of Blacks and Whites in the U.S.

One list of 8,000 supposed felons was supplied by Texas. But these criminals from the Lone Star State had committed nothing more serious than misdemeanors such as drunk driving (like their governor, George W. Bush).

The source of this poisonous blacklist: Database Technologies, acting under the direction of Governor Jeb Bush’s frothingly partisan secretary of state, Katherine Harris. DBT, a division of ChoicePoint, is under fire for misuse of personal data in state computers in Pennsylvania. ChoicePoint’s board is loaded with Republican sugar daddies, including Ken Langone, finance chief for Rudy Giuliani’s aborted Senate run against Hillary Clinton.

When the Observer report hit the streets (of London), Gore was still in the race. Columnist Joe Conason pushed his bosses at Salon.com to pick up my story and take it further. But that would not be easy. The Texas list error—8,000 names—was corrected, said the state. That left the tougher question: What about the 57,700 other people named on that list?

The remaining names on the list were, in the majority, Black—not unusual in a nation where half of all felony convictions are against African Americans. But as half the names were Black, and if this included even a tiny fraction of innocents, well, there was the election for Bush. The question was, then, whether the “corrected” list had in fact been corrected. Finding the answer would not be cheap for Salon. It meant big bucks; redirecting their entire political staff to the story and making hotshot reporters knuckle down to the drudgery of calling and visiting county elections offices all over Florida. But they agreed, and our Salon team came back with a mother lode of evidence proving that, by the most conservative analysis, Florida had purged enough innocent Black voters—several thousand—to snatch the presidency from Al Gore.

At that time the presidential race was wide open. Word was, Gore’s camp was split, with warriors fighting the gray-heads of the Establishment who were pushing him to lie down and play dead, advice he’d ultimately follow. Just before we hit the electronic streets with it, someone called a key player in the White House and Gore’s inner circle about the story Salon would soon break.

The Big Insider said, “That’s fantastic! Who’s the reporter?” The tipster said, “This American, he’s a reporter in Britain, Greg Palast.”

Mr. White House Insider replied, “Shit! We hate that guy.” But that’s another story.

On December 4, 2000, I wrote, “Florida’s Ethnic Cleansing of the Voter Rolls,” printed in Salon.com. It began:

If Vice President Al Gore is wondering where his Florida votes went, rather than sift through a pile of chads, he might want to look at a “scrub list” of 57,700 names targeted to be knocked off the Florida voter registry by a division of the office of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. A close examination suggests thousands of voters may have lost their right to vote based on a flaw-ridden list of purported “felons” provided by a private firm with tight Republican ties.

How did we know the “felons” were innocent? We asked a county elections official, Linda Howell, of Madison County, Florida. In March 2000, Harris sent the supervisor a list of criminals—and Ms. Howell’s own name was on it.

“I was very upset,” Howell said. “I know I’m not a felon.” Howell, a white Republican, refused to remove her own name from the voter rolls and threw out the Harris list. In another county, an elections official restored the rights of one “felon” on the list—a local judge.

But not everyone on the list was treated so delicately.

“We did run some number stats and the number of Blacks [on the list] was higher than expected for our population,” says Chuck Smith, a statistician for Hillsborough County. Smith was concerned that African-Americans made up 54 percent of the people on the original felons list, though they constitute only 11.6 percent of the county’s voting population. He challenged the state on this but was told by Harris’ office that since most criminals are Black the figure was not surprising.

On the Hillsborough list, in hundreds of cases, names of felons and voters did not match, nor birthdates, nor even gender. Smith added that the ChoicePoint computer program automatically transformed various forms of a single name. In one case, a voter named “Christine” was identified as a felon based on the conviction of a “Christopher” with the same last name. Smith says ChoicePoint would not respond to queries about its proprietary methods. Nor would the company provide additional verification data to back its fingering certain individuals in the registry purge.

By the rules established by Harris’ office, a voter is assumed guilty and convicted of a crime and conviction unless and until they provide documentation certifying their innocence. Some had been convicted of a misdemeanor and not a felony, others were felons who had had their rights restored and others were simply cases of mistaken identity. While there was much about the lists that bothered Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Iorio, she felt she didn’t have a choice but to use them.

Of the 3,258 names on the original list, the county concluded that more than 15 percent were in error, and tried to restore as many as possible. If that ratio held statewide, no fewer than 7,000 voters were incorrectly targeted for removal from voting rosters. Gore lost by 537 votes.

Hillsborough County’s attempt to do the right thing was rare. In rural Florida, the mostly-Black purge list met little opposition.

Etta Rosado, spokeswoman for the Volusia County Department of Elections, said the county essentially accepted the file at face value, did nothing to confirm the accuracy of it and doesn’t inform citizens ahead of time that they have been dropped from the voter rolls.

“When we get the con felon list, we automatically start going through our rolls on the computer. If there’s a name that says John Smith was convicted of a felony, then we enter a notation on our computer that says convicted felon—we mark an ëf’ for felon—and the date that we received it,” Rosado said.

“I don’t think that it’s up to us to tell them they’re a convicted felon,” Rosado said. “If he’s on our rolls, we make a notation on there. If they show up at a polling place, we’ll say, ëWait a minute, you’re a convicted felon, you can’t vote.’ Nine out of ten times when we repeat that to the person, they say ëThank you’ and walk away. They don’t put up arguments.” Rosado doesn’t know how many people in Volusia were dropped from the list as a result of being identified as felons.

She failed to add that in the two cases of black voters who did raise a complaint, her office threatened them with arrest if they voted and were proven later ineligible.

Florida was the only state in the nation to contract the first stage of removal of voting rights to a private company. And that company, ChoicePoint Inc. of Atlanta, had big plans. “Given the outcome of our work in Florida,” said their PR spokesman, “and with a new president in place, we think our services will expand across the country.”

Especially with a President 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.

Thursday, 2 a.m., December 7, 2000. On the other end of the line, heavy breathing, then a torrent of words too fast for me to catch it all. “Vile . . . lying . . . inaccurate . . . pack of nonsense . . . riddled with errors . . .” click! This was not a ChoicePoint whistleblower telling me about the company’s notorious list. It was Choice- Point’s own media communications representative, Marty Fagan, communicating with me about my “sleazy disgusting journalism” in reporting on it.

Truth is, Fagan was returning my calls. I was curious about this company that chose the president for America’s voters.

They had quite a pedigree for this solemn task. The company’s Florida subsidiary, Database Technologies (now DBT Online), was founded by one Hank Asher. When U.S. law enforcement agencies alleged that he might have been associated with Bahamian drug dealers—although no charges were brought—the company lost its data management contract with the FBI. Hank and his friends left and so, in Florida’s eyes, the past is forgiven.

Thursday, 3 a.m. A new, gentler voice gave me ChoicePoint’s upbeat spin. “You say we got over 15 percent wrong—we like to look at that as up to 85 percent right!” That’s 7,000 votes-plus—the bulk Democrats, not to mention the thousands on the faulty Texas list. (Gore lost the White House by 537 votes.)

I contacted San Franciscoñbased expert Mark Swedlund. “It’s just fundamental industry practice that you don’t roll out the list statewide until you have tested it and tested it again,” he said. “Dershowitz is right: they had to know that this jeopardized thousands of people’s registrations. And they would also know the [racial] profile of those voters.”

“They” is Florida State, not ChoicePoint. Let’s not get confused about where the blame lies. Harris’s crew lit this database fuse, then acted surprised when it blew up. Swedlund says ChoicePoint had a professional responsibility to tell the state to test the list; ChoicePoint says the state should not have used its “raw” data.

Until Florida privatized its Big Brother powers, laws kept the process out in the open. Just before the election, when counties asked to see ChoicePoint’s formulas and back-up for blacklisting voters, they refused—these were commercial secrets.

So we’ll never know how America’s president was chosen.

Florida’s Disappeared Voters

December 10, 2000. Gore was hours away from going to the mat. In Britain’s Observer newspaper I suggested an alternative:

Hey, Al, take a look at this. Every time I cut open another alligator, I find the bones of more Gore voters. This week, I was hacking my way through the Florida swampland known as the Office of Secretary of State Katherine Harris and found a couple thousand more names of voters electronically “disappeared” from the vote rolls. About half of those named are African-Americans. They had the right to vote, but they never made it to the balloting booths.

On November 26, the Observer reported that the Florida Secretary of State’s office had, before the election, ordered the elimination of 8,000 Florida voters on the grounds that they had committed felonies in Texas. None had. For Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his brother, the Texas blacklist was a mistake made in Heaven. Most of those targeted to have their names “scrubbed” from the voter roles were African-Americans, Hispanics and poor white folk, likely voters for Vice-President Gore.

We don’t know how many voters lost their citizenship rights before the error was discovered by a few skeptical county officials before ChoicePoint, which has gamely ‘fessed up to the Texas-sized error, produced a new list of 57,700 felons. In May, Harris sent on the new, improved scrub sheets to the county election boards. Maybe it’s my bad attitude, but I thought it worthwhile to check out the new list. Sleuthing around county offices with a team of researchers from Internet newspaper Salon, we discovered that the “correct” list wasn’t so correct.

Our ten-county review suggests a minimum 15 percent misidentification rate. That makes another 7,000 innocent people accused of crimes and stripped of their citizenship rights in the run-up to the presidential race, a majority of them Black.

Now our team, diving deeper into the swamps, has discovered yet a third group whose voting rights were stripped. The state’s private contractor, ChoicePoint, generated a list of about two thousand names of people who, earlier in their lives, were convicted of felonies in Illinois and Ohio. Like most American states, these two restore citizenship rights to people who have served their time in prison and then remained on the good side of the law.

Florida strips those convicted in its own courts of voting rights for life. But Harris’s office concedes, and county officials concur, that the state of Florida has no right to impose this penalty on people who have moved in from these other states. (Only 13 states, most in the Old Confederacy, bar reformed criminals from voting.) Going deeper into the Harris lists, we find hundreds more convicts from the 37 other states that restored their rights at the end of sentences served. If they have the right to vote, why were these citizens barred from the polls? Harris didn’t return my calls. But Alan Dershowitz did. The Harvard law professor, a renowned authority on legal process, said: “What’s emerging is a pattern of reducing the total number of voters in Florida, which they know will reduce the Democratic vote.”

How could Florida’s Republican rulers know how these people would vote? I put the question to David Bositis, America’s top expert on voting demographics.

Once he stopped laughing, he said the way Florida used the lists from a private firm was “a patently obvious technique to discriminate against Black voters.” In a darker mood, Bositis, of Washington’s Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the sad truth of American justice is that 46 percent of those convicted of felony are African-American. In Florida, a record number of Black folk, over 80 percent of those registered to vote, packed the polling booths on November 7. Behind the curtains, nine out of ten Black people voted for Gore.

Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project, Washington, pointed out that the “White” half of the purge list would be peopled overwhelmingly by the poor, also solid Democratic voters.

Add it up. The dead-wrong Texas list, the uncorrected “corrected” list, plus the out-of-state ex-con list. By golly, it’s enough to swing a presidential election. I bet the busy Harris, simultaneously in charge of both Florida’s voter rolls and George Bush’s presidential campaign, never thought of that.

Yet Another 40,000 Located. I Repeat: 40,000

Now it gets weird. Salon.com ran my reports from London and was showered with praise—by columnists in the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post and Cleveland Plain Dealer , who were horrified by, as Bob Kuttner of the Boston Globe put it, Florida’s “lynching by laptop.” And still no news editor from print or television called me (except the CBS Evening News producer who ran away with tail tucked as soon as Governor Jeb denied the allegations).

My work was far from over. On a tip, I began to look into the rights of felons in Florida—those actually convicted.

Every paper in America reported that Florida bars ex-criminals from voting. As soon as every newspaper agrees, you can bet it probably isn’t true. Someone wants the papers to believe this. It did not take long to discover that what everyone said was true was actually false: some ex-cons could vote, thousands in fact. I knew it . . . and so did Governor Jeb Bush. Was Jeb Bush involved?

So I telephoned a clerk in First Brother Jeb’s office, who whispered, “Call me tomorrow before official opening hours.” And then I did call the next morning, this heroic clerk spent two hours explaining to me, “The courts tell us to do this, and we do that.” She referred to court orders that I’d gotten wind of, which ordered Governor Bush to stop interfering in the civil rights of ex-cons who had the right to vote.

I asked Jeb’s clerk four times, “Are you telling me the governor knowingly violated the law and court orders, excluding eligible voters?”

And four times I got, “The courts tell us to do this [allow certain felons to vote] and we do that [block them].”

But Salon, despite a mountain of evidence, stalled—then stalled some more.

Resentment of the takeover of the political coverage by an “alien” was getting on the team’s nerves. I can’t blame them. And it didn’t help that Salon was facing bankruptcy, staff were frazzled and it was nearly Christmas.

The remains of the year were lost while I got hold of legal opinions from top lawyers saying Bush’s office was wrong; and later the Civil Rights Commission would also say Bush was wrong. While Salon dithered, the political clock was ticking and George W. was oozing toward the Oval Office. E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post told me, “You have to get this story out, Greg, right away!” Notably, instead of directing me to the Post’s newsroom, E. J. told me to call The Nation, a kind of refugee center for storm-tossed news reports.

After double-checking and quintuple-checking the facts, the Nation held its breath and printed the story of the “third group” of wrongly purged ex-felon voters (numbering nearly three thousand), and a fourth group of voters wrongly barred from registering in the first place—yet another 40,000 of them, almost all Democratic voters.

This was a gutsy decision by Nation. The 57,000 voters I had already reported on in Salon were innocents wrongly tagged as ex-cons; the new group prevented from voting were indeed convicted felons who nevertheless had the legal right to vote in Florida. There’s not a lot of editors out there with sympathy for convicts; even the Democrats stayed mum on this one despite the cost to their party.

Here’s what I discovered: It has been well reported that Florida denies its nearly half a million former convicts the right to vote. However, Florida’s own courts have repeatedly told the governor he may not take away the civil rights of Florida citizens who have committed crimes in other states, served their time and had their rights restored by those states.

People from other states who have arrived in Florida with a felony conviction in their past number “clearly over 50,000 and likely over 100,000,” says criminal demographics expert Jeffrey Manza of Northwestern University, are no fewer than 40,000 reformed felons eligible to vote in Florida.

Nevertheless, agencies controlled by Harris and Bush ordered county officials to reject attempts by these eligible voters to register, while, publicly, the governor’s office states that it adheres to court rulings not to obstruct these ex-offenders in the exercise of their civil rights. Further, Harris’s office used sophisticated computer programs to hunt those felons eligible to vote and ordered them thrown off the voter registries.

David Bositis, the Washington, DC, expert on voter demographics, suggests that the block-and-purge program “must have had a partisan motivation. Why else spend $4 million if they expected no difference in the ultimate vote count?”

White and Hispanic felons, mostly poor, vote almost as solidly Democratic as African-Americans. A University of Minnesota study estimates that, for example, 93 percent of felons of all races favored Bill Clinton in 1996. These qualified voters kept out of the polling booths on November 7 represented several times George W. Bush’s margin of victory in the state.

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. (A financial scandal caused Jeb to replace her with Harris.)

Under Mortham, the elections unit within the office of the secretary of state immediately launched a felon manhunt with a zeal and carelessness that worried local election professionals. A friendly official slipped me 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.”

One of the ex-cons with the right to vote and attempted to register was Pastor Thomas Johnson of Gainesville. Johnson ministers to House of Hope, a faith-based charity that guides ex-convicts from jail into working life, a program that has won high praise from the pastor’s friend, Governor Jeb Bush. Ten years ago, Johnson sold crack cocaine in the streets of New York, got caught, served his time, then discovered God and Florida—where, early last year, he attempted to register to vote. But local election officials refused to accept his registration after he admitted to the decade-old felony conviction from New York. “It knocked me for a loop. It was horrendous,” said Johnson of his rejection.

Beverly Hill, the election supervisor of Alachua County, where Johnson attempted to register, said that she used to allow ex-felons like Johnson to vote. Under Governor Bush, that changed. “Recently, the [Governor’s Office of Executive] Clemency people told us something different,” she said. “They told us that they essentially can’t vote.”

Both Alachua’s refusal to allow Johnson to vote and the governor’s directive underlying that refusal are notable for their timing—coming after two court rulings that ordered the secretary of state and governor to recognize the civil rights of felons arriving from other states. In the first of these decisions, Schlenther v. Florida Department of State, issued in June 1998, Florida’s Court of Appeal ruled unanimously that Florida could not require a man convicted in Connecticut twenty-five years earlier “to ask [Florida] to restore his civil rights. They were never lost here.” Connecticut, like most states, automatically restores felons’ civil rights at the end of their sentence, and therefore “he arrived as any other citizen, with full rights of citizenship.”

The Schlenther decision was much of the talk at a summer 1998 meeting of county election officials in Orlando. So it was all the more surprising to Chuck Smith, a statistician with Hillsborough County, that Harris’s elections division chief Clayton Roberts exhorted local officials at the Orlando meeting to purge all out-of-state felons identified by DBT.

But when Pastor Johnson attempted to register in Alachua County, clerks refused and instead handed him a fifteen-page clemency request form. The outraged minister found the offer a demeaning Catch-22. “How can I ask the governor for a right I already have?” he says, echoing, albeit unknowingly, the words of the Florida courts.

Had Johnson relented and chosen to seek clemency, he would have faced a procedure that is, admits the clemency office’s Tawana Hayes, “sometimes worse than breaking a leg.” For New Yorkers like Johnson, she says, “I’m telling you it’s a bear.” She says officials in New York, which restores civil rights automatically, are perplexed by requests from Florida for nonexistent papers declaring the individual’s rights restored. Without the phantom clemency orders, the applicant must hunt up old court records and begin a complex process lasting from four months to two years, sometimes involving quasi-judicial hearings, the outcome of which depends on Jeb Bush’s disposition.

Little wonder that out of tens of thousands of out-of state felons, only a hardy couple of hundred attempted to run this bureaucratic obstacle course before the election. (Bush can be compassionate: he granted clemency to Charles Colson for his crimes as a Watergate conspirator, giving Florida resident Colson the right to vote in the presidential election.)

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.

Pastor Johnson, an African American wrongfully stripped of his vote, refuses to think ill of the governor or his motives. He prefers to see a dark comedy of bureaucratic errors: “The buffoonery of this state has cost us a president.” It was now February 5, 2001—so President Bush could read The Nation exposÈ from the Oval Office. If this is buffoonery, then Harris and the Bushes are wise fools indeed.

From Planning to Execution to Inauguration; What They Knew, and When They Knew It

An editor at one of the biggest newspapers in the United States told me, “The committee has decided not to continue printing stories about the presidential vote. We think it’s over. We don’t want to look partisan.”

I thought, what “committee”? And I picked up that I wasn’t supposed to ask.

America had, as Katherine Harris requested, “moved on.”

But I hadn’t.

It was now February, and here’s what we knew so far. The British Observer story told us that Harris’s elections office had wrongly ordered over 50,000 voters stripped from the rolls, thousands of them wrongly. From the Nation report we knew that Governor Bush’s office had barred the registration of another 40,000—Democrats by a wide margin. That was the election.

Maybe Governor Bush had simply misread the court orders, and maybe Harris’s office had no idea the purge list was wildly wrong; maybe their computer firm ChoicePoint DBT simply flubbed the algorithms. One man’s mistake is another man’s inauguration. Tough, but no criminal intent.

A loose clue still nagged me. As always, it was the money. When I looked into state files, I discovered that ChoicePoint’s DBT was not the first contractor on the job. In 1998, this first firm, Professional Service Inc., charged $5,700 for the job. A year later, the Florida Department of Elections terminated their contract, then gave the job to DBT for a first-year fee of $2,317,800—no bidding! Then I found out that indeed there had been an open bid for the job. However, when the offers were unsealed, DBT’s was the costliest—several thousand percent over competitors. The state ignored the bids and grabbed for DBT, in the end signing a deal for more than DBT’s original astronomical bid. Hmm.

When I contacted database industry experts about the fee paid DBT by Florida their eyes popped out—“Wow!” “Jeez!” “Scandalous!” The charge of twenty-seven cents per record was easily ten times the industry norm.

Something else bothered me: It was the weird glee, the beaming self-congratulations, from the ChoicePoint public relations man over my Salon report that 15 percent of the names on his purge list were wrong (even though the error turned around an election). To ChoicePoint, my story was good news: In effect, they said, I reported their list was “85 percent correct.” But was it?

The Killer Stats

The list was 85 percent “accurate,” said DBT ChoicePoint’s PR man, because they used Social Security numbers. That was convincing—until I checked the felon scrub lists themselves and almost none of them listed a voter’s Social Security number. Floridians, until recently, did not have to provide their Social Security number when registering to vote.

Four days after I ran my first report in England, on November 30, 2000, the Bloomberg business news wire interviewed Marty Fagan of ChoicePoint, one of the PR men who’d spoken to me. Based on the big “success” of its computer purge in Florida, ChoicePoint planned to sell its voter-purge operation to every state in the Union. This could become a billion-dollar business.

Fagan crowed to Bloomberg about the accuracy of Choice-Point’s lists. The company, he said, used 1,200 public databases to cross-check “a very accurate picture of an individual,” including a history of addresses and financial assets.

That was impressive. And indeed, every database expert told me (including DBT’s vice president), if you want 85 percent accuracy or better, you will need at least these three things: Social Security numbers, address history and a check against other databases. But over the ensuing weeks and months I discovered:

ChoicePoint used virtually no Social Security numbers for the Florida felon purge; of its 1,200 databases with which to “check the accuracy of the data,” ChoicePoint used exactly none for cross-checking; as to the necessary verification of address history of the 66,000 named “potential felons,” ChoicePoint performed this check in exactly zero cases.

There was, then, not a chance in hell that the list was “85 percent correct.”

One county, Leon (Tallahassee), carried out the purge as the law required. But with doubts in the minds of their in-house experts, the county did the hard work of checking each name, one by one, to verify independently that the 694 named felons in Tallahassee were, in fact, ineligible voters. They could verify only 34 names—a 95 percent error rate. That is killer information. In another life, decades ago, I taught “Collection and Use of Economic and Statistical Data” at Indiana University. Here’s a quicky statistics lesson:

The statewide list of felons is “homogeneous” as to its accuracy. Leon County provides us with a sample large enough to give us a “confidence interval” of 4.87 at a “confidence level” of 99 percent. Are you following me, class? In other words, we can be 99 percent certain that at least 90.2 percent of the names on the Florida list are not felons—52,000 wrongly tagged for removal.

Okay, you want to argue and say not everyone tagged was actually removed. Maybe 52,000 did not have their vote swiped, but 42,000 or 22,000. Al Gore “lost” by 537 votes.

Now I was confident the list was junk—it had to be, because ChoicePoint did not use the most basic tools of verification. But why didn’t they? Is ChoicePoint incompetent, hasn’t a clue of the methodology for verifying its output? That’s unlikely—this is the company hired by the FBI for manhunts, and the FBI doesn’t pay for 90.2 percent wrong.

And why would ChoicePoint lie about it? Their list was bogus and they had to know it. Did someone want it wrong? Could someone, say, want to swing an election with this poisoned list? That’s when I went back to a stack of documents from inside Harris’s office—and to one sheet in particular, marked, “DBT CONFIDENTIAL AND TRADE SECRET.”

“When the going gets weird,” Hunter Thompson advises journalists, “the weird turn pro.” In London, I showed this “CONFIDENTIAL” sheet to the ultimate pro, Meirion Jones, producer with BBC Television’s Newsnight. He said, “How soon can you get on a plane to Florida?”

Mr. Roberts Does a Runner

Our BBC Newsnight broadcast began with a country-and-western twang off the rental car radio:

After hundreds of lies . . . fake alibis . . .”

Newsnight’s camera followed me up to the eighteenth fioor of the Florida Capitol Building in Tallahassee for my meeting with Clayton Roberts, the squat, bull-necked director of Florida’s Division of Elections.

Roberts, who worked directly under Secretary of State Katherine Harris, had agreed to chat with me on film. We sat on the reception sofa outside his office. His eyes began to shift, then narrowed as he read the heading of the paper on the sofa next to me: “CONFIDENTIAL.”

He certainly knew what I had when I picked up the paper and asked him if the state had checked whether DBT (the Choice Point company) had verified the accuracy of a single name on the purge list before they paid the company millions.

“No, I didn’t ask DBT. . . ,” Roberts sputtered, falling over a few half-started sentences—then ripped off his lapel microphone, jumped up, charged over the camera wires and slammed his office door on me and the camera crew giving chase. We were swiftly escorted out of the building by very polite and very large state troopers. [Click here for photos.]

Before he went into hiding and called the Smokies, Roberts whipped around and pointed an angry finger at the lens, saying, “Please turn off that camera!” Which we did—BBC rules. But he didn’t add, “and turn off the microphone,” so our lawyers ruled we could include his parting shot, “You know if y’all want to hang this on me that’s fine.” I will. Though not him alone. By “this” he meant the evidence in the document, which I was trying to read out to him on the run. [You can watch the film of the Roberts run for yourself at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/cta/progs/newsnight/palast.ram.]

What was so terrifying to this Republican honcho? The “CONFIDENTIAL” page [Click here to see the title page], obviously not meant to see the light of day, said that DBT would be paid $2.3 million for their lists and “manual verification using telephone calls and statistical sampling.” No wonder Roberts did a runner. He and Harris had testified to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission—under oath—that verification of the voter purge list was left completely up to the county elections supervisors, not to the state or the contractor, ChoicePoint DBT.

It was the requirement to verify the accuracy of the purge list that justified ChoicePoint’s selection for the job as well as their astonishingly high fee. Good evening, Mr. Smith. Are you the same Mr. John Smith that served hard time in New York in 1991? Expensive though that is to repeat thousands of times, it is necessary when civil rights are at stake. Yet DBT seemed to have found a way to cut the cost of this procedure: not doing it. There is no record of DBT having made extensive verification calls. It is difficult for DBT to squirm out of this one. If they had conducted manual verification as contracted, you’d think they would have noticed that every single record on the Texas felon list was wrong.

I took my camera crew to DBT’s Boca Raton, Florida, office complex to confront them about the verification calls, but they barred our entry. On our return to London, we received a call from one of their executives explaining that “manual verification by telephone” did not “require us to actually make telephone calls” to anyone on the list. Oh, I see.

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.

McKinney Nails the Confession

There’s Thomas Cooper who’s crime is still in the future.

And then Johnny Jackson Jr., on the purge list because his name partially matched that of a man convicted in Texas, John Fitzgerald Jackson (no “Jr.”). Johnny Jr.‘s never been to Texas, and his mama swears to me he never had the middle name Fitzgerald. Neither is there any evidence that John Fitzgerald Jackson, the felon, ever left Texas—or ever left his jail cell. There are 638 John and Johnny Jacksons (and permutations thereof) in the Florida phone book. How did the state know they had the right Johnny? They didn’t; and it looks like they didn’t want to know. Using the address history database, as the state was promised, would have saved Jackson, a Black man, his right to vote.

Then there’s Wallace McDonald, age sixty-four. Wallace tells me how in 1959 he fell asleep on a bus-stop bench and was busted. Even for a Black man in then-segregated Florida, that was a misdemeanor, not a felony. He never lost his right to vote; and the state agrees he was wrongly “scrubbed.” Had DBT checked the databases, as promised, they would not have named Wallace.

Willie Dixon is on the list, too. The Reverend Dixon was convicted decades ago, and has received full executive clemency. That would have been an easy one to catch if the state had checked and verified the clemency records as per the contract.

Read down the list and mismatches jump out at you. Note they have taken voting rights away from Randall Higginbotham, age forty-one, because of the crimes of Sean Higginbotham, age thirty. The list is lousy with suspicious matches: pairing voter David Russell Butler Jr. of Florida to convict David Butler of Ohio. No question why David R. registered with his full name and appended the Junior. There are sixty-six other David Butlers listed in the Florida phone book and they must get one another’s mail all the time. It is disturbingly improbable that they purged the right Butler. That should have been a no-brainer to correct.

The wrong Butlers, Smiths and Jacksons remained on the list because of DBT’s “matching logic” and “matching criteria.” Credit card companies can require thirty-five matches for verification before they will issue you plastic. The State of Florida was content with a partial match of four: names (the first four letters were good enough), date of birth, gender and race. Not even the address or state mattered in the mad dash to maximize the number of citizens stripped of their civil rights.

Rather than add matching criteria to verify the list, the state told DBT to remove criteria. For example, Messrs. Butler and Jackson so carefully added “Jr.” to their official names to avoid such confusion. Tough luck. I found an internal mail in Roberts’s office, dated June 14, 2000, in which clerks fretted about what they called “tweaked” data, allowing “matches” between Edward and Edwin (and Edwina!); deliberately ignoring middle names and initials; and skipping the “Jr.” and “Sr.” suffixes.

I met with a Willie D. Whiting of Tallahassee. The Reverend Whiting confessed he had a speeding ticket a decade ago, but doubted that should cost him his right to vote. But there he was: on the purge list, matched with Willie J. Whiting—no “Jr.”—whose birthday was two days different from Willie D.‘s. Our experts looked at the paltry number of match criteria and were horrified. One, Mark Hull, told me the state and ChoicePoint could have chosen criteria that would have brought down the number of “false positives” to less than a fragment of 1 percent. He said it made him ill to learn what the company had agreed to do. These revelations were especially upsetting to him; he had been the senior programmer for CDB Infotek, a Choice-Point company.

Vulture Opportunism versus Conspiracy

I now began to understand the brilliant deviltry of the Black voter 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 with Ms. Harris and crew.

Make verification phone calls? Have statisticians check the findings? Correct the methods? Why, that would only cut the list . . . by 90 percent at least. Why should a Republican administration pay for that?

It’s not “conspiracy,” but opportunism. The Department of Elections Republicans began to act like a bank customer who accidentally receives a million-dollar deposit that is not theirs: To fail to correct the error, to actively conceal the error, is theft in any court. Only here the crime was far bigger: the theft of our democracy. Opportunism does not require planning and conspiracy; it does require a cover-up.

In any investigation, I try to imagine myself in the perps’ shoes. If I had a magic list falsely accusing my opponents’ voters of crime, how would I prevent the discovery that it is bogus? First, don’t dare verify the list; not one phone call. Second, don’t correct the methodology: Ignore every warning about crap inputs, crap methods, crap results. And third, for God’s sake, don’t allow any independent statistician near it.

The Case of the Missing Statistician

Florida’s contract with DBT states:

DBT shall consult a professional statistician. . . . Upon the return of the processed data, DBT shall supply the formulas and mathematical calculations and identify the professional statistician used during the verification process.

The 8,000-name Texas list had a 100 percent error rate—which seemed a wee bit high to me. What kind of “academically based formula” was used to verify the accuracy of these data? Who was the consulting “professional statistician”? Inscrutably silent on whether he or she exists, ChoicePoint DBT referred me back to Clay Roberts. His minions could not name this Man of Mystery either, although the contract requires DBT to provide evidence of the statistician’s hiring and analysis. Neither the name nor the calculations were filed as required.

Eventually, I found this: a letter dated March 22, 1999, from DBT to the state. “Our” statistician, said the one-page note, “certified” their list as 99.9 percent “accurate”! I can imagine why “our” statistician would remain nameless: 99.9 percent accurate but almost every name an eligible voter. No backup. Nada. How convenient. No independent technician, no expert to see things go rotten, no one to blow the whistle.

Evidence of Innocence: “Don’t Need”

I turned back to the question of Florida hiring DBT for $2.3 million, booting the company charging $5,700. When questioned, George Bruder, ChoicePoint DBT’s senior vice president, said, “a little birdie” told him to enter that astonishing bid. What else did the little birdie tell him?

What happened to the 1,200 databases, the millions and millions of records that DBT used in its Carl Saganesque sales pitch to the state? In fact, the state paid for this vital cross-check—or at least DBT’s bid said that for their two-million-dollar fee, they would use artificial intelligence for “cross-referencing linked databases . . . simultaneously searching hundred of data sources, conducting millions of data comparisons, compiling related data for matching and integration.”

In all, they had four billion records to check against. Under “Offer and Bid” it read:

“DBT will process total combined records from:

“8,250,000 Criminal Conviction Records
69,000,000 Florida Property Records
62,000,000 National Change of Address Records
12,590,470 Florida Driver License Records. . . .”

And so on. The phone calls, the massive data crunching, it all justified the big payoff to DBT and scared away competitors who could not match DBT’s database firepower. DBT’s offer promised “273,318,667 total records to be processed.” But they didn’t do it.

Once the contract was nailed, it seems a little birdie in the state told DBT not to bother with all that expensive computing work. In the state files, on the DBT bid, I found a handwritten notation, “don’t need,” next to the listing of verification databases (the 62 million address histories, etc.), though this work was included in the price.

Each pass would have cut the list by thousands, thereby letting thousands more Democrats vote. So when the state said, “Don’t need,” the underlying motive was, “Don’t want.”

“Wanted More Names Than We Can Verify . . .”

DBT’s “expertise” in obtaining data justified their hiring. But it was a con. Janet Mudrow, the state’s liaison with DBT, confessed to me that DBT merely downloaded lists from eleven states that make the data available publicly, such as Texas. Any high school kid with a Mac and a credit card could have grabbed the names off the Internet. And that was okay with Florida, even though eight of those states do not take away an ex-felon’s voting rights, and therefore should not have been used at all.

DBT’s negligence in handing Florida the bogus Texas list cost Florida and its counties a pretty penny when they tried to reverse that error. Yet Mudrow, in Harris’s office, says the state neither demanded reimbursement nor sought any penalty as permitted under the contract. In fact, the state awarded DBT another contract renewal, bringing total fees to over $4 million.

Why didn’t the state complain, sue, or withhold payment? Following my first reports, when the stats hit the fan, ChoicePoint DBT agreed to a one-year extension of their contract without charge. But why didn’t the watchdog bark?

One can only conclude that Harris’s office paid an awful lot of money for either (a) failed, incomplete, incompetent, costly, disastrous work that stripped innocent citizens of their rights, or (b) services performed exactly as planned.

Was DBT paid to get it wrong? Every single failure—to verify by phone, to sample and test, to cross-check against other databases—worked in one direction: to increase the number of falsely accused voters, half of them Black.

How could ChoicePoint, such an expert outfit, do such a horrendous job, without complaint from their client? You’d think their client, the state, ordered them to get it wrong. They did. Just before we went on air in February 2000, ChoicePoint vice president James Lee called us at the BBC’s London studios with the first hint that the state of Florida instructed the company to give them the names of innocents. The state, he said, “wanted there to be more names than were actually verified as being a convicted felon.” What an extraordinary statement. When ChoicePoint saw the story with their own words—“more names than were actually verified”—printed across the screen, the company went ballistic. They demanded in writing to my network chiefs that we retract it all. The BBC wouldn’t back down an inch.

McKinney Nails the Confession

Following the February 15, 2001, broadcast, only one member of the U.S. Congress called BBC to ask for our evidence: Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. This lady is trouble, the kind of trouble I like. A Black single mom and doctoral candidate at Princeton’s School of Diplomacy, she is always asking questions. And in the world of politics, that makes her dangerous—“radioactive,” as a staffer from the Democratic National Committee describes her. Unusual for a member of Congress, she reads the detailed memos and evidence herself, not delegating the research to underlings. She knows her stuff. McKinney represented Atlanta, the location of ChoicePoint’s headquarters. She demanded their executives appear before a special hearing. As usual, she had some questions she wanted answered, in public. So I handed McKinney—and ChoicePoint—the evidence. ChoicePoint was shoveling a lot of nonsense my way, but I figured the company might hesitate about shucking and jiving a member of the U.S. Congress.

On April 17 ChoicePoint VP James Lee opened his testimony before the McKinney panel with notice that, despite its prior boast, the firm was getting out of the voter purge business. Then the company man, in highly technical, guarded language, effectively confessed to the whole game. Lee fingered the state. Lee said that, for example, the state had given DBT the truly insane directive to add to the purge list people who matched 90 percent of a last name—if Anderson committed a crime, Andersen lost his vote. DBT objected, knowing this would sweep in a huge number of innocents. The state then went further and ordered DBT to shift to an 80 percent match. It was programmed-in inaccuracy. Names were reversedófelon Thomas Clarence could knock out the vote of Clarence Thomas. He confirmed that middle initials were skipped, “Jr.” and “Sr.” suffixes dropped. Then, nicknames and aliases were added to puff up the list.

“DBT told state officials,” testified Lee, “that the rules for creating the [purge] list would mean a significant number of people who were not deceased, not registered in more than one county or not a felon would be included on the list. Likewise, DBT made suggestions to reduce the numbers of eligible voters included on the list.”

Correct the list? Remove those “not a felon”? The state, says DBT, told the company, Forget about it.

Hunting the Black Voter—the June 9 Letter

Florida was hunting for innocents and, it seems, the Blacker the better. To swing an election, there would be no point in knocking off thousands of legitimate voters if they were caught randomly—that would not affect the election’s outcome. The key was color. And here’s where the computer game got intensely sophisticated. How could it be that some 54 percent of the list were Black? There is no denying that half of America’s felons are African Americans, but how could it be that the innocent people on the list were mostly Blacks as well?

In November, ChoicePoint’s PR men jumped up and down insisting in calls to me that “race was not part of the search criteria.” The company repeated this denial in press releases after they were sued by the NAACP for participating in a racist conspiracy against citizens’ civil rights. DBT complained to my producers and to federal investigators: Race was not a search criterion, period!

Then, I obtained a letter dated June 9, 2000, signed by Choice-Point DBT’s Vice President Bruder written to all county elections supervisors explaining their method: “The information used for the matching process included first, middle, and last name; date of birth; race; and gender; but not Social Security Number.”

They had not lied to me. Read closely. They used race as a match criterion, not a search criterion. The company used this confusion between “match” and “search” criteria to try to pull the BBC off the track. They tried to slide the race question by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. However, on the morning of February 16, the day after our broadcast, I faxed to the commission the June 9 letter. Later that day, the commission questioned Bruder.

COMMISSION: Was race or party affiliation matching criterion in compiling that list?
BRUDER: [under oath] No. . . .
COMMISSION: [June 9 letter read into record.] Did you write this letter? It has your signature on it.
BRUDER: Can I see it, please?
COMMISSION: So, you misinformed the Florida supervisors of elections that race would be used as a matching criterion?
BRUDER: Yes.

Wise answer, Mr. Bruder. Misleading elections officials is not a crime; perjury would be. He pleaded confusion. So if race was not a match criterion, how did Black people get matched to felons? I was perplexed by this until I looked again at the decoded scrub sheets: There were columns for felon race and voter race. How could DBT deny that? [Click here to see the scrub list.] However, DBT had simply identified race for every real felon, and the secretary of state provided the race of the voters. It was left to the county supervisors to finish the Jim Crow operation: They would accept racial matches as “proof” that the right person was named. Therefore, a Black felon named Willie Whiting wiped out the registration of an innocent Willie Whiting (Black) but not the rights of an innocent Will Whiting (white).

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, 1 in 8 ballots was never counted.

Here’s the breakdown of ballots not counted in Florida’s Blackest and whitest counties:

BLACK COUNTIES
Population 25+% African American
Gadsden 52% Black population. Votes not counted: 12%
Madison 42% Black population. Votes not counted: 7%
Hamilton 39% Black population. Votes not counted: 9%
Jackson 26% Black population. Votes not counted: 7%

WHITE COUNTIES
Fewer than 5% African American
Citrus 2% Black population. Votes not counted: 1%
Pasco 2% Black population. Votes not counted: 3%
Santa Rosa 4% Black population. Votes not counted: 1%
Sarasota 4% Black population. Votes not counted: 2%

Detect a pattern?

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.

Then I got to the 64 Dollar questions: What did Harris and the governor know and when did they know it? Was either aware of this racially loaded technical problem? Harris’s office and Jeb’s are literally a stone’s throw away from Sancho’s. The technicians told me, “That’s why we set up this machine, so they could see it—before the election.”

The Consortium That Couldn’t Count

Twisted press coverage murdered the story of ethnic cleansing of the voter rolls. But simply smothering the news wasn’t good enough for The New York Times, CNN and the other keepers of the New Information Order. With other major news outlets, they joined together as “the Consortium” and spent a wagonload of cash to hire the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), of the University of Chicago, to conduct what was wrongly called a “recount” of the ballots. For months they held back the results. Finally, more than a year after the election, they released their findings. “Bush would have won anyway,” headlines reassured us. So shut up, move on, get over it: The Lion of Kabul won fair and square. Or did he?

First, understand that NORC did not “recount” the ballots. Rather, its teams described each of the 180,000 “spoiled” ballots that Katherine Harris barred from the official total. This was the first count of these ballots. Also, NORC “coders” were not allowed to count these ballots either, merely provide physical descriptions of each ballot. They could note, in code, “Paper ballot, Gore circled,” but could not count that ballot as a vote for Gore. The newspaper and television executives and editors, not the NORC experts, called the “winner” in this one.

Most Americans would have thought the goal of this million dollar investigation was to find out whom Floridians wanted to vote for. That tends to be what we mean by “democracy.” But the news bosses were in no mood for a democracy that threatened the legitimacy of authority, especially with the war on in Afghanistan and an economy in the toilet. So, despite the fact that NORC coders clearly found that the majority of Florida voters thought they had voted for Gore, the papers called the NORC findings for Bush. Like, huh? NORC has put its data on the Web, so the Gore majority is there for all to see (for those who bother to look). The media chiefs’ trick was to say that, going by various Florida rules, which knock out ballots with stray markings, Bush would have won. Well, we already knew that: That’s how Katherine Harris called it for Bush—on technicalities, not votes. Through this editorial three-card monte, the Republic was saved.

I watched the NORC operation firsthand in Miami in February 2001. There was an Alice in Wonderland weirdness in the process—“First we announce the winner, then we count the ballots.”

It was not difficult to discern which candidate the voters wanted. “It screamed at you,” said one counter. If someone circled “Gore,” who do you think he or she wanted as president? Yet, thousands of such ballots were tossed out of the official count. Tens of thousands were disenfranchised because of a wrongly placed or stray mark—often made by the voting machine itself, as it turns out. The Consortium members did not comment on this exclusion of tens of thousands of clearly marked ballots or on its effect: the inauguration of the wrong person.

‘Katherine Harris: “Palast Twisted”’

And then, evidence began to disappear.

The counsel for the Civil Rights Commission told me he was most concerned about the purge of the 2,834 felons who did have a right to vote (he’d read my Nation article)—a willful violation of two court orders. Proof of the illegal procedure was in a September 18, 2000, letter to county supervisors. The letter was read to me by two county clerks, but the sources were too nervous to fax me a copy. So I called Janet Keels in Governor Jeb Bush’s Office of Executive Clemency; I wanted a hard copy of the letter. A crew with the documentary Unprecedentedcaptured the call on camera. . . .

My name is Gregory Palast and I’m calling from London.

“My name is Troy Walker.”

Troy, maybe you can help me. There is a letter from Janet Keels’s [Governor’s] Office of Executive Clemency, dated September 18, 2000.This is to Hillsborough Board of Elections dealing with registration of voters who moved to the state, committed a felony but have received executive clemency. I’m sure you have a copy of it. . . .

“We do have a letter referencing something close to that.”

Okay, what date is that letter?

“This letter is dated February 23, 2001.”

What? He then read me a letter from Keels saying the exact opposite of the September 18 memo.

September 18 (before the election): convicts from other states moving to Florida “would be required to make application for restoration of civil rights in the State of Florida.”

February 23 (after the election): out-of-state convicts “need not apply for restoration of civil rights in Florida.”

The post-election letter was drafted one week after the Civil Rights Commission began to question Florida about the illegal maneuver—and now Troy was telling me there was no recordof the first letter in Keels’ files, or in the office’s files, or in the state computers. Uh, oh. There were two explanations. Maybe I had screwed up. My most serious accusation, that the governor’s office barred and removed thousands of legal voters in violation of two court rulings, may have been dead wrong. After all, the cautious clerks had merely read me the text of the letter. What if it had never been sent? What if I’d been had by my sources? The first edition of this book had already gone to press.

The other possibility: The letter existed but had been purged faster than a Black voter from the governor’s files, replaced by the February 23 letter, with opposite meaning. If so, then Jeb Bush’s office was skirting close to obstruction of justice.

Did the incriminating September 18, 2000, letter exist? In 2002, I obtained the answer—from the most extraordinary source.

Katherine Harris: “Palast Twisted”

“Greg Palast distorts and misrepresents the events surrounding the 2000 presidential election in Florida in order to support his twisted and maniacally partisan conclusions.” Had I said something to upset the secretary of state? So began Harris’s letter, a vein-popping screamer running beyond a thousand words, dated April 2002, to my editors at Harper’s. It contained, despite its gonna-beat-you-up tone, astonishing confessions. First, she does not deny the core allegation: that her list of 57,700 felons contained the names of thousands of innocent Democratic voters. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read her acknowledgment that the debacle over which she presided as secretary of state “exposed flaws in the elections process that had festered across America for decades.”

In the world according to Harris, blame flew everywhere, from the legislature to the attorney general, never landing on herself. But what caught my eye and made me grab for the phone was her excuse for the illegal purge of out-of-state convicts. Harris wrote that the governor’s Office of Executive Clemency “issued a letter” telling her elections divisions to carry out the deed. “Hello. I just received a note from Secretary Harris regarding a letter she received from Governor Bush’s office regarding [here I mentioned the felon issue, leaving off the bits about “twisted”]. . . . Could you fax me a copy?”

And within the hour, the clerk had sent me, word for word as it had been read to me by my sources, letter dated September 18, the smoking gun. Obstruction of justice, incontrovertible evidence. Somebody call Mr. Ashcroft and read Ms. Harris her rights.

[Take a look for yourself. Compare the post-election letter handed investigators to the pre-election letter spirited out of the Governor’s files at www.gregpalast.com/images/voteletter1.jpg and www.gregpalast.com/images/voteletter2.jpg.]

The Harris Touch: Vote Rustling by Computer

One can’t sabotage democracy with felon lists alone. Ballot-eating machines worked well in Gadsden and other Black counties, but cyberspace offers even more opportunities for fun and games. This time, it’s “touch screen” voting. No paper trail, no audit path, no fights over recounts: recounts are impossible.

Florida, as you might guess, is the first to adopt this video-game voting technology statewide. Secretary of State Harris immediately certified the reliability of one machine, the iVotronic, from Election Systems and Software of Omaha. On their Web site, there is a neat demo of their foolproof system you can try out. I did—and successfully cast an “over-vote,” a double vote for one candidate. Then the site crashed my laptop. But hey, the bugs will be worked out . . . or worked in. The question is, who else is touching the touch screen? In the case of the iVotronics, it’s Sandra Mortham. Her name rang a bell for me. In fact, “Mortham” rang several alarms. Mortham was Harris’s Republican predecessor as secretary of state. She’s the one who first hired DBT. Now she’s iVotronics representative in Florida. And she’s a busy lady, also operating, “Women for Jeb,” one of the First Brother’s re-election operations.

[For more on computerized voting, see the commentary I wrote with ML King III, and then sign the WorkingForChange petition to halt the switch to voting Vegas-style.]

The New American Apartheid: Race and the Bush Brothers

In 2002, in her triumphant run for congress, Harris told a campaign rally, “Before God, before my family, before my friends, before my nation, before the nation, I sleep well at night.”

You’re thinking, “With whom?” Well, shame on you. My thoughts were more sobering. Harris had, after all, effectively admitted in her screed to my editors at Harper’s that she’d aggressively moved to disenfranchise thousands of innocent Black folks. Even if she believes she wasn’t at fault, how could she sleep at night? I suspect she—and the government and press—would have been a bit more troubled if the wrongly purged voters came from country-club membership rolls: moneyed, important and white.

Don’t kid yourself: the color of the excluded voters had an awful lot to do with why this investigation was dismissed by the U.S. media for so long. The “liberal media,” as Harris calls them, would never recognize their own subtle prejudices. Why had Salon.com, which named the first part of my investigation their top political story, then lost its nerve and spiked Part II? The story Salon feared (eventually published in Nation and Harpers) centered on Pastor Johnson of Alachua, convicted in New York and therefore entitled to vote in Florida. Salon.com killed the story following doubts raised by of one of their editors. The preppy white Ivy Leaguer could not understand why a middle-aged Black man, an ex-con to boot, did not raise a ruckus in a county office in the rural South. Why didn’t Pastor Johnson pound the table and demand his voting rights? After all, voters in Palm Beach had no problems complaining publicly.

Of the victims I spoke with, the only African Americans who would agree to talk on camera were the three clerics, whose collars afforded them a kind of cultural protection. Alachua County, Okeechobee this is still the Old South where, within the memory of many of these people, Black voters were hanged from trees. The deep, wounding history of Jim Crow explains the initial quiet of so many victims of the illegal purge, a caution echoed and affirmed by the silence of the Democratic Party. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, America is back to asking the question we thought resolved by the 1965 Voting Rights Act: Should Black people be allowed the vote?

So far, we’ve discussed only the purge of citizens illegally barred from voting, most of them falsely accused of having felony records. Even if that wrong is righted, a good half a million Floridians will still be barred from voting, quite legally under Florida law. And we know their color. One-third of all Black men in Florida have lost their right to vote.

And the Bush Brothers like it that way.

Within two months of the 2000 election, President Bush convened a Bi-BURP, a Bipartisan Blue Ribbon Panel to recommend reforms to prevent “another Florida.”

Our president, to ensure that we understood clearly he had no intention whatsoever of heeding his panel’s findings and recommendations, put two men in charge of the Bi-BURP for whom he has the fondest disregard: Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Relieved of the pressure of having to produce a plan that might be implemented, Carter and Ford got right to the heart of the matter on the faux felon purge: race. The former presidents called for an end to barring the vote to people who have served their time and gone straight. After all, only thirteen states hold on to these exclusion laws, originally passed by Deep South legislatures after Reconstruction while the Ku Klux Klan’s night riders successfully cleared the voter rolls by more direct means.

Neither President Bush nor Governor Bush have bothered with even a false gesture toward implementing the Carter-Ford call to restore the rights of these (un-white) citizens. Jeb Bush’s reforms are limited to multi-dollar contracts for the Mortham-matic touch screens.

Conclusion: George W. wants to “help America vote”

The Florida vote count vaudeville has been used as cover to monkey with voting systems in several states—all under the grinning disguise of “reform.” Leading the charge: our Reformer-in-Chief, George W. Bush, who last year signed the something called the, “Help America Vote Act.”

When George Bush wants to help us vote, I get a little nervous; nervous enough to read the fine print of his helpful law. Here’s what I found: If you liked the way Florida handled the presidential vote in 2000, you’ll just love Help America Vote Act—and similar laws that have passed in the last two years in 10 states, and have been proposed in 16 others. The laws mandate the system that was at the heart of the Florida debacle: computer-aided purging of centralized voter files.

The Republicans especially have made brilliantly cynical use of hanging-chad mania to sell HAVA and other schemes to “fix” the voting systems which ain’t broken. Take the case of Georgia. The day before the November 2000 election, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV jointly reported deceased Georgians had voted 5,412 times over the last 20 years. They trumpeted the case of one Alan J. Mandel, who they said cast his ballot in three separate elections after his demise in 1997. Subsequently, a very live Alan J. Mandell (note the two L’s) told the secretary of the state that local election workers had accidentally checked off the wrong name on the list. Under a law signed April 18, 2001—an imitation of the ill Florida code—Georgia’s secretary of state now controls “list maintenance” and has taken over the power of deleting the names of dead voters.

We’ve seen reform before. Florida’s Blackhunt purge began under the cover of the voting “reform” law passed by the state in 1998.

Who is the carrier of this ill “reform” wind? One vector is the high-sounding Voter Integrity Project, based just outside Washington, DC. The conservative, nonprofit advocacy organization has campaigned in parallel with the Republican Party against the 1993 motor voter law that resulted in a nationwide increase in voter registration of 7 million, much of it among minority voters. VIP’s founding chairwoman is Helen Blackwell, wife of Ronald Reagan’s staffer Morton Blackwell.

Just before the November 2000 election, VIP presented its special Voter Integrity Award to DBT—at a VIP conference substantially paid for by . . . ChoicePoint’s DBT unit, the company that gave Florida the bogus list of ‘felons.’ Noting proudly that “DBT is the company tasked with helping Florida clean up the State’s voter registration records,” VIP then launched into a campaign to take DBT’s Florida methods to other states. VIP announced it had “entered into an agreement with DBT Online to identify small communities with demonstrated need for similar pro bono voter rolls ëscrubbing.’ ” Offers were extended to Pennsylvania and Tennessee, with Florida, the states considered toss-ups in the Gore-Bush race. (According to investigator Catherine Danielson, it looks like Bush won Tennessee the way he won Florida, through another odiferous purge operation.)

Notably, when Republican senator Chris Bond, joined at a press conference by VIP’s chairwoman, announced he was introducing a bill to force Florida’s voting methodologies on the entire nation, then-Senator Bob Torricelli stood with him grinning and agreeing—which proves one can always find Democrats willing to attend their own political funeral.

Burying the Loot: Keeping the Florida Voter Rolls Whiter Than White

Back in Florida, the NAACP, acting on my report in Salon and the London papers, sued ChoicePoint’s DBT, Katherine Harris and Clayton “Road Runner” Roberts for violating the civil rights of thousands of Florida citizens as guaranteed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

Harris insists she did no wrong. But a trial would have been a risky move for Harris, then running for Congress. (In June 2002, the last time she defended herself in court, a judge reached an unusual, albeit insightful, verdict: “This lady is crazy.” Lucky for Harris the judge’s remarks referred to her perverse interpretations of law, not to her general state of mind; otherwise, under Florida regulations, she would have to be purged from the voter rolls.)

With purge files oozing to the surface, ChoicePoint DBT announced it was getting out of the Scrubs-R-Us business and pleaded for mercy from the NAACP, begging for settlement, thereby avoiding class-action claims. Besides, having been so helpful to the President’s election, they were now well placed for more lucrative business. (Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, ChoicePoint became one of the top recipients of lucrative no-bid, no-limit contractors for the War on Terror, offering up its multi-billion record databases to the Department of Homeland Security.)

In July 2002, Choicepoint’s DBT signed off with People for the American Way, which acts as the NAACP’s law firm, and confessed to the whole mess. They provided the court with list of 94,000 names, far more than I expected, who were targeted for the purge. Until then, I had estimated that the list had at best one in ten verifiable names. I was too kind. The DBT records show that one in thirty names on its list positively matched name, age, social security number race and other identifiers with the “felons” they were purported to be. In other words, over 90,000 citizens, half of them non-white, were wrongly named.

Harris, to avoid spending her congressional campaign locked in a witness box explaining her Jim Crow operation, her office and the state of Florida agreed to return the voters to the voter rolls. Sadly, they explained, they could not return the voters their rights until after Governor Bush’s reelection.

[Note: Last month, in July 2003, I returned to Florida with my BBC crew to Congresswoman Harris’ district. I met with the lead plaintiff in the NAACP case, Willie Steen, a veteran and hospital worker whom Florida agrees was wrongly tagged a felon. Steen to this day remains barred from registering to vote. Steen—no surprise here—is an African-American.]

And where, in all this, was the press? Finally, in summer of 2001, mirabile dictu, the Washington Post ran the story of the voter purge on page one, including the part that “couldn’t stand up” for CBS and Salon . . . and even gave me space for a bylined comment. Applause for the Post’s courage! Would I be ungrateful if I suggested otherwise? The Post printed the story in June, though they had it at hand seven months earlier when the ballots were still being counted. They waited until they knew the findings of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission report, which verified BBC’s discoveries, so they could fire from behind that big safe rock of Official Imprimatur. In other words, the Post had the courage to charge out and shoot the wounded.

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 U.S. elections can be 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 butterfiy 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.

dalepetrie's avatar

And FYI, if all that reading still ain’t enough for ya, take a look at this collection of articles which includes everything I posted above and much, much more. After you read all that, get back to me on whether or not it makes sense 8 years down the road to be asking Ralph Nader to apologize for being a 3rd party candidate.

filmfann's avatar

@dalepetrie It would take another 8 years just to read all that crap!

dalepetrie's avatar

longest.post.ever.

But very eye opening if you’ve got the time.

phoenyx's avatar

I just checked. It is (currently, 1/11/2010) the longest answer on fluther.

dalepetrie's avatar

@phoenyx – it will never be surpassed, because my posting it revealed a security flaw that Fluther mods didn’t know about, and in order to fix it, they had to limit maximum quip size….it’s still a very large amount of text you can post, but nowhere near that long, not sure what the new character limit is exactly, but I know my record is safe.

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