Eliminating fraud -- or Democrats?

Florida's controversial crusade to purge its voter rolls has revived an old partisan debate: Can states crack down on fraud without hurting eligible voters?

Published December 9, 2000 1:15AM (EST)

Behind all the squabbling about dimpled chads and manual recounts, the Florida election debacle has revived debate on an old partisan controversy: when and how to purge voter rolls, to reduce fraud and make sure the ineligible don't vote.

In Florida, Secretary of State Katherine Harris' office removed 173,000 names from state voter rolls this year, based on a list of supposedly ineligible voters provided by a private firm with strong Republican ties. A Salon examination of the list revealed that thousands of voters may have been mistakenly deemed ineligible to vote by ChoicePoint of Atlanta, Florida's private contractor.

ChoicePoint's list included 8,000 people the group said were convicted of felonies and therefore ineligible to vote. But as it turned out, those people had only been convicted of misdemeanors, and should have been able to cast votes in Florida. The mistakes on that list, Democrats argue, disproportionately penalized African-American voters in Florida, more than 90 percent of whom voted for Al Gore.

"The horror stories about perfectly innocent black voters being turned away from the polls because they had been targeted as convicted felons started coming in early on the morning of Nov. 7, Election Day. And they're still coming in," wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. "Blacks turned out to vote in record numbers in Florida this year, but huge numbers were systematically turned away for one specious reason or another."

Yet some complain the state didn't go far enough in its efforts to prevent voter fraud. The Miami Herald reported that at least 455 felons voted illegally in Florida, most of them in Palm Beach and Duval counties, despite efforts by election supervisors in those counties to get them off the rolls.

"There's a lot about the way Palm Beach County has conducted itself in this election that upsets me, and this of course would be one more outrage," State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, told the Herald.

The Voting Integrity Project, which has focused on cleaning up national voter rolls, said the problems in Florida have shined the spotlight on widespread voter fraud across the county. "Election 2000 and the ensuing controversy in Florida have focused public attention on the need to combat voting fraud," the group's Web site reads.

The Florida skirmish is just the latest battle in an old and partisan war: Republicans are usually on the side of cleansing the rolls energetically, and Democrats tend to fight back, claiming efforts to purge ineligible voters often cast eligible low-income and minority voters off the rolls. The battle goes back to Huey Long's Louisiana and Richard M. Daley's Chicago, cesspools of Democratic voter fraud where legend has it ballots were cast by dead people.

VIP itself has come under fire for leading what some have called partisan crusades, opposing programs that make it easier to register voters, and supporting those that aggressively clean the voter rolls, which Democrats say disproportionately knocks low income and minority voters off voter lists. Though the group maintains it is bipartisan, it is true that it often allies with Republicans on voter-roll cleanup efforts.

VIP gave an award to ChoicePoint for its Florida work, praising its "innovative excellence [in] cleansing" the state's voter rolls. VIP is promoting the firm's proprietary methods to purge voter rolls nationwide, and has partnered with Database Technologies, a subsidiary of ChoicePoint, to identify small communities that need pro-bono voter roll "scrubbing."

This year, VIP launched a pilot voter registration clean-up program, focused on Fayette County, Pa., and Atlantic Beach, N.C. In Fayette County, Democrats outnumber registered Republicans better than 3-1, according to data from the Pennsylvania department of state. In Atlantic, Democrats hold a 58-42 percent registration advantage over Republicans, according to the state department of elections.

VIP says Fayette was chosen because it was home to an absentee ballot fraud scheme that resulted in three election fraud convictions earlier this year, according to its Web site.

The current era of partisan battling over whether to purge voter rolls began with Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential candidacy, which led to a surge in black voter registration -- and GOP efforts to make sure the rolls weren't being inflated illegally. The Democratic narrative goes something like this: Motivated by Jackson's presidential runs in 1984 and 1988, African-Americans registered to vote in record numbers. In 1986, Democrats retook control of the U.S. Senate, and in a form of retaliation, Republicans launched overly aggressive efforts to clean up voter rolls, which knocked hundreds of thousands of voters off the rolls.

"There were all sorts of groups out there doing voter registration," says Donna Brazile who worked for Jackson and is now campaign manager for Gore. "Some time after the '86 election, massive purging started taking place. It was a wicked practice that took place all over the country, especially in the deep South. Democrats retook the Senate in 1986, and [Republican] groups went on a rampage on the premise they were cleaning up the roles. The campaign then was targeted toward African-Americans."

Other Democrats point to Philadelphia and New Orleans, which undertook zealous voter roll clean-up efforts in largely minority areas.

The standards for cleaning up the voter rolls have always varied greatly from state to state, and even city to city. Some states were purging voters who missed one presidential election. Others were more zealous in their enforcement and did not allow people to cast votes if they had moved and not re-registered, even if they moved within the same voting precinct.

By and large the fights broke down along partisan lines. Democrats charged that voting officials were violating the spirit of election laws by not erring on the side of the voter. Republicans maintained they were simply enforcing the rules, and trying to clean up a system that was ripe for corruption.

The Republican claims certainly have historical precedent. Democratic corruption has been well documented in Daley's Chicago and Long's Louisiana. "I tell my students that Chicago and Louisiana had the most civicly active populations in the world," Sabato says. "They're so active, they continued to vote after they were dead."

But Democrats charge that reasoning is still used as a cover to unfairly target eligible voters in poor and minority neighborhoods, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

"The purges may have picked up in the late '80s, but they have been used consistently, oftentimes right before a major election," said Ellen Spears, associate director of the Southern Regional Council. "I think it's very safe to say this is a major post voting rights act method of continuing the old South practices of limiting the impact of the black vote."

"We always thought it was being used as a political tactic," agrees Moore, who also worked for Jackson during the 1980s. "The biggest purge was right before the 1988 primaries when there was massive purging in the Southern states from Virginia through Texas. We're talking about millions of voters being wiped off the roles, hundreds of thousands in each state."

The complaints over purging reached a fever pitch by the late 1980s, particularly among members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Finally, in 1993, Democrats passed a set of federal list-purging regulations in the National Voter Registration Act, better known as the Motor Voter bill.

The thrust of Motor Voter was to make it easier for people to register to vote. It placed voter registration cards in welfare offices and state departments of motor vehicles, and required those agencies to send voter registration cards to the county registrars of voters. But it also set in place federal guidelines for purging voter rolls, in an effort to stop some of the efforts Democrats deemed overzealous. For example, the bill prohibited localities from removing voters from lists simply because they didn't vote in one or two elections.

"It was designed to set up a uniform system of list cleaning for federal elections," said Moore, who worked on the bill in Conyers' office. "Various states and counties had different standards for purging voting lists -- some did it every year, some every six months. We wanted to have standards that would have one uniform method. This was designed to get rid of some of the discretion that was being granted to different localities because there was no uniform system."

After the bill was passed, both South Carolina and Virginia sued to block implementation of the NVRA in part because of this provision. "Ultimately, South Carolina dropped its appeal but they had to agree to reinstate all the people who had been purged from the registration rolls in 1995," said Spears.

Mississippi was another state that fought the new provisions tooth and nail, according to Spears, who said actual numbers of voters purged in the '80s have been hard to come by. "The county registrars wielded enormous power because they got to determine when a purge would take place. It all took place on a county by county basis."

While purging ballot rolls may be a longstanding political tactic, it is by no means uniquely the devise of Republicans. It was also a tactic employed by Richard Daley (father of the current mayor) to maintain power in Chicago in the 1960s and '70s. "Daley remained in power because he controlled the number of voters," said Frank Watkins, who worked for Operation PUSH in the 1970s.

"It's illegal to be a Republican in Chicago," joked Watkins, "so we're talking about an internal Democratic struggle. It was a fight between reform faction and the machine. We went out and registered 2,000 voters and they took 4,000 off the rolls," Watkins said.

"They targeted a lot of poor people and black people who had just begun to vote," Watkins said. He said new voters who were not bankable Daley supporters were issued a "show cause" notice. "If you didn't go downtown and show proof of residence and ID within 10 days you were removed from the rolls."

Watkins said it was an effective way of keeping new black voters in 1970s Chicago from registering. "You work hard to get them on, and then they're knocked off. They say, forget this, it isn't worth all this stuff. They just give up. That's the way the machine limited and controlled the vote in Chicago. There's a similar scheme that's alive in the South and interestingly enough and that history is rooted in Democrats. Democrats were the Confederates, Democrats were the Ku Klux Klan, Democrats were the resisters to civil rights. That's the legacy there. Now the Republicans have moved in on the race issue."

Now, ChoicePoint has entered the fray, with its proprietary, high-tech and controversial methods for purging the rolls. Ultimate responsibility for removing voters from the list rests with state and county election officials, of course. But it's clear the lists given to the state by ChoicePoint and its subsidiary, Database Technologies, contained many errors, and almost certainly led to eligible voters being removed from voting rolls. And because it's a private firm, its proprietary methods aren't open to scrutiny by advocates for poor and minority communities that may be hurt by its dragnet approach to finding felons and fraudulent voters.

ChoicePoint defends its methods, saying the ultimate responsibility to clean up the voter rolls rests with the state. "Florida law, the result of bipartisan legislation passed two years before this election, creates an annual, two-step process to be used to ensure voters rights are protected," ChoicePoint vice president Marty Fagan said in a statement Wednesday. "We helped fulfill the law's requirements by completing the first step of the two-step process ... It was up to the county election officials to verify the information, and take whatever actions they deemed as appropriate." ChoicePoint's endorsement from the Voting Integrity Project makes some Democrats believe the firm has a partisan agenda.

VIP chairwoman of the board is Helen Blackwell, also the Virginia chairwoman of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, whose husband, Morton, serves as executive director of the conservative Council for National Policy. It took lumps for being partisan earlier this year from Slate writer Jeremy Derfner. "In fact, almost everything about the Voting Integrity Project makes you wonder. Though VIP's members assert that they are both independent and nonpartisan, the organization is essentially a conservative front," Derfner wrote.

VIP has vigorously opposed efforts to liberalize voting procedures -- railing against everything from Internet voting to Oregon's mail-in balloting to the Motor Voter bill. But it is VIP's involvement in partisan political fights that makes Democrats charge the group is a Republican front group.

VIP sent investigators into largely black areas in Louisiana after Mary Landrieu's 1996 U.S. Senate victory over Republican Woody Jenkins.

"The VIP conducted its investigation over a 10-day period from December 26 through January 4, during which time they concentrated on the Orleans Parish voting activities," a VIP release says. "The VIP examined and independently verified substantial amounts of evidence gathered by the Jenkins campaign, as well as gathering its own evidence concerning vote buying, vote hauling and improprieties by elections officials tasked with protecting voting machines."

VIP chairwoman Helen Blackwell told the Senate Rules Committee, "Many claims of the Jenkins campaign have merit and should be investigated to the fullest extent of the law."

But VIP advisory board member John Siebel calls any effort to cast the organization in a partisan light "self interest masquerading as reason," and said that the fight over the cleansing of voter rolls has well-reasoned arguments on both sides of the issue.

"When you look at this in an intellectually honest way, it should never be about putting up obstacles to people registering to vote," he said. "When you only ask, 'Should it be easier or harder to vote?' the answer is pretty simple. However, flip it around, is it good to create a system that makes it difficult to administer an election and may encourage people to commit voter fraud' you get the same answer."

Jenni Gainsborough, senior policy analyst of the Sentencing Project in Washington, said she has worked with VIP on the issue of restoring felons' rights to vote, and believes the group has received something of a bum rap.

"I think it's not true to say they're a Republican front," Gainsborough said. "I think they are in some respects conservative. On the other hand, they're supportive of getting ex-felons back the right to vote. It's certainly not the Republican line to be taking on that issue. Yes they are certainly doing a lot to get voter rolls purged, but I don't think they're doing it to increase Republican votes."

Still, on the issue of voter roll cleansing, VIP is firmly on the same side of the issue as many strident Republican partisans. Larry Sabato, coauthor of "Dirty Little Secrets," which includes a chapter on voter fraud, said some sensitivity about voter fraud is justified, on both sides.

"Let's be honest, there are consultants and party operatives who gladly do this kind of thing for the greater cause," he says. "Any means is legitimate toward the end of getting their candidate elected because as we all know, if the other side wins, it's the end of Western civilization as we know it."

But he said there is a good deal of overreaction on both sides, and a level of paranoia that often prevents real voter-roll reform from happening. "There are plenty of ways to do it that are fair," he said. "To me the optimal solution would be to do everything possible to encourage voting among groups that don't participate. At the same time you'd have to ensure that only those that are legal voters are participating. You can find a solution that would satisfy both sides if there was any trust between the sides, but there isn't."

And despite the efforts to set federal standards for voter-roll purging in the Motor Voter bill, state election officials still have a good deal of discretion in dealing with their voter rolls. In California, for example, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown had made it harder to remove voters from voter rolls in 1978. The rolls eventually got so bad that voter registration in San Francisco, for example, reached 102 percent by the early 1990s. Democrats and Republicans alike were complaining that voting lists obtained from the state were out of date and inaccurate, and said they were wasting money mailing political literature to phantom addresses and voters.

"In that time, like a stone rolling downhill, we picked up a lot of deadwood," said Secretary of State Bill Jones, the only Republican to hold statewide office in California.

"There needs to be a way that we can move deadwood off the rolls that reduces cost to the county and gives us an accurate list."

In the end, it was a Democrat, state Sen. Richard Polanco, who finally carried a bill that allowed California to move voters to an inactive voting file if they did not cast votes in two consecutive congressional elections. Since the bill passed in 1995, close to 2 million Californians have been moved to the inactive file. But there's a safety valve for voters wrongly cut from the rolls -- they may vote "provisionally" at their local polling place, and their registration status and signature will be checked against their voter registration card at the county elections office. If there is no registration card to be found, or the signature doesn't match, the ballot is considered invalid and is thrown out.

Jones rejects the claim that Republicans are trying to purge voter files in an effort to suppress turnout, particularly Democratic turnout. "I've heard that, sure. Some people say Republicans want small turnout. That's unacceptable to me. I don't believe it, I don't accept it, and as secretary of state, I do the opposite. That's not the policy of the Republican Party in California. We need to have candidates good enough to get our fair share with all the people voting."

Still, Jones is pushing for a measure that would require voters to present identification at the polls, a measure that is aggressively opposed by Democrats.

"Every day 100 million get in cars and we don't stop them at every corner [to check their license] because we trust people," said Democratic Party political director Bob Mulholland. "The way these things work is, Jack Smith walks in, he's allowed to vote. When Josi Gonzales walks in, they say, 'You're going to need two IDs. These laws are implemented unfairly against minorities. In Florida, they were asking people for their car insurance paper, that's just straight intimidation tactics. That's where it leads."

In the wake of the Florida debacle, Congress is also taking a comprehensive look at voting laws. A bipartisan resolution introduced by Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio and Iowa Republican Jim Leach would establish a 12-member commission to review everything from the need for an Electoral College to Internet voting to cleaning up the voting rolls.

"It seems now in light of these extraordinary events, the accuracy of the voter rolls is an obvious thing to be concerned about," said Leach spokesman Bill Tate. "But for a lot of us these are questions that are just arising for the first time."

NOTE: A correction has been made to this story.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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