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NAACP Settles with the State of Florida and the Private Company ChoicePoint, But Thousands of Voters Illegally Purged from the Rolls Still Can’t Vote

StorySeptember 06, 2002
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As we talk about the importance of DNA evidence in the Central Park jogger case, we’re going to take a close look at one of the technology companies involved. ChoicePoint operates the nation’s largest private DNA database. It has offered its DNA testing services to the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongly convicted individuals on death row. It has also led the campaign to help police departments to test backlogged rape kits. The company’s database contains over 15 billion public records. The company has been described as “society’s ultimate search engine.”

But ChoicePoint doesn’t just work to free innocent people from prison. ChoicePoint is also the private company behind the stolen election of 2000 and has recently reached a settlement with the NAACP over its role in illegally purging African Americans from the Florida voter rolls. Florida’s top elections officials and the NAACP announced on Tuesday they have settled a lawsuit over voting rights violations during the 2000 presidential election.

The class-action lawsuit alleged Florida election officials systematically kept African Americans away from voting booths by illegally purging them from voter rolls, improperly handling their registrations so they did not appear on voter lists, or by simply turning them away from polling places. The suit also alleged the private company ChoicePoint knowingly mislabeled innocent voters as felons. Under Florida law, convicted felons cannot vote.

The two sides say the settlement will build on the Florida Election Reform Act of 2001, which included changes in registration list maintenance, provided funding for improved voter education and poll worker training, and created alternative voting and registration procedures. But tens of thousands of voters who were illegally purged from the voting rolls two years ago will still have problems voting this fall, because the voter rolls haven’t yet been corrected.

We’re joined right now by a number of people to talk about DNA evidence, the stolen election and the company ChoicePoint.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about the importance of DNA evidence in the Central Park jogger case, we’re going to take a close look at one of the technology companies involved. ChoicePoint operates the nation’s largest private DNA database. It’s offered its DNA testing services to the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongly convicted individuals on death row. It’s also led the campaign to help police departments to test backlogged rape kits. The company’s database contains over 15 billion public records. The company has been described as “society’s ultimate search engine.”

But ChoicePoint doesn’t just work to free innocent people from prison. ChoicePoint is also the private company behind the stolen election of 2000 and has recently reached a settlement with the NAACP over its role in illegally purging African Americans from the Florida voter rolls. Florida’s top elections officials and the NAACP announced on Tuesday they’ve settled a lawsuit over voting rights violations during the 2000 presidential election.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The class-action lawsuit alleged Florida election officials systematically kept African Americans away from the voting booths by illegally purging them from voter rolls, improperly handling their registrations so they did not appear on voter lists, or by simply turning them away from the polling places. The suit also alleged the private company ChoicePoint knowingly mislabeled innocent voters as felons. Under Florida law, convicted felons cannot vote.

The two sides say the settlement will build on the Florida Election reform Act of 2001, which included changes in registration list maintenance, provided funding for improved voter education and poll worker training, and created alternative voting and registration procedures. But tens of thousands of voters who were illegally purged from the voting rolls two years ago will still have problems voting this fall, because the voter rolls have not yet been corrected. So, we’re going to discuss that now.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. We’re joined by a number of people to talk about DNA evidence, the stolen election and the company ChoicePoint. We’re going to begin with Greg Palast. He’s the author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. It’s great to have you back, Greg.

GREG PALAST: Terrific to be on. By the way, was that you and Jim Hightower singing that song about the people? That was terrific. You’ve got a great voice. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg, you are an investigative reporter. You have reported for the BBC for years and the London Guardian. It’s nice to have you back on this side of the Atlantic. Can you talk about ChoicePoint?

GREG PALAST: Yeah, in fact, just by the way, congratulations on one thing. I was on Phil Donahue last night, and he said, “How come this story about the voter purge was not in U.S. papers?” You know, I told him, before the show, “Well, you should listen to Democracy Now!, and you’d get it all.”

What happened was, is in the years leading up to the election, but especially five months before the election, the Florida Republican government, under the direction of Katherine Harris and her predecessor, under Jeb Bush, ordered the purge of thousands of voters. And I thought originally, by the way, it was about 57,700. My understanding from ChoicePoint’s latest confession, it was up to 94,000 people were targeted to have their vote, their rights — their voting rights removed, on the grounds that they were evildoers, felons, murderers, father rapers, mother stabbers, that type of thing, and they can’t vote in Florida. As it turns out — and Anita Hodgkiss of the NAACP is on, she can confirm some of this — I had estimated that the list, with BBC Television — I got a hold of the list. We cracked it. It is 94 — it is about 95% wrong. Ninety-five percent wrong. So, I figured about 50,000 people; now it looks like over 90,000 people were wrongly tagged to have their voting rights removed. Now, they weren’t completely innocent, because in the list of 57,000, a little over half were African American, were Black people, and some Hispanics. The bigger list, it’s something like 40%. But if you do the voting demographics, if you talk to experts like David Bositis, you do the demographics, you got 93% of the Black voters would have voted for Al Gore; a little less than half the — well, actually, more than half the white voters would have voted for Al Gore, as well, that they knocked off. So, it was like an overwhelmingly Democratic list.

And what happened was, is ChoicePoint gave them this bogus voting list. Choice Point is a Republican-connected firm. They took $4 million from the state treasury. No other state has done this. They replaced the firm that was paid $5,000 to do this work. They got $4 million to come up with this completely phony list. And the way that they did it is they came up with a bad list. They gave it to the state and basically — because we have the internal emails from the state. We have the internal documentation. It said — these guys said “Look, this” — they basically said, “This is our first pass. These are people who have names similar to people in Florida, and birthdays similar to and race matching people in Florida. But of this list, this includes people who aren’t felons. In other words, these people are — mostly it’s people who are innocent. And we will use our big databases to tell you who in this list is actually a felon.” At most, at absolute stone most, out of 94,000 people, there are 3,000 matches. Three thousand of 94,000.

But what happened was, the state officials looked at this list and saw a Democratic voter list. And they basically said — and I have handwritten notes, literally, when it said — you know, ChoicePoint says, “We’re going to take all these steps to cut down this list,” basically, by 95, 97%, “Don’t need.” We have letters, panic letters from clerks, saying, “You know, we’ve got people convicted in the future.” I found — like, the first name I found, Thomas Cooper, is convicted in the year 2007. Well, it turns out there are over — that list I looked at, there were 500 people convicted in the future. And the records were a complete mess. These were innocent people. These weren’t felons. I mean, listen, if you vote, if you’re a felon voter in Florida, and you vote, you’ve committed another felony. You go right back to jail. Not many people are willing to do that, certainly not 50 or 90,000 people. You know, what ChoicePoint had done was name the crime wave, which didn’t exist.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Greg — Greg, if I can well, what I’d like to do is try to bring in Anita Hodgkiss, who is the lead plaintiff —

GREG PALAST: That’s right. But I just want to tell you, this company — this company, ChoicePoint, the main perpetrators here, the perps, were Katherine Harris, Jeb Bush, Clayton Roberts, their elections officials. The problem we have with ChoicePoint is that this company, for money, went along with a political fix. They completely went along with this fix. And that’s the danger. If they went along with what Jeb Bush wanted them to do, what will they do when George Bush tells them what to do which breaks the law? They’re lawbreakers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, OK, let —

GREG PALAST: They’re just lawbreakers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let me bring in Anita Hodgkiss, who’s the lead plaintiff and an attorney with the NAACP, director of the Lawyers’ Committee Voting Rights Project. Could you talk to us about your settlement and why you decided to settle with your lawsuit?

ANITA HODGKISS: Yes. Thank you. I worked with the NAACP. I was actually an attorney, not a plaintiff. The NAACP was our plaintiff. We settled with ChoicePoint back in June because they agreed to reprocess the data in a way that we thought would be helpful to us in pursuing the case against the state. And we also — just to be clear, ChoicePoint bought Database Technologies, DBT, after the November 2000 election. And it was DBT that actually did all this work. So, while, legally, ChoicePoint was responsible, and some of the same — many of the same employees are still — who were employees of DBT are now employees of ChoicePoint. But it was this Database Technologies company, which, interestingly, had had offices in Texas. But be that as it may, we did settle with ChoicePoint. They reran the lists for us, gave us very valuable information about what you would get if you ran this kind of data matching using criteria that are more reliable. Even given the fact that the data you’re using is unreliable, there’s a way to, you know, come up with useful information by weeding out the unreliable data.

AMY GOODMAN: But is it true right now, here you have Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush, now candidates — Kathrine Harris for Congress, Jeb Bush for governor — and the voter rolls have not been fixed?

ANITA HODGKISS: That’s right. The Legislature had the opportunity twice to pass laws that would require the state to go back and correct the many mistakes that they made, and they failed to do that, which is why we continued pursuing our litigation. The settlement does require the state to go back and, both at the state level and at the local level, reexamine anyone who was purged using these lists who are — who didn’t match on every item.

AMY GOODMAN: I guess Jeb Bush has learned what worked for his brother will work for him. But I want to bring Karen Pomer into the conversation, founding member of Rainbow Sisters Project. She’s a rape survivor herself. Now bring in the part of the story that is very — that has not gotten any attention, and that is ChoicePoint, and in addition to being involved with taking over the company that purged the voter rolls, the database, the DNA database that it keeps, Karen.

KAREN POMER: Well, ChoicePoint also owns Bode, which is a DNA testing lab, one of the leading ones in the United States. And they’ve gotten involved in a lot of different things, and a lot of the things have actually been positive. One of them is helping free innocent people from prison through doing DNA evidence. And also they’ve set up this group called — that was featured on 20/20 last week, called RapeEvidence.org. Unfortunately, 20/20 failed to make the connection with ChoicePoint and promoted this website, which is unfortunate, because when you go to that website, it links to ChoicePoint, and it talks about — it has an article, the interview with the CEO of ChoicePoint, and he has — he says some things that I think are very disturbing. And —

AMY GOODMAN: So, first, they failed to make the connection that ChoicePoint is the one that was involved with the Florida — well, taking over the company.

KAREN POMER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Right.

KAREN POMER: What was — yeah, and then they paid — 20/20 paid for a police department to do testing, and, you know, did not reveal some of the more controversial aspects of the organization that they were involved with. They failed to disclose that, including the positions of the CEO of ChoicePoint, who said in a recent article —

AMY GOODMAN: The ChoicePoint CEO is named Derek Smith.

KAREN POMER: Derek Smith. This article is entitled “Brave New World,” which kind of says it all, and it was published in Georgia Trend magazine in August. It says — some of those quotes were: “Perhaps the most accumulated burden of disturbing information that flows like a virus in his blood” — referring to Derek Smith — “a recent ChoicePoint survey suggested 25% of pizza delivery drivers have been incarcerated in the four months preceding the study. 'What pizza do you like?' Smith asked rhetorically. 'At what price? Are you willing to take the risks associated with dealing with a company who doesn't screen their drivers?’” I mean, but he goes on and on and talks about 9/11 and these evildoers and his connection with Howard Safir, the former police commissioner of New York. I mean, they do —

AMY GOODMAN: Howard Safir, who’s the biggest proponent for ChoicePoint as a paid consultant for gathering this national database, DNA database.

KAREN POMER: Correct. And he was the one that was working very closely with 20/20 to do this piece. So, I mean, they admit in this piece their connection to what happened in Florida. But they also talk about all foreigners entering the United States having to give up their DNA evidence.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have to leave it there, but we are going to continue to follow this story. It is an explosive one. Karen Pomer, Greg Palast, Anita Hodgkiss, lead plaintiff attorney in the NAACP v. Harris case, I want to thank you all for being with us. That does it for today’s program. If you’d like to order a video or audio cassette copy of today’s program, you can hold 1-800-881-2359. I’m very much looking forward to going to the First Baptist Church tonight in Los Angeles for a big fundraiser for KPFK, tomorrow at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco with Michael Franti and others. I know it’ll be broadcast on KPFA, and I’m looking forward to that. You can go to our website at www.democracynow.org. Democracy Now! is produced by Kris Abrams, Mike Burke and Alex Wolfe. Mike Di Filippo is our engineer and music maestro, sitting in for Anthony Sloan. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, for another edition of Democracy Now!

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