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By MARTIN DYCKMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- A certain heresy had taken root in southern France early in the 13th century. The Crusaders who set out to exterminate it had no time to spare for separating the guilty from the innocent. "Kill them all," the knights cried. "The Lord will know his own."
If that was history's earliest instance of "shoot first, ask questions later," it wasn't the last. Something of the sort occurred in Florida, albeit bloodlessly, after massive fraud in the 1997 Miami city election induced the 1998 Legislature to call for a high-tech purge of the voter rolls. They forgot yet again that solutions cause problems.
Hundreds if not thousands of innocent people lost their votes last fall -- enough, perhaps, to have tipped Florida's close election (and the presidency) to George Bush even without the more notorious punch card debacles.
Though Secretary of State Katherine Harris and her elections division let their contractor take the early blame, it eventually came out that the division had ordered the contractor, in effect, to cast its net too wide. From that, the 2001 Legislature drew two appropriate conclusions: The state needed a central voter database. Private contractors shouldn't have anything to do with it.
The Senate, moreover, had misgivings as to whether even the elections division should be in charge of it, and insisted that the legislation allow the division to contract with Florida's Circuit Court clerks to prepare and maintain the database. The clerks were a logical choice because they already maintain a highly reliable database of parents with court-ordered child support obligations.
But the law didn't require that the division and the clerks come to terms. The negotiations collapsed last week, ostensibly over money. On Friday, division director Clay Roberts notified election supervisors that he will "develop and implement an in-house plan that will allow for the database to be fully operational by June 1, 2002."
So the agency that could not properly supervise a contractor will be now be in charge of its own huge, critical database. And, as June 1 is barely two months before the primary, the supervisors are likely to be nervous. So too, some senators, who may also be angry.
"I just hope it's not a bunch of adults acting like children," said Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, a co-author of the election reform bill. He said he was disappointed that the division and the clerks could not find a way to "serve the public in the most efficient and economical method possible." He added, however, "As of right now, I don't know who shot John." He'll make it his business to know. So will Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, the new appropriations chair, who also strongly favored the clerks' involvement.
Here is what went before.
The 1998 "reform" required the division to privatize the purge. The job eventually went to DBT Online, a Choice Point subsidiary, to generate lists of potential duplicate registrants, dead people, and felons, who are disenfranchised for life under the Florida Constitution unless the governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights.
Though many of the "hits" turned out to be flat wrong, challenged voters essentially had to prove themselves innocent. Half of those who appealed were restored to the rolls, but many were wrongfully removed.
Then came the endless election night, the presidential cliffhanger, and the 37-day recount, which turned the botched purge into a major embarrassment for Secretary of State Harris and her division of elections. The blame, it turned out, didn't all belong to DBT. Exposes in The Nation, Salon and other media -- later confirmed by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in its draft report -- told how DBT had warned the state that it was requiring search terms that were too loose, meaning that the net would be cast too wide. Never mind, said the state. The 67 county elections supervisors would be responsible for finding and fixing any errors.
"In a state with 16-million people, where many individuals share approximate names and also dates of birth, exact matches were not necessary," The Nation reported.
The matching logic "only required a 90 percent name match, which produced "false' positives or partial matches of the data," says the Civil Rights Commission's draft report. "Moreover, the Division of Elections required that DBT Online perform "nickname matches' for first names and "make it go both ways.' Thus, the name Deborah Ann would also match the name Ann Deborah."
(The state also insisted on purging people who had moved to Florida from states where their civil rights were automatically restored after their felony convictions. That practice, which appeared to ignore reciprocity precedents from two Florida appellate courts, has since been quietly changed.)
In concluding, the draft report charges that "indifferent attitudes and careless practices prevailed."
It may take a while to sort out "who shot John." Roberts says the clerks wanted $250,000 a year more for annual maintenance than the Legislature intended. Fred Baggett, the clerks' lobbyist, says Roberts wanted them to do more than the Legislature intended.
Suspicious Democrats -- of whom there are many since the 2000 election -- might even wonder whether yet another gubernatorial power grab is afoot. The Constitution abolishes Harris' office on Jan. 4, 2003. The Legislature has yet to decide where the elections division will wind up. The governor's regime is one possibility. An independent commission is another. Democrats don't need to be paranoid to prefer the latter, and given last week's news, it would be no surprise if certain Republicans support them.