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New voter rolls arouse more fears

An accurate and reliable voter database has eluded Florida. Now another outside company is hired to design a system.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 2, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's unreliable statewide voter database sparked ugly complaints after the 2000 election. Hundreds of people said they were told they could not vote, and some fought to get their names off "scrub lists" of supposed felons.

Now, the task of building an accurate list in time for the 2002 election is raising new fears because Secretary of State Katherine Harris' office has steered the job to an outside company. Some experts worry a new database will mean new problems.

Democrats and civil rights groups said the elimination of some voters last year exposed a Republican plot to "disenfranchise" African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Harris has repeatedly said no voters were disenfranchised, but she joined Gov. Jeb Bush and legislators in making a reliable roll a priority.

Harris dropped an Atlanta firm that built the botched database, and lawmakers eager to avoid further embarrassment said Harris could not hire an outside firm to run the new system. The Legislature budgeted $2-million and told Harris to work with one agency, the Florida Association of Court Clerks, who already manage a statewide database of court records.

It didn't work. Talks between the state and the clerks broke down after the clerks insisted that the state pay for a $300,000 study to verify the accuracy of the data from statewide lists of felons, the deceased and those whose civil rights have been restored.

That worries some legislators.

"Unless that data is verified on its way in, we're still going to have problems," says Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, a member of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee. "I think the Department of State jumped the gun a bit in giving this contract to a private contractor, and I'm questioning this whole process of not making sure that the very best information goes in there first."

"I'm distressed by it," says Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami, a Democratic candidate for governor who served on a task force that reviewed the state's election standards. "A lot of us had faith in the clerks because they already had a system with excess capacity. A private purveyor may not view this with the same objectivity."

State elections director Clay Roberts says the Legislature did not require the study and provided no money for it. Instead, the state will pay $1.6-million to Accenture, a giant consulting firm and partner with the state in various ventures, to design, but not operate, a "turnkey" system by next June that will be updated daily from election offices across the state.

The objective is to match a list of eligible voters against the criminal history files of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. When a name comes up on both -- a "hit" -- it will be up to an elections supervisor to find out whether the person is a felon.

But some common names will pop up with frequency, and the criminal history database includes aliases and incorrect or outdated addresses.

"Our data is not perfect," says Jeff Long, chief of the FDLE records bureau. "The task is to take as much demographic information provided in the criminal history record and compare it to what's available in the central voter file on every voter, and come up with a way to say that a particular voter is the person we show is a convicted felon. There are going to be mismatches and false hits whenever you do that."

An FDLE in-house audit last year said 89 percent of audited records were accurate. The internal review recommended "a comprehensive audit" of the database "to improve data quality." But Long says it's "misleading" to judge FDLE's accuracy based on that review, because the audit covered not only convictions, but also arrests. He says only convictions will be used in the state's new voter database.

Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Pam Iorio says that when talks broke down with the clerks, the state blew a chance to hold elected officials accountable for the data's accuracy. "When you're responsible for an agency, you're ultimately responsible for the end product," Iorio says.

State election experts say the new database will be better because the state will oversee it more closely, Accenture won't decide on its own what goes into the database, and election supervisors are serving as an advisory board.

"We want this to work. It's a very challenging assignment," says Paul Craft, Harris' election systems chief, one of five staffers who chose Accenture. "The biggest thing that is different about this project is we actually have control over it."

Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting, beat out three rivals in part because of an alliance with election.com, a firm that helped create the statewide voter registration database in Arkansas.

Accenture is represented by the lobbying firm of Poole, McKinley and Blosser, a firm with Republican ties. But the company said the database contract involved no lobbying. Craft said he had no contact from any company lobbyists.

Meg McLaughlin, Accenture's project partner, emphasized that the new Florida database will not remove any names from the rolls. Instead, she said, software will be programmed to "look at records and identify potential problems" that will be referred to the 67 county election supervisors for action.

"I'm not confident yet," says Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor David Leahy, who heads a group of five supervisors overseeing the venture. "Not until we finalize the database and what's going to go on it."

-- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Stephanie Scruggs contributed to this report.

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