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Profile: Corrine Brown

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Corrine Brown was a participant or observer in the following events:

Thousands of African-American voters in Florida are illegally denied their right to vote, as is proven in many instances by subsequent investigations. Adora Obi Nweze, the president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, is told by election officials she cannot vote because she has already cast an absentee ballot, even though she has cast no such ballot. Cathy Jackson, a Broward County voter since 1996, was told falsely that she was not on the rolls and could not vote; she sees a white woman cast an “affidavit ballot” and asks if she can do the same, but is denied. Donnise DeSouza of Miami is told, falsely, that she is not on the voting rolls and is moved to the “problem line”; when the polls close, she is sent home without voting. Another voter, Lavonna Lewis, is in line to vote when the polls close. Though the law says that voters already in line can vote even after the polls close, she is sent home. She will later say she saw election officials allow a white male voter to get in line after the polls had closed.
US Representative Fights to Cast Vote - US Representative Corrine Brown (D-FL) is followed into her poll by a television crew. Officials there tell her that her ballot has been sent to Washington and therefore she cannot vote in Florida. Brown spends two and a half hours in the polling place before finally being allowed to vote. Brown later notes that she helped register thousands of African-American college students in the months prior to the election. “We put them on buses,” she will recall, “took them down to the supervisor’s office. Had them register. When it came time to vote, they were not on the rolls!” Many African-American voters like Wallace McDonald of Hillsborough County are denied their vote because they are told, falsely, that they are convicted felons whose right to vote has been stripped. The NAACP offices are inundated with telephone calls all day from voters complaining that their right to vote is being denied.
'Painful, Dehumanizing, Demoralizing' - Donna Brazile, campaign manager for the Gore campaign whose sister was illegally asked for three forms of identification in Seminole County before being allowed to vote, later says: “What happened that day—I can’t even put it in words anymore. It was the most painful, dehumanizing, demoralizing thing I’ve ever experienced in my years of organizing.” Hearings in early 2001 held by the US Commission on Civil Rights will record more than 30 hours of testimony from over 100 witnesses as to a wide array of racially based disenfranchisement. The commission will find that the election probably violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but Attorney General John Ashcroft will ignore the report.
Gadsden County - One exemplar of systematic disenfranchisement is seen in Gadsden County, one of Florida’s poorest counties, with 57 percent of its voters African-American. Its elections are supervised by white conservative Denny Hutchinson. Hutchinson refuses to take action to increase registration, put in more polling places, and other actions designed to increase voter turnout. Gadsden County Commissioner Ed Dixon later recalls: “He never advocated for any increased precincts, even though some of our people had to drive 30 miles to get to a poll. In the only county that’s a majority African-American, you want a decreased turnout.” After the votes have been tallied, Hutchinson’s deputy, African-American Shirley Green Knight, notices that over 2,000 ballots (out of 14,727 cast) are not included in the registered count. The reason? Gadsden uses a so-called “optiscan” balloting device, which allows voters to “bubble in” ovals with a pencil; these “bubbles” are scanned and the votes they indicate are tallied. Optiscan ballots are prone to register “overvotes,” essentially when the ballot indicates votes for two separate candidates in the same race. Overvotes are not machine-tallied. The machines have a sorting switch that when set to “on” causes the machine to record overvotes or “undervotes” (no vote recorded) in a separate category for later review and possible inclusion. Knight will learn that Hutchinson had insisted the machines’ switches be set to “off,” which rejects the overvotes without counting them at all. “I have no idea why he would do that,” Knight later says. When she learns of the problem, she asks Hutchinson to run the ballots through again with the sorting switch on, but he refuses. He is later overruled by the Gadsden canvassing board. When the ballots are run through a second time, the results are startlingly different. Gadsden uses a variant of the so-called “caterpillar ballot,” which lists candidates’ names in two columns. George W. Bush, Al Gore, and six other presidential candidates are listed in one column. The second column lists two more candidates, Monica Moorehead and Howard Phillips, and a blank for a “Write-In Candidate.” Hundreds of voters apparently believe that the second column is for an entirely different race, and vote not only for Bush or Gore, but for Moorehead or Phillips. And some voters vote for Gore and, to ensure clarity, write “Gore” in the write-in box. (Some, thoroughly confused by directions telling them to “Vote for ONE” and “Vote for Group,” bubble in all 10 presidential candidates and write “Gore” in the box.) None of these votes are originally counted. More sophisticated optiscan machines would refuse to accept the ballot, prompting the voter to correct the error. But Gadsden uses a cheaper machine that allows the error to go through unbeknownst to the voter. When Gadsden performs its machine recount, Gore will receive 153 additional votes from the erroneous optiscan. These will be included in the state’s final tally. However, over 2,000 of the “overvote” ballots will not be counted. Two-thirds of those ballots have Gore as their selection.
Duval County - Similar problems plague voters in Duval County. Duval, a large Democratic stronghold because of its inclusion of Jacksonville, is 29 percent African-American. Twenty-one thousand votes are thrown out as “overvotes.” Part of the problem is a sample-ballot insert placed in the newspaper by elections supervisor John Stafford, giving erroneous instructions as to how to complete the Duval ballot; any voter who follows these instructions does not have their votes tallied, though corrected instructions are posted in some Duval precincts. In the critical 72-hour period after the votes are complete, Gore campaign staffer Mike Langton will spend hours with Stafford, a white Republican, attempting to address the situation. Stafford lies to Langton and tells him Duval has “only a few” overvotes. It is not until after the deadline to ask for a machine recount has passed that Langton learns of the 21,000 uncounted votes. Nearly half of these are from four heavily African-American precincts that usually vote 90 percent Democratic. In theory, nearly 10,000 votes for Gore from Duval County will go untallied.
'Felons' and 'Purge Lists' - Florida law disenfranchises citizens convicted of many felonies (see June 24, 1974). In this election, thousands of Florida voters, mostly African-American males, lose their vote when they appear at their precinct and are told they cannot vote because they are felons, even though they are not. One is Willie Steen, a military veteran who loses his vote in Hillsborough County. “The poll worker looked at the computer and said that there was something about me being a felon,” Steen later recalls. “I’ve never been arrested before in my life,” he recalls telling the poll worker. The worker refuses to listen, and orders Steen to leave the line. Steen later learns that the felony he supposedly committed was done between 1991 and 1993, when he was stationed in the Persian Gulf. Tampa youth leader Willie Dixon and Tallahasse pastor Willie Whiting are also denied their votes through improper classification as felons, as do thousands of other voters. Investigative journalist Greg Palast later learns that the felon-disenfranchisement is widespread and systematic. He will publish a story exposing the scheme during the Florida recounts—in a London newspaper. No US newspaper will consider it. Palast later says: “Stories of black people losing rights is passe, it’s not discussed, no one cares. A black person accused of being a felon is always guilty.” Palast and other investigators learn that Republican legislators have in recent years upgraded a number of selected crimes from misdemeanors to felonies, apparently in order to “purge” the voting rolls of African-Americans. State Senator Frederica Wilson is one of many who believe the new classifications are “aimed at African-American people.” Black lawmakers have been unsuccessful in attempting to repeal the felon-disenfranchisement laws. After a 1997 election, where some 105 felons were found to have voted and analysis showed that 71 percent of Florida felons were registered Democrats, the Florida state government allocated $4 million to “purge” felons off the voting rolls. The government turned the task over to a private firm, Database Technologies (DBT) of Boca Raton (which later merged with the firm ChoicePoint). When the first purge lists from DBT began appearing in 1998, county elections officials were worried. Ion Sancho, the elections supervisor for Leon County, will recall: “We were sent this purge list in August of 1998. We started sending letters and contacting voters, [saying] that we had evidence that they were potential felons and that they contact us or they were going to be removed from the rolls. Boy, did that cause a firestorm.” One of the “felons” was Sancho’s close friend Rick Johnson, a civil rights attorney. “Very few felons are members of the Florida bar,” Sancho will note. In early 2000, Sancho asked Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell, a lawyer for the Florida Division of Elections, why so many “false positives”—innocent people—were on DBT’s list. Mitchell told Sancho that the problem was DBT’s, not Florida’s, and the firm had been told to handle the problem. Instead, according to ChoicePoint marketing official James Lee, Florida relaxed the criteria for its purge list, and tens of thousands of voters who had names roughly similar to those of actual felons were added to the list. Why? Lee will say, “Because after the first year they weren’t getting enough names.” Willie D. Whiting, a law-abiding pastor, is denied the vote because Willie J. Whiting is a felon. Willie Steen is denied his vote because Willie O’Steen is a convicted felon. Mitchell told a DBT project manager that it was up to elections officials like Sancho to find and correct the misidentifications. The lists even include actual felons whose right to vote had been restored by previous Florida administrations during amnesty programs. The initial database for the purge lists is comprised of people arrested for felonies, not convicted—thusly many citizens never convicted of a crime are now on the purge list. Others are incorrectly listed as felons when they were convicted of misdemeanors. A May 2000 “corrected” list stunned county elections officials. Linda Howell, election supervisor of Madison County, found her own name on the list. Monroe County supervisor Harry Sawyer found his father on the list, along with one of his employees and the husband of another. None of those people were felons. Some counties, such as Broward, Duval, Madison, and Palm Beach chose not to use the lists at all; Sancho meticulously checked his list of 697 names and ended up retaining only 33. Most supervisors use the lists without question. A thousand Bay County voters are denied their vote; 7,000 Miami-Dade voters lose theirs. It is unknown how many of these are actual felons and how many are law-abiding, legitimate voters. A 2001 class-action lawsuit brought by the NAACP and African-American voters will charge DBT and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris with deliberately attempting to disenfranchise black voters. It will be settled out of court, with Florida agreeing to provisions that nominally settle the problem (see Late August 2002), but a 2004 article by Vanity Fair will note that by 2004, Florida’s government has implemented none of the corrective procedures mandated by the settlement. Subsequent investigations will show that the “felons” on the various purge lists are disproportionately Democratic voters and disproportionately African-American. [Tapper, 3/2001; Vanity Fair, 10/2004]
2001 Investigation Proves Widespread Disenfranchisement - A 2001 investigation by the progressive newsmagazine The Nation will show a widespread and systematic program of voter disenfranchisement in effect in Florida during the 2000 elections (see April 24, 2001).

Bar graph based on Duval County caging list.Bar graph based on Duval County caging list. [Source: RangeVoting (.org)]Investigative reporter Greg Palast claims on a BBC Newsnight broadcast that the Bush presidential re-election campaign has a plan to disrupt voting in Florida during the November 2004 presidential elections. The BBC says it has two emails prepared for the executive director of the Bush campaign in Florida and the campaign’s national research director in Washington that contain a 15-page “caging list” of voters, predominantly African-American and likely Democratic voters, residing in and around Jacksonville, Florida. Voting rights expert Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will later explain “caging” to Palast: “Caging is an illegal way of getting rid of black votes. You get a list of all the black voters. Then you send a letter to their homes. And if the person doesn’t sign it at the homes, the letter then is returned to the Republican National Committee. They then direct the state attorney general, who is friendly to them, who’s Republican, to remove that voter from the list on the alleged basis that that voter does not live in the address that they designated as their address on the voting application form.” A Tallahassee elections supervisor, Ion Sancho, tells a BBC reporter, “The only possible reason why they would keep such a thing is to challenge voters on election day.” He says that under Florida law, operatives from political parties can station themselves inside polling stations and stop voters from obtaining a ballot; such “caged” voters would then have to complete a “provisional” ballot that may well not be counted. Mass challenges of this nature have never occurred in Florida, Sancho says. No challenges have been issued against voters “in the 16 years I’ve been supervisor of elections.” He continues, “Quite frankly, this process can be used to slow down the voting process and cause chaos on election day; and discourage voters from voting.” Sancho says it is “intimidation,” and it may well be illegal. Civil rights attorney Ralph Neas says US federal law bars challenges to voters, even if there is a basis for the challenge, if race is a factor in targeting voters. The “caging list” of Jacksonville-area voters contains a disproportionately large number of black voters. Republican spokespersons deny that the list is illegal, and say it merely records returned mail from either fundraising solicitations or returned letters sent to newly registered voters to verify their addresses for purposes of mailing campaign literature. Republican state campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker Fletcher says the list was not compiled “in order to create” a challenge list, but refuses to say it would not be used in that manner. Republican poll watchers will, she says, challenge voters “[w]here it’s stated in the law.” No one in the Florida Republican Party or the Bush campaign will explain why top officials in the Bush campaign have received the caging list. Palast’s colleagues have captured on film a private detective filming every “early voter” in a Jacksonville precinct from behind a vehicle with blacked-out windows; the detective denies knowing who paid for his services. Representative Corinne Brown (D-FL) says the surveillance is part of a Republican-orchestrated campaign to intimidate black voters. [Greg Palast, 10/26/2004; Democracy Now!, 5/14/2007] Palast later writes that many of the black voters affected by the caging list are veterans.
Methodology - He will write: “Here’s how the scheme worked: The RNC mailed these voters letters in envelopes marked, ‘Do not forward,’ to be returned to the sender. These letters were mailed to servicemen and women, some stationed overseas, to their US home addresses. The letters then returned to the Bush-Cheney campaign as ‘undeliverable.’ The lists of soldiers with ‘undeliverable’ letters were transmitted from state headquarters, in this case Florida, to the RNC in Washington. The party could then challenge the voters’ registration and thereby prevent their absentee ballots being counted. One target list was comprised exclusively of voters registered at the Jacksonville, Florida, Naval Air Station. Jacksonville is the third largest naval installation in the US, best known as home of the Blue Angels fighting squadron.” Over one million provisional ballots cast in the 2004 race were never counted. “The extraordinary rise in the number of rejected ballots was the result of the widespread multi-state voter challenge campaign by the Republican Party,” he will write. “The operation, of which the purge of black soldiers was a small part, was the first mass challenge to voting America had seen in two decades.” Palast will say that the BBC had more than the two emails it used for its Newsnight report. He will also identify the sender as Timothy Griffin, the RNC’s national research director, and the recipients as Florida campaign chairman Brett Doster and other Republican leaders. “Attached were spreadsheets marked, ‘Caging.xls.’ Each of these contained several hundred to a few thousand voters and their addresses. A check of the demographics of the addresses on the ‘caging lists,’ as the GOP leaders called them indicated that most were in African-American majority zip codes.” Palast will report that one Republican official, Joseph Agostini, explained that the list may have been of potential Bush campaign donors, a claim that is undermined by the list’s inclusion of a number of residents of a local homeless shelter. Fletcher will later claim that the list contains voters “we mailed to, where the letter came back—bad addresses,” but will not say why the list includes soldiers serving overseas whose addresses would obviously not be correct. Fletcher will insist that it “is not a challenge list.… That’s not what it’s set up to be.” [Greg Palast, 6/16/2006; In These Times, 4/16/2007] US Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico will later say of the practice: “That’s a terrible practice. If it’s not illegal, it should be. I hope Congress fixes that, that problem. It’s when you send voter information to a group of people that you have reason to believe are no longer there, such as military personnel who are overseas, such as students at historically black colleges. And then, when it comes back as undeliverable, the party uses that information to remove that person from the voter rolls, claiming that they’re no longer there.… It’s a reprehensible practice. I had never heard of the phrase until after I left office.” [Democracy Now!, 6/4/2008]
Griffin Sent Memos to Wrong Email Address - Palast later reveals his source for the caging list spreadsheet to be an error made by Griffin. In August 2004, he sent a series of confidential memos to a number of Republican Party officials via emails. Griffin mistakenly sent the emails to addresses at georgewbush.org and not georgewbush.com, as he should have. The georgewbush.org address is owned by satirist John Wooden, who sent them to Palast at BBC Newsnight. Palast will write: “Griffin’s dozens of emails contained what he called ‘caging lists’—simple Excel spreadsheets with the names and addresses of voters. Sounds innocent enough. But once the addresses were plotted on maps—70,000 names in Florida alone—it became clear that virtually every name was in a minority-majority voting precinct. And most of the lists were made up of itinerant, vulnerable voters: students, the homeless, and, notably, soldiers sent overseas.” [In These Times, 4/16/2007]
GOP: Palast, Sancho Wrong, Biased - Fletcher responds to the BBC story with an email to Newsnight editor Peter Barron claiming that Palast is ignorant of the laws and practices surrounding elections, and calls Sancho “an opinionated Democrat” who does not supervise the area in question. Such “caging lists” are commonly used, she says, and are entirely legal. Palast mischaracterized the nature and use of caging lists, she says. Moreover, the list is composed of returned mailings sent by the Republican National Committee to new registrants in Duval County (which includes Jacksonville) encouraging recipients to vote Republican. “The Duval County list was created to collect the returned mail information from the Republican National Committee mailing and was intended and has been used for no purpose other than that,” she says. Palast erred in “insinuat[ing]” that the list would be used for challenging voters, “and frankly illustrates his willingness to twist information to suit his and others’ political agenda. Reporting of these types of baseless allegations by the news media comes directly from the Democrats’ election playbook.” She then accuses the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) of “massive fraud efforts” on behalf of “the Kerry campaign and the Democrats.” Many registered voters in Duval County “do not have valid addresses,” she says, implying that such voters may be subject to challenges. She concludes, “In a year when reporters are under heavy scrutiny for showing political leanings toward the Democratic Party, I would think that your new[s] organization would take greater care to understand the facts and use sources that will yield objective information, rather than carry one party’s political agenda.” [BBC, 6/4/2008]

Entity Tags: Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Florida Republican Party, Brett Doster, Bush-Cheney re-election campaign 2004, Corrine Brown, David C. Iglesias, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Greg Palast, Ralph G. Neas, John Wooden, J. Timothy Griffin, Ion Sancho, Republican National Committee, Joseph Agostini, County of Duval (Florida), Peter Barron, Mindy Tucker Fletcher

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A heated battle is brewing in Florida over state constitutional Amendments 5 and 6, which if voted into effect in November, would create stricter rules for Florida legislators to follow while redrawing state districts. Proponents say that Florida’s electoral districts are gerrymandered to create a few districts “packed” with African-American voters, and large numbers of districts dominated by white voters. As a result, the white voters, who tend to vote Republican, are able to vote in majorities of Republican lawmakers to the Florida legislature, and the US Congress, year after year. The amendments would ban the practice of drawing political districts to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Amendment 5 pertains to legislative districts, while Amendment 6 deals with congressional districts. The political action committee (PAC) Protect Your Vote (PYV) is one of the most powerful and well-financed groups opposing the new amendments; the amendments are being pushed by groups such as Fair Districts Now, which proposed the amendments and secured enough backing for them to get them on November’s ballots. PYV, which portrays itself as nonpartisan, argues that Amendments 5 and 6 would make redistricting a long, expensive process and would in the long run result in a decrease in minority representation in Congress and the Florida legislature. However, an investigation by the Florida Independent turns up information that may call PYV’s motives into question. The head of the group is former Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Republican who left the position after state laws governing retirement changed. Browning retired before the new laws could take effect, that would have prevented him from retiring and then returning to his old job and essentially drawing two salaries at once. Browning was a strong advocate for the controversial 2005 Voter Registration Verification Law, the so-called “No Match, No Vote” law that forced new voters to submit identifying numbers to the state before they are allowed to vote (see September 17, 2007). The law effectively disenfranchised almost 8,000 voters, the majority of whom were African-Americans and Hispanics, and over three-quarters of whom were registered Democrats. PYV’s honorary chairman is Representative Corrine Brown (D-Jacksonville), believed by critics to be against the amendments “solely to keep the large majority she enjoys in her district in order to keep her seat safe from challengers,” according to a report by Sunshine State News. Critics say Brown gives PYV a veneer of bipartisanship, but the organization is funded almost entirely by Republican donors and the steering committee is made up of three Democrats and 12 Republicans. Two-thirds of the organization’s funding—some $1.2 million—comes from the Florida Republican Party. The listed address of the organization, in Tampa, is an accounting firm, Robert Watkins & Company; Robert Watkins’s wife Nancy Watkins is a veteran Republican political operative. [Florida Independent, 10/6/2010; Florida Independent, 10/22/2010]

Entity Tags: Protect Your Vote, Corrine Brown, (Florida) Voter Registration Verification Law of 2005, Fair Districts Now, Florida Independent, Robert Watkins, Robert Watkins & Company, Kurt Browning, Sunshine State News, Nancy Watkins

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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