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Profile: Ethel Baxter
Ethel Baxter was a participant or observer in the following events:
Part of the ‘voter purge’ lists that illegally disenfranchised thousands of Florida voters. [Source: Salon]Soon after Jeb Bush (R-FL) becomes governor of Florida minority voters are increasingly purged from the Florida voting rolls. In his unsuccessful 1994 run for governor, Bush had won the animus of African-American voters by showing a lack of interest in their concerns; during one debate, when asked what he would do for Florida’s black community, he answered, “Probably nothing.” He avoided such comments in his 1998 campaign, and won the election though he secured only 10 percent of the black vote. In his first year as governor, Bush eliminates many affirmative action programs and replaces them with what he calls the “One Florida Initiative,” which in effect grants state contracts almost exclusively to white male business owners. Black legislators, led by Democratic State Senator Kendrick Meek among others and joined by the NAACP, decide that they will mount a voter registration drive—“We’ll Remember in November”—to defeat Governor Bush and his allies, and to challenge Bush’s brother, Texas Governor George W. Bush, in his drive to the presidency (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000). Veteran civil rights leader Elmore Bryant later says, “We didn’t need George W. doing to the whole nation what Jeb was doing to Florida.” Some Florida NAACP officials have a nickname for the governor: “Jeb Crow.” Black voters begin registering in unprecedented numbers.
Removing Black 'Felons' from the Rolls, Keeping Other Blacks Off - Bush and his allies decide to begin focusing on convicted felons (see June 24, 1974), pivoting off of a 1997 discovery that 105 convicted felons had illegally voted in a Miami mayoral election. Under Florida law, convicted felons are ineligible to vote. Seventy-one percent of convicted felons found on county voting rolls are registered Democrats, and the majority of those are black. Bush and the Republican-led Florida legislature pushes through a sweeping voter fraud bill opposed by almost every county elections supervisor in Florida. It mandates the strict enforcement of an obsolete 1868 law that took the vote away from all former prisoners who had not received clemency from the governor’s office no matter what their crimes or their circumstances. Only 14 states do not automatically restore a convicted citizen’s civil rights upon the completion of their prison sentence; Florida is one of those states. Florida’s population is only 15 percent black, but its prison population is 54 percent black—a huge disproportion. Convicted felons who ask for clemency usually are denied such clemency, no matter how much they had managed to clean up their lives—by 2000, less than 0.5 percent of former prisoners have regained their rights to vote. Meek later says that he has helped 175 former felons apply for clemency; only nine, he will say, succeed in regaining their voting rights. 17 percent of Florida’s black voting-age males are disenfranchised as of 2000. Florida leads the nation in its number of disenfranchised voters. Moreover, Florida leads the nation in charging juveniles with felonies, thusly depriving young citizens of their rights to vote even before they are old enough to exercise them. Democratic State Senator Daryl Jones says: “And every year the Florida legislature is trying to make more crimes felonies. Why? So they can eliminate more people from the voter rolls.… It’s been going on in Tallahassee for years.” By April 1998, as Jeb Bush’s campaign for governor is in full swing, the legislature mandated a statewide push to “purge” voter rolls of a wide variety of ineligible voters—those who have moved and registered in a different county or state, those considered mentally unstable, those who are deceased, and most significantly, convicted felons who have not had their rights restored. Voters such as Willie David Whiting, a Tallahassee pastor who has never been convicted of a crime, testified that they were denied their rights to vote because the lists conflated him with felon Willie J. Whiting. The purge list parameters considered him a “derived,” or approximate, match (see November 7, 2000). Whiting had to threaten to bring his lawyer to the precinct before being allowed to vote. “I felt like I was slingshotted back into slavery,” he testified. He tried to understand why he and so many others were denied their right to vote. “Does someone have a formula for stealing this election?” he says he asked himself. Overall, the new purge lists are hugely disproportionate in including black citizens. Hillsborough County’s voting population is 15 percent black, but 54 percent of its purged voters are black. Miami-Dade County’s voting population is 20 percent black, but 66 percent of its purged voters are black. Leon County’s voting population is 29 percent black, but 55 percent of its purged voters are black (see Early Afternoon, November 7, 2000).
Privatizing the Purge - The legislature contracts out the task of providing a “purge list” to a Tallahassee firm, Professional Analytical Services and Systems, using state databases. The results are riddled with errors that would cost huge numbers of Florida voters their right to vote. In August 1998. Ethel Baxter, the Director of the Florida Division of Elections, orders county elections supervisors not to release the list to the press in order to keep the list from generating negative publicity. Instead, the state awards a second contract, this time to Boca Raton’s Database Technologies (DBT). (DBT later merges with ChoicePoint, an Atlanta firm.) DBT produces two separate lists, one in 1999 and another in 2000, that included a total of 174,583 alleged felons. Later, a small number of convicts who had been granted clemency are removed from the list. The majority of the people on the lists were black, and presumably Democrats. DBT employees referred to the people on the list as “dirtbags,” among other epithets. When citizens begin learning that they are on the lists, and begin filing complaints, DBT product manager Marlene Thorogood expresses surprise. In an email, she says, “There are just some people that feel when you mess with their ‘right to vote’ your [sic] messing with their life.” By late 1999, it becomes apparent that the DBT lists are as riddled with errors as the first lists. Thousands of Florida citizens who had never been convicted of felonies, and in many cases no crimes at all, are on the lists. Some people’s conviction dates were given as being in the future. Angry complaints by the thousands inundated county elections supervisors, who in turn complain to Tallahassee.
Handling the Complaints - The person designated to compile the list is Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell IV, an assistant general counsel to the Florida Division of Elections. Mitchell, who is later promoted to a senior position in the Department of Education a week after the November 2000 elections, claims he tries to “err on the side of caution” in listing voters to be purged. But testimony and statements from county supervisors, state officials, DBT employees, and others paint a different picture. When warned in March 1999 of the likelihood of tens of thousands of “false positives”—names that should not be on the list but are because of similarities in names, birth dates, Social Security numbers, and the like—Mitchell tells Thorogood that the primary purpose of the lists is to include as many people as possible, false positives or not. It is the job of the county supervisors, he says, to weed out the legitimate voters from the lists. When told by DBT personnel that loose parameters for the names were causing an inordinate number of false positives, Mitchell, as directed by senior government officials, actually loosens the parameters instead of tightening them, ensuring tens of thousands more names on the list, and resultingly more false positives. DBT also includes names of convicted felons from other states in making up its lists, though 36 states automatically restore their prisoners’ rights upon completion of sentences. Thusly, over 2,000 residents of other states who had served their sentences, had their rights restored, and moved to Florida now find their voting rights illegally stripped by the purge list. In May 2000, some 8,000 names, mostly those of former Texas prisoners included on a DBT list, are found to have never committed anything more than a misdemeanor. Their names are eventually removed from the lists. (Subsequent investigations find that at least one of the Texas lists came from a company headed by a heavy Republican and Bush campaign donor.) Mitchell later admits that other such lists, equally erroneous, are incorporated into the purge lists, and those names are not removed. Before the 2000 elections, an appeals process is instituted, but it is tortuously slow and inefficient. Civil Rights Commission attorney Bernard Quarterman says in February 2001 that the people who filed appeals are, in essence, “guilty until proven innocent.” In its contract, DBT promises to check every name on the list before including it by both mail and telephone verifications, but it does not, and later contracts omit that procedure. Asked by Nation reporter John Lantigua about concerns with the lists, Mitchell dismisses them, saying: “Just as some people might have been removed from the list who shouldn’t have been, some voted who shouldn’t have.” Lantigua writes: “In other words, because an ineligible person may have voted somewhere else, it was acceptable to deny a legitimate voter the right to vote.” Mitchell verifies that he himself did not set the loose parameters for the lists, but that they came from Baxter in consultation with Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (see After 3:30 a.m. November 8, 2000 and After).
County Supervisors Battle the Lists - Some county elections supervisors work diligently to comb through their lists and restore legitimate citizens’ voting rights. Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho testifies after the elections, “Our experience with the lists is that they are frequently erroneous.” He tells the Civil Rights Commission that he received one list with 690 names on it; after detailed checking by himself and his staff, 657 of those names were removed. Mitchell actually tells elections supervisors not to bother with such checks. Linda Howell, the elections supervisor for Madison County, later says: “Mr. Mitchell said we shouldn’t call people on the phone, we should send letters. The best and fastest way to check these matters was by phone, personal contact, but he didn’t want that.… We shouldn’t have had to do any of this. Elections supervisors are not investigators, and we don’t have investigators. It wasn’t our responsibility at all.” The process for unfairly purged voters to clear their names is slow and inefficient, and the backlog of voters waiting to have their names cleared by the Office of Executive Clemency was anywhere from six months to a year in duration. [Tapper, 3/2001; Nation, 4/24/2001]
Subsequent Investigation - A later investigation by the progressive news magazine The Nation will document widespread voter disenfranchisement efforts in Florida (see April 24, 2001).
Entity Tags: Emmett (“Bucky”) Mitchell, Willie D. Whiting, Elmore Bryant, Daryl Jones, County of Miami-Dade (Florida), County of Hillsborough (Florida), US Commission on Civil Rights, Bernard Quarterman, ChoicePoint, Professional Analytical Services and Systems, Kendrick Meek, Marlene Thorogood, John Ellis (“Jeb”) Bush, Ion Sancho, George W. Bush, Florida Division of Elections, Ethel Baxter, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Database Technologies, Katherine Harris, John Lantigua
Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections, Civil Liberties
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