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Profile: Willie D. Whiting
Willie D. Whiting 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
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).
Entity Tags: Monica Moorehead, Mike Langton, Linda Howell, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lavonna Lewis, Rick Johnson, Wallace McDonald, US Commission on Civil Rights, Willie Steen, Shirley Green Knight, Willie Dixon, Katherine Harris, Willie D. Whiting, John Stafford, Howard Phillips, James Lee, Donna Brazile, Denny Hutchinson, Donnise DeSouza, Database Technologies, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., Cathy Jackson, John Ashcroft, ChoicePoint, Ed Dixon, Florida Division of Elections, Ion Sancho, Adora Obi Nweze, Emmett (“Bucky”) Mitchell, Harry Sawyer, George W. Bush, Frederica Wilson, Greg Palast, Corrine Brown
Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections, Civil Liberties
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