The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Margin of Error

By Michael King, December 8, 2000, News

When Gov. George W. Bush announced his presidential candidacy last year, he was asked by a hard-hitting local reporter if he intended to "use the Internet" in his campaign. Bush's affirmative response suggested the usual run of Web sites, Web fundraisers, and online campaign souvenirs. But it may also turn out that the state's official online presence helped the governor kick a few more thousand potential Gore voters off the Florida rolls.

According to a Dec. 5 story by Gregory Palast, in 1998 the state of Florida hired an Atlanta-based information company, DBT Online (since merged into ChoicePoint Inc.), at a cost of $4 million, to "cleanse" the state's voter rolls of duplicate registrations, deceased voters, and felons, who are not eligible to vote. Among the roughly 173,000 names purged from the voter rolls were at least 8,000 "ex-felons" previously convicted (according to DBT Online) in Texas. When it turned out that the names were supplied in error, the company said, "Oops!" and blamed the mistake on its source of information: "the state of Texas."

According to Palast, "Florida officials moved to put those falsely accused by Texas back on voter rolls before the election. Nevertheless, the large number of errors uncovered in individual counties suggests that thousands of eligible voters may have been turned away at the polls." Subsequent investigation by the Associated Press suggests that as many as 12,000 names of supposed felons (from Texas and other states) had been provided in error.

ChoicePoint, based in Atlanta, now says it never told reporters that Texas supplied bad data. "The programming error was ours," James Lee, ChoicePoint's VP for marketing and communications, told the Chronicle. "Our initial list, which because of that programming error mistakenly listed as ex-felons 8,000 people who had been convicted only of misdemeanors, was distributed in April. We corrected it in May, and the list was redistributed in Florida in June." Lee said the company purchased public records databases from all 50 states, cross-scanned the information against information supplied by Florida counties, and gave the matching records to the state. "The quality of the final list is dependent on the initial quality of the public records in each county, and each county is responsible for cross-checking and confirming its own information."

Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Dept. of Public Safety, says that DPS maintains the Convictions Records Database, available on the agency's Web site at "But that list includes class A and class B misdemeanors as well as felonies," said Mange. The entire database is available for purchase, said Mange, "but we can't be responsible for how purchasers use the information once they buy it from us." According to the Associated Press, a company vice-president said that Texas "failed to notify the company about a change in its data." Mange responded that the DPS has not changed its records system in any way since 1998, adding that several months ago the agency, alerted by queries from third parties, specifically warned the company that it appeared to be making unwarranted assumptions in its use of the data.

According to DPS records, ChoicePoint (doing business as DBT Online) purchases the database from DPS once a month at a cost of $964. "We are required by law to provide this information," said Mange, "but we warn people that they need to use it very carefully, and that it is often difficult or impossible to tell if the 'John Smith' in the database is the same John Smith they're looking for." An offender record includes a date of birth and basic physical description, but no Social Security number or other detail that would presumably allow a Florida election official, working from a ChoicePoint list, to confirm the identity of a potentially ineligible voter.

As Lee acknowledged, the company made programming errors in translating the information, apparently treating as felony records many thousands of names of people who may have been convicted of misdemeanors but who would be still eligible to vote under both Texas and Florida law. Mange said the database specifically includes pre-1993 county-source information (prior to a change in the law) which did not necessarily distinguish between misdemeanor and felony convictions. "They're calling us names," said Mange, "but they're the ones that are wrong."

Reporter Palast told the Chronicle that ChoicePoint did not identify the source agency for its Texas data. Yet the company blamed Texas for providing bad information and Florida for not double-checking the information. ChoicePoint spokesman Martin Fagan told Palast, "'I guess that's a little bit embarrassing in light of the election,' but dismissed the errors in 8,000 names as 'a minor glitch -- less than one-tenth of 1% of the electorate.'" That's assuming, of course, that "only" 8,000 names (plus another 4,000 from other states) were supplied in error. In fact, there's no way of knowing how many other ChoicePoint-supplied "felons" are not felons at all.

Palast points out that what ChoicePoint calls a "minor glitch" works out to 15 times Bush's nominal lead over Vice-President Al Gore. In more detail, Palast describes problems with the ChoicePoint information that led several counties not to use it at all, or at least to query by letter voters whose names turned up on the list. Yet other counties used the list unquestioningly, leaving it up to voters on election day to complain.

According to Palast, ChoicePoint hopes to parlay its singular Florida "success" into additional state contracts across the nation. With "information" like this, who needs hanging chads?

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