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Posted on Mon, Aug. 02, 2004

FLORIDA FELON VOTERS

Election officials knew of list errors




Knight Ridder Newspapers

Well before they abruptly discarded it, Florida election officials knew they had significant problems with a database of felons they planned to use in removing voters from the rolls.

Just a week before they directed local election chiefs to begin purging ineligible voters from the list of 48,000 convicted felons, state officials documented two years of failures and breakdowns with the $2.7 million contract with database vendor Accenture.

A May 2 internal memo, ordered personally by Secretary of State Glenda Hood, details half a dozen missed deadlines and broken promises, failed software programs, repeated miscues and personnel problems.

Two months after the memo, with newspapers including The Miami Herald detailing major flaws with the felon database that could have disenfranchised thousands, the state reversed course and told election chiefs not to use the felon list.

The problems outlined in the five-page memo do not directly foreshadow the exact glitches that forced the state to abandon the list. But the memo makes clear that the state was hitting constant hurdles in its quest to rush out a list of voters who could be deleted from the rolls.

Critics who have closely monitored Florida's voting process say the chronology shows the state was negligent.

"This memo is striking," said Howard Simon, Florida director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "After two years of constant failures and fixes . . . they rushed this out the door."

"We are talking about one of our most fundamental rights, the right to vote. Maybe they should have considered the possibility that accuracy was more important than speed."

State officials say they intended merely to remove ineligible voters. In Florida, convicted felons cannot vote unless the right is restored.

Fairness at issue

Yet a former official involved in the process acknowledged that the state was moving rapidly.

"We were quickly approaching the 'drop dead' date, when we knew it would be too late to put it out there for the election," said Ed Kast, the former director of the Division of Elections who retired in June.

"It wouldn't be fair to voters. It wouldn't be fair to supervisors," he said. "Of course we were frustrated. We all wanted to know why it couldn't get done faster."

Executives at Accenture, one of the world's largest technology consulting firms, were caught unaware by the memo when contacted by The Miami Herald. The newspaper obtained it in a public records request.

"We've never seen this document before," said Jim McAvoy, spokesman for Accenture.

He acknowledged some "technical and staffing issues, which resulted in a delay of approximately five months."

But he said the state asked for many changes that helped exacerbate delays. He declined to discuss specific details of the memo, saying the company intends to discuss them first with state auditors looking into the problems.

The memo came just days before state officials were going to order local election chiefs to use the database to remove thousands of ineligible voters.

The Miami Herald obtained the list and, on July 2, reported that it contained more than 2,100 felons whose voting rights had been restored through the state's clemency process. Most were Democrats, and many were black.

As The Miami Herald prepared its report, a Tallahassee judge ordered the Division of Elections to make the database public. Less than a week later, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune and The New York Times reported that Hispanics - who tend to vote Republican - were largely excluded from the list because a criminal records database the state used to find ineligible voters doesn't use Hispanic as a race. Thus, many Hispanic voters with criminal records were excluded from the list given to local election chiefs, a striking lapse.

The flaws prompted Hood to pull back the list July 10.

Problems documented

Yet well before then, the state documented a morass.

Many of the problems involved computer runs that failed, programming flaws, or miscommunications among the state, contractor and subcontractor.

Among them:

• Rapid turnover and inexperience. Three different project managers were assigned by Accenture in the final year alone. One database administrator sent in February "had no prior experience with this application - he had never even seen it before coming to Tallahassee," the memo says.

• Missed deadlines, the first June 30, 2003. One of the reasons: A technical representative suddenly left the company and didn't transfer her work to anyone else, the memo said.

As late as April, state overseers found a series of yet "more errors" by Accenture, a $13.4 billion Bermuda-based consulting firm with 94,000 employees in 48 countries.

"It becomes apparent to Division that Accenture's Fayetteville office does not understand the relationship between matching tables," wrote the assistant director of elections, suggesting that Accenture lacked basic knowledge of how to make different databases work together.

Dawn Roberts, who replaced Kast in June, said the memo was generated on the orders of her boss, Hood. "I think she was getting a lot of questions from reporters and from critics," Roberts said. "She asked for the answers in writing."

'Complex' problem

Both Kast and Roberts say that despite the frustrations, the division was confident in the final product. "This was a very complex project," Roberts said. "Our staff was intricately involved all along, checking and double-checking. It wasn't like we just got it one day and put it out there."

Roberts also said election supervisors were told to first investigate names on the list before removing anyone.

Yet many local supervisors found the last-minute list burdensome and feared that it included voters who should not be kicked off removed from the rolls. Several refused to use it.

Citing two ongoing internal investigations, the Elections Division refused to allow The Miami Herald to interview other key people. Nor has the state fully responded to a Herald request for the documents used to compile the memo.

State knew of felon list's problems

BY


David Kidwell writes for The Miami Herald, a sister paper of the Bradenton/East Manatee Herald. Miami Herald staff writers Gary Fineout and Jason Grotto contributed to this report.

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