Shortly before the 2000 election, Michael Obregon contacted the Miami-Dade Office of the Supervisor of Elections. Heads up: He had a new address in the city. Where should he go to cast his vote?
“I received a letter,” remembers Obregon, “one page, saying I wasn't eligible to vote because I had a felony on my record.” He takes out the letter—he keeps it in a manila envelope labeled “Vote Problem”—and reads the warning: “The court system has notified the elections department that you are ineligible to vote. Pursuant to statute 98.093, we have removed your name from the voter registration record. You may contact the office of executive clemency.”
The problem: Obregon hadn’t committed a felony. Someone had apparently stolen the Bennigan’s bartender’s identity, opened some accounts, and gotten busted. That information churned into the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which alerted the Florida Department of State, which passed the information on to the local supervisor’s office, which kicked the nonfelonious Obregon off the rolls.
“I had to send my fingerprints in,” says Obregon, “so I went to the police station, they took them, they sent them in. I got back a copy of my criminal record. It said, ‘There is no felony here.’ ” Thus began a mission to convince state bureaucrats in Tallahassee that he deserved the vote. It’s an ongoing mission. Twelve years later, Obregon still isn’t on the rolls.
As Obregon gives me more details and read from more paperwork, I grow progressively dumbfounded. Millions of people choose not to vote or forget come Election Day. But how do you let a state’s bureaucracy bounce you around for 12 years? Eventually, even if the various state agencies change their numbers or blow you off, don’t you try to go above them?
“I could probably try harder,” says Obregon, “but I just get discouraged.”
Here’s the paradox of the new voter ID crackdown, of the 38 states that have debated or passed legislation that puts more demands on voters. The new laws—and in Florida, new executive campaigns—ask voters to show driver’s licenses at the polls, or prove their eligibility with birth certificates, or prove that they’ve never had a felony, or prove that they are citizens of the United States.
Doing that involves navigating your state’s bureaucracies. Those bureaucracies have been shrunk or frozen by years of belt-tightening. They rely on data from other cost-cutting organs of the state. Imagine giving some endomorphic amateur athlete a low-calorie diet and limited access to a gym. He’s training for a mile-long fun run, so there’s no pressure. All of a sudden, you panic about the threat of Sprinting Fraud or something, and you inform the runner of his new task: Run a timed 3.5-mile circuit, tomorrow.
Florida, stereotypically enough, demonstrates some of the problems. Obregon was caught up in a notorious purge of felons based on a list so flawed that perhaps 20,000 people were disenfranchised by accident. Legislators, disturbed by fraud in a 1997 Miami mayoral race, hired the now-defunct Database Technologies to compile its list. Atlanta-based ChoicePoint bought DBT before the 2000 election, so it fell to them to explain—in front of courts and special civil rights committees—how it got screwed up so badly.