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>How The Fourth Estate Rescued An Election

>Judge Orders New Miami Mayoral Election

Miami, 1988–This is a story about how a news gathering organization, the Associated Press, mobilized to force a re-election in the Miami Mayoral contest ten years ago.

Officials were tipped off concerning potential fraud by the absentee ballots that came in, and the AP’s investigation at first centered on that.

Evidence was presented to a Florida judge and he overturned the mayoral election of Xavier Suarez over colorful Miami mayor Joe Corolla. That repeat election was ordered following a November, 1987 election.

“The evidence presented in the case clearly demonstrated fraud and abuse of the absentee ballot laws,” the judge wrote. He said no evidence was presented to indicate that Suarez knew about, or participated in, the fraud.

Carollo claimed that absentee ballots were forged and even paid for by representatives of the Suarez campaign. AP project editor, Judy Miller, said it looked fishy and the AP decided on a full-fledged investigation.

It started as a computer-assisted reporting (CAR) project. Dan Keating, the city desk’s CAR editor (now at the Washington Post) got the voter registration and voting database. he ran those records against felony records, city employee records, real estate records, and social security death records databases. He came up with a list of people who appeared to be dead but who had still voted: people who worked for the city of Miami, didn’t seem to live in the city, but had still voted there; addresses that seemed to house more voters than there was room for; and people who had voted despite having felony records.

That’s when the real project started: All those people had to be backgrounded to find out if they truly were felons, or if they truly were dead, or if they truly didn’t live in the city of Miami.

What A Huge Research Project!

Judy Miller got several departments to lend her reporters for a couple of months, and put them all on the vote fraud team. Their job was to do the reporting on these people. They had to do background checks on all of them, which meant going through some of the public records databases that they had online, like AutoTrack [20], and county databases.

Miller said her job was to train all these people in how to use online public records. “Over the years we had been training reporters to do background checks as they covered elections. So we had a group of reporters who were trained, but we had to update them on changes in online records, as well as train those who were new at it.

She had to give them access to some databases that aren’t available online, like the voting records database. The AP set up an intranet server and their systems department gave them access and they put the voter database on the intranet with searchable databases on it for a couple of years. Reporters could put information they had found on it so that the whole investigation could be coordinated and everyone was on the same page.

Reporters would go out knocking on doors. Sometimes they came to a house that had nine voters in it, yet it had only two bedrooms. Reporters called Miller and asked who owned the house, who lived in the house?

Miller admitted it was a “huge project–one that won them the Pulitzer Prize for reporting. It involved 20 reporters who all got credit.

Many of the files that were critical to their research are not available on the public Internet, but were databases that the AP had to purchase. Miller said that in many cases you can get them from government agencies for a minimal charge–usually just the cost of transferring the data. As the fraud project went on, they added more and more of these databases to the AP intranet.

Our next article will be about what you can find on the Net that you couldn’t find a few years ago, and tips for accessing government files.

We suggest you read a fine book by Paula J. Hane, Supersearches In The News, The Online Secrets of Journalists and News Researchers, Cyberage Books, Medford, N.J., 2000.