Ethical Violations in the Florida Division of Elections: A Case Study

The Florida Department of State Division of Elections violated the ethical guidelines established by the American Society for Public Administration in its purging of the Florida Central Voter File prior to the 2000 presidential election and again in 2004. Their actions failed to serve the public interest, failed to uphold personal integrity and professional excellence, and violated the intent of the U.S. Constitution.

The Division of Elections contracted, per legislative mandate, with a private company to purge dead people and convicted felons (ineligible to vote under Florida law without a reinstatement process) from their rolls of registered voters: the Florida Central Voter File. However, the Division incorrectly purged many people who were not felons at all (Getter, 2001). Testimony during investigation indicated intent beyond clerical error. The president of the private company testified that the state directed them to include matches of only 90% (and later, 80%) of the last name, despite the company’s objections that this would cause false matches (ibid). A memo from the lawyer supervising the purge supports this testimony (ibid).

After being sued by several organizations including the People for the American Way Foundation and the NAACP, the state promised to place eligible voters back on the list and get its procedures tightened up (Richter, 2002). But, in 2004, the Division announced another purge of felons and refused to release the list to the public. Eventually ordered by the Leon County Circuit Court to be released, the list contained disproportionate numbers of racial minorities (Therolf, 2004). To compound the error further, many purged voters from the 2000 incident had still not been restored to the rolls four years later (Fineout, 2004). The state finally decided not to use the new purge list (Kidwell, 2004).

If the Division of Elections had innocent motives, their errors – and their failure to fully rectify them four years later – would still violate ASPA guidelines. In section IV, the ASPA recognizes that an ethical organization must “promote organizational accountability through appropriate controls and procedures.” Clearly the list did not receive stringent enough control and review to weed out errors. Not fixing the errors smacks of incompetence. As Hall puts it in What are Public Administration Ethics, “common stereotypes of many government employees and managers portray them as lazy, overpaid, incompetent bureaucrats.” Therefore, an ethical administrator must strive for high standards of competence and professional excellence, including doing her job well and correcting her mistakes.

But beyond excellence, sound administration, as Graham (2001) puts it, relies on both “professional competence and personal integrity” (p. 97). The decision to widen the criteria for the voter purge so far that it became sloppy, perhaps even intending to generate false matches, shows a distinct lack of integrity. In What are Ethical Lapses, Frenz states that this lapse of conscience “happens when someone decides to go against what they know to be ethical.” The ASPA, however, requires its members to “demonstrate the highest standards in all activities to inspire public confidence and trust in public service.” This includes honesty as well as “zealously guard[ing] against conflict of interest or its appearance” and “tak[ing] responsibility for their own errors.”

Administrators must also serve the public interest, which did not happen in Florida. What the ASPA calls serving the public includes opposing discrimination, supporting the public’s right to know the public’s business, involving citizens in policy decision-making, and responding to the public in ways that are complete, clear, and easy to understand. A secret list, hidden from the public, promoting racial discrimination against voters clearly violates every one of these principles. It also violates the principle of upholding the law, addressed again in the ASPA guidelines to uphold the Constitution: “eliminate unlawful discrimination.”

The Division of Elections failed the public, as did the Governor of Florida by not taking adequate steps to rectify matters. As Wood (2001) point out, the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 3, “provides that the President ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ and most state Constitutions vest similar responsibility in the office of the Governor” (p.257). The Division of Elections failed its public trust. They would do well to remember that “the government belongs to the public, and the administrator’s role is that of a trustee, not a proprietor, in the use of his authority” (Graham, 2001, p. 101). In the words of Gawthrop (1984), public administration professionals in the 21st century “have a vital responsibility… to make the participatory power of the body politic once again real and meaningful… to enhance and guard the holistic virtues of any democracy worthy of its name” (p.436). To mismanage voter rolls, intentionally or not, to close the process to the public, and to promote racial bias against voters clearly violates the ethical standards of the both the ASPA and the Constitution.

References

American Society for Public Administration (ASPA). Proposed revised code of ethics. Retrieved from http://www.aspanet.org/public/ASPA/Resources/Code_of_Ethics/ASPA/Resources/Code_of_Ethics/Code_of_Ethics1.aspx?hkey=acd40318-a945-4ffc-ba7b-18e037b1a858

Fineout, G. (2004, May 26). Many voters not yet back on rolls. Miami Herald. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20040817140125/http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/politics/8765193.htm

Frenz, R. What are ethical lapses? eHow. Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/info_7755222_ethical-lapses.html

Getter, L. (2001, May 21). Florida net too wide in purge of voter rolls. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2001/may/21/news/mn-620

Gawthrop, L. C. (1984). Civis, civitas and civilitas: a new face for 2000. Public Administration Review, 44, 424-437.

Graham, G. (2001). Ethical Guidelines for Public Administrators. In W. Bruce, Ed., The Classics of Administrative Ethics (pp. 97-101). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Hall, S. What are public administration ethics? eHow. Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/info_8014104_public-administration-ethics.html#ixzz1UZAYoGsj

Kidwell, D. (2004, August 2). Election officials knew of list errors. Knight Ridder Newspapers. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20041020014457/http://www.bradenton.com/mld/bradenton/9298887.htm

Richter, R. (2002, September 4). Florida voting rights lawsuit ends in settlement. People for the American Way Foundation. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20070930015237/http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=4206

Therolf, G. (2004, July 3). Voter-purge list of felons made public. The Tampa Tribune. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20050830093727/http://www.tampatribune.com/MGBOPBXS5WD.html

Wood, R. C. (2001). Ethics in government as a problem in executive management. In W. Bruce, Ed., The Classics of Administrative Ethics (pp.255-266). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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