Skip to Content
Skip to Navigation

The Backstory

Greg Palast wins December Sidney for Exposing a Defective Database that Endangers the Votes of Millions of People of Color
December, 2014

Greg Palast wins the December Sidney Award for “Jim Crow Returns,” and “Challenging Crosscheck,” a two-part Al Jazeera America exposé that shows how millions of innocent people were flagged as suspected vote fraudsters because they have the same first and last name as someone in another state.

On the eve of the 2014 elections, officials had begun to purge voters based on Crosscheck, with over 40,000 voters being dropped from the rolls in Virginia alone.

The Interstate Crosscheck program, used in 28 states, is ostensibly designed to prevent voter fraud by identifying people who voted in different states in the same election. The system is billed as a sophisticated fraud-detection tool, but Crosscheck lists obtained by Palast for three states show that the system matches on first and last name alone. Crosscheck had pointed the finger at over 2 million names in these three states alone, Palast found.

In the states Palast studied, anyone with a common name is at risk, but the system disproportionately flags voters of color: If you’re white, you have a 1 in 11 chance of being flagged. If you’re Asian or Hispanic, your odds are 1 in 8. If you’re black, the odds are 1 in 7 that someone in another Crosscheck state shares your first and last name.

Check Al Jazeera’s interactive database to see if your name is in on the list.

State voting officials send postcards to voters whose names show up on Crosscheck. If a card isn’t sent back, the voter is purged. Poorer people are statistically more likely to miss the postcard because they change addresses more often.

“Greg Palast has uncovered a major threat to voting rights,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein. “Crosscheck is casting unwarranted suspicion on innocent people and endangering their right to vote.”

Greg Palast produces investigative reports for the Guardian, BBC TV, and other outlets. Before becoming a reporter, he was an investigator of corporate crime and racketeering for governments and labor unions worldwide. He is the author of several books including “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” and “Vulture’s Picnic.”

“Jim Crow Returns” was produced by Alex Newman, Steve Melendez, Tate Strickland, John Thomason, and Lam Thuy Vo, edited by Jayati Vora, with photographs by Zach D. Roberts and photo editing by Mark Rykoff.

Al Jazeera America’s broadcast of "Crosscheck" was produced by Hanaan Sarhan, with Richard Rowley as director of photography.  

Lindsay Beyerstein interviewed Greg Palast by email

Q: What is the Interstate Crosscheck program, and who runs it?

A: The elections chiefs of 28 states, almost all under Republican control, use "Crosscheck" to hunt for so-called "double" voters, those who vote twice in the same election, once in two states.  Voting twice is a go-to-jail federal crime—and Crosscheck has tagged SEVEN MILLION Americans as "potential duplicate" voters. Yet this year, not one was arrested.  Why?  Because almost NO one commits this crime.

So why do they run Crosscheck?  Because Crosscheck allows these 28 "Katherine Harris" wannabes to purge TENS OF THOUSANDS of voters from voter rolls in each state.

Until our investigation for Al Jazeera America, despite many stories praising this "anti-fraud" program, no reporter had actually seen a Crosscheck purge list.  State agencies claim these millions are all criminal suspects in an on-going confidential investigation.  It took our team six months of mind games with politicos to get our hands on the list of 2.1 million of these “suspects.”

What we discovered was that Crosscheck was no more than a massive list of common names:  John Jackson, Juan Rodriguez, David Kim and so on. Using sophisticated database analysis (assisted by a crew of the experts who have done this work for EBay and American Express), we found that the lists’ “matches” were bogus.  Example: one out of four suspects had MISMATCHED middle names. Typical: JAMES ELMER BARNES JR. of Georgia supposedly voted a second time, in Virginia, as JAMES CROSS BARNES III.  Mr. Barnes Jr. told me he has never been “Cross” or “Third.”

And while press releases promised names were matched by Social Security numbers and birthdates, NONE were. And the purge was racially bent.  The methods used to purge those on the list guaranteed it would disproportionately wipe out the rights of Black, Hispanic, Asian, poor and other "blue" voters.

In 2000, for the Guardian and BBC, I discovered that Katherine Harris had purged the registrations of 58,000 Black voters, tagging them "felons" who could not vote.  None were guilty of any crime other than Voting While Black.  "Crosscheck" repeated the same game; but in a form more sophisticated, better concealed and far, far wider in its reach and effect.

You can see if you’re on the Crosscheck list…just click here to search your name in the interactive database we created for the story.

Q: Kansas is offering to let other states join the program for free. Why is Kansas so keen to subsidize distant states like Alaska or Hawaii?

A: The extraordinarily partisan Republican Secretary of State of Kansas, Kris Kobach, runs the Crosscheck program computation operation for all other states at no charge.  As you can see in the Al Jazeera television broadcast, Kobach says, “Take double voting, it’s a slam-dunk to prove that.” But Kobach’s state, despite wiping out the voting rights of thousands over seven years, has not convicted even ONE person of voting twice.  So why sell this program across the states at Kansas taxpayers’ expense?  Answer: it’s incredibly effective at erasing low-income and voters of color — that is, not Kobach’s color.

Q:  How many open records requests did you have to file to get the data for this story? Were any of the records especially challenging to obtain?

A: It was absolute murder trying to get the Crosscheck lists out of the hands of these highly political agencies.  They absolutely did not want to hand the lists over.  They knew damn well the lists were phonies—just common ethnic names, an excuse to knock off Democrats— and dynamite if exposed.  I must have had 20 conversations with the Secretary of State’s PR flack in Ohio—who never gave us their names.  They sent us press releases and a good line of BS that had effectively conned other reporters into praising their "anti-fraud" program.  

We had a team working the states—Serbian journalist Lilly Markovic Pollack, investigative photojournalist Zach D. Roberts, Swiss/British investigatrix Leni Badpenny von Eckardt--using only a modicum of necessary dissimulation.  

And once we got the raw data, we had to analyze it.  That crew was headed by expert Mark Swedlund.

Q: You performed your own analysis and you also shared the lists with activists who are continuing to analyze the data. Have they released any notable findings since the story ran?

A: Al Jazeera showed the data to voting rights groups such as the Asian-American Legal Advocacy Center (Atlanta), Martin Luther King III and the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church principally for their reaction—and to help us locate these allegedly criminal double voters.  Next to MLK’s old church was a senior home which, according to Crosscheck, housed TEN felony-committing double voters, all of them African-American.  We confronted one, Joseph Naylor, who literally swore on an open Bible, that he never voted twice.  He signed a sworn legal affidavit to protect his vote.

But I also showed the list to Republican Party leaders (I was invited to a Georgia country club fund-raiser) for their reaction.  They defended the need to stop voter "fraud."  In North Carolina, I surprised state election officials with their Crosscheck list. They thought they’d hidden it well.  They assured me the list contained real criminals — but after six months, they couldn’t find one — though they had the "double" voter’s names, addresses, phone numbers — and voting location.

Q: You determined that the Crosscheck program is more likely to flag people of color as double voters, how much more likely?

A: The Census tells us that voters of color are 67% more likely to have one of America’s 1,000 most common names than a white voter.  It is not surprising to find two voters named John Jackson —because there are 86,001 John Jackson’s in the USA, the majority of them Black. But the real method of biasing the purge is that those on the list were removed only if they did not respond to a postcard at their voting address.  As one of our experts, Michael Wychocki, said, a white middle class family in the suburbs does not change addresses every year or two. A poor, urban renter often switches apartments every year.  Hence: if you move, if you’re foreclosed, if you ignore the junk-mail from the state, you lose your rights.

Q: In a follow-up post, you note that the number of voters disqualified by Crosscheck was larger than the margin of victory in several closely fought U.S. Senate battles. Could the Crosscheck program have tipped the balance of power in the Senate?  

A: I used to teach statistics, so I had grim fun calculating the effect of Crosscheck.  With assistance from other vote suppression techniques, it was pretty easy to calculate that voter-list trickery flipped the Senate races in North Carolina and Colorado at the least. North Carolina’s Crosscheck list tagged a brobdingnagian 589,393 voters. Without doubt, Kansas’ Kris Kobach saved his GOP governor Sam Brownback from near defeat with Crosscheck cleansing of voter rolls.

Q: You know how many names were purged from the rolls in Virginia, do you have any sense of how many people showed up at the polls and were turned away on election day because of Crosscheck? Does everyone who gets flagged by IC get purged automatically, or are there other factors at play?  What percentage of people who are flagged by Interstate Crosscheck ultimately lose their votes?

A: Only Virginia would give us the count of voters purged—64,000 in that state in one year—about 19% of the number on the Crosscheck list. More will get crossed out. Virginia is typical. The purge process is a slow, tricky, secretive and racially biased, as explained in the articles.

Therefore, we won’t see the full effect until the 2016, when Crosscheck purges will hit with full force.

Q: How many names were flagged for suspected double voting this election cycle? How many of those people actually voted twice?

A: Despite the massive purge that hit thousands in each Crosscheck state—and seven million on the list of "suspects" and a full-time staff of double-vote hunters hired by North Carolina, not a single voter on the list has been charged with this crime.

Yet, despite reports from Fox News to the Washington Post praising efforts to eliminate “double voters,” not one US-owned outlet has retracted this bogus “voter fraud” story.

Previous Backstories

November, 2014
Adrian Chen wins the November Sidney Award for “Unseen,” a Wired feature about content moderators, the invisible army of contractors who spend their days sifting through all the porn, gore and hate speech that users try to upload to social networks.
October, 2014
McClatchy and ProPublica win the October Sidney Award for “Contract to Cheat,” a year-long investigation showing that roughly 10 million construction workers are being misclassified as independent contractors. The scam harms workers and cheats taxpayers out of billions of dollars, but regulators have done nearly nothing about it.
September, 2014
The Post and Courier wins the September Sidney Award for “Till Death Do Us Part,” an investigative multimedia series probing South Carolina’s domestic homicide crisis.
August, 2014
Jay Root wins the August Sidney Award for “Hurting for Work,” a Texas Tribune series, which illustrates how laissez-faire policies created the “Texas Miracle” on the backs of workers.
July, 2014
Esther Kaplan wins the July Sidney Award for “Losing Sparta: The Bitter Truth About the Gospel Of Productivity” a feature in The Virginia Quarterly Review which describes how a Philips lighting plant in Sparta, Tennessee got off-shored to Mexico, despite being the most productive plant in the country.
June, 2014
Beth Schwartzapfel wins the June Sidney Award for “The Great American Chain Gang” a feature in The American Prospect that explores a vast but little-known workforce inside the U.S. prison system, where 870,000 inmates work full time with practically no rights at work.
May, 2014
Chris Hayes wins the May Sidney Award for “The New Abolitionism,” a provocative feature in The Nation in which he argues that fossil fuel companies must forfeit $10 trillion in wealth in order to save human civilization, a demand he says is no less urgent, and no less radical than the abolitionist ultimatum that slaveholders give up the vast wealth they held in human bondage.
April, 2014
Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch of the Miami Herald win the April Sidney Award for "Innocents Lost", an investigative multi-media package profiling some 477 Florida children who died after the state’s child protection authorities investigated their families for abuse or neglect but failed to take them into care.
March, 2014
Moshe Marvit wins the March Sidney Award for his Nation magazine feature “How Crowdworkers Became Ghosts in the Digital Machine,” which shines a spotlight on a hidden workforce in which millions of digital pieceworkers toil online at home for less than minimum wage, executing repetitive “microtasks” for brokers like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
February, 2014
Amanda Hess wins the February Sidney Award for her provocative Pacific Standard essay describing the abuse that female journalists disproportionately encounter online and the implications of this phenomenon for women’s equality in the public sphere.
January, 2014
Gabriel Thompson wins the January Sidney Award for The Caretakers, a profile of the Latino immigrants who toil in obscurity to keep the nation’s golf greens manicured. In an unusual move for a sports magazine, Golf Digest commissioned this piece, published in English and Spanish, to enhance their readers’ understanding of Latino immigrants in the golf industry.
December, 2013
Nancy Updike and Nikole Hannah-Jones win the December Sidney Award for House Rules, This American Life’s gripping, revelatory history of The Fair Housing Act, landmark civil rights legislation designed to reverse decades of racist housing policy and segregation. The program is based on Hannah-Jones' reporting for ProPublica.