20,000 cases erroneously listed felonies

Flaggers of 7,730 voters used crime center’s faulty entries

Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin
Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin

EDITOR'S NOTE: The number of incorrect records discovered in the state’s felony database was between 4,000 and 5,000, according to an official who said Saturday that he misspoke the day before when he gave a much larger figure during an interview.

Saturday’s edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette led with a story about 20,000 erroneous records in the database, which contained a total of 193,549 records when it was given to the secretary of state’s office for use in determining who to strike from another statewide database, one of voters.

That 20,000 figure was itself erroneous. Brad Cazort, repository administrator for the Arkansas Crime Information Center, said Saturday that when being interviewed Friday by a reporter, he misstated the number of cases in the statewide criminal database erroneously listed as felonies.

See Sunday’s edition for full details.


About one in 10 felonies noted in the statewide crime database was deemed inaccurate by an internal review, Brad Cazort, repository administrator for the Arkansas Crime Information Center, said Friday.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Brad Cazort, repository administrator for the Arkansas Crime Information Center

The inaccuracies were found after the database was used by Secretary of State Mark Martin's office to flag potential felons in a separate statewide database of voters. Beyond voting, the inaccurate information affected background checks of Arkansans, including for those looking to buy a gun or get a job.

The errors came about because municipal courts called the crimes felonies in their paperwork, which the center used to compile the criminal database, but those municipal courts -- now called district courts -- cannot rule that someone is a felon, Cazort said.

The volume of inaccurate information was five times larger than previously expected. Initially, about 4,000 records were incorrectly called felonies on the basis of that error. On Friday, Cazort said that after the review, the number totaled 20,000.

There are 193,549 felony records noted in the criminal database. Cazort said the errors have been corrected. No one inaccurately labeled as a felon or representing such a person had ever contacted the center about the incorrect records, he said.

That the Arkansas Crime Information Center was checking its records was discovered by a reporter's review of emails sent and received by Martin's office related to voting records. One secretary of state employee said the Arkansas Crime Information Center needn't check its records in the wake of early reports of inaccurate data, but later changed his mind.

County clerks have been working to determine the voting eligibility of 7,730 people flagged by the secretary of state's office as felons in the statewide voter database. Some were not convicted of felonies. Some had been pardoned by the governor. Others had long since gone through the process of restoring their voter rights.

According to files found in a recent response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, clerks have gone through the process of updating the voting records for at least 4,748 of those listed.

But no information has been publicly released on how many of those voters have been removed from the rolls by county clerks statewide. Chris Powell, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, has not responded to requests sent over several weeks to make the information available.

"Our staff has worked very diligently throughout this process," Powell said in an email. "Our entire goal throughout this process was to comply with the Constitution and to correct a process that had been conducted in error both during and long before this administration."

Martin, a Republican, has yet to agree to numerous interview requests from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He has been secretary of state since 2011. The secretary of state's roles include overseeing the statewide voter rolls, helping local governments with elections and seeing that the state follows federal election law.

To periodically update the voter database by flagging felons who had lost the right to vote, the secretary of state's office had relied on information generated by Arkansas Community Correction. However, after the Community Correction employee who processed the data died, updates lapsed in 2014.

After reading Amendment 51 to the Arkansas Constitution, Martin's office determined that it should request the information from the Arkansas Crime Information Center. Martin's office, using the list of nearly 200,000 purported felons, narrowed the number down to 7,730 to flag in the database for county clerks to verify.

Powell was asked about some of the emails disclosed via the Freedom of Information Act request.

"The emails you have selected are merely snapshots of thoughts and internal discussions taken from months of correspondence and work," Powell said. "As you can see from the documents we have provided to your paper, many of the conversations that took place were of an extremely technical nature."

Clerk: 'Help!!!'

In an email to Elections Division employees at Martin's office, Polk County Clerk Terri Harrison wrote: "Oh. My. Gosh. Please. Help."

The subject of the email, sent June 30, was "Help!!!" Her office had just sent letters to voters listed as convicted felons.

"The letter asked them to contact us if they felt that information was not correct," she wrote. "We are being bombarded with phone calls from voters stating that not only are they not convicted felons but they have never been convicted of a felony and they are mad.

"So how do I go about verifying whether they are telling me the truth or not?"

There was no response from Martin's office to Harrison's email noted in the batch of emails given to the state Democratic Party, which made a Freedom of Information Act request. However, Polk County Deputy Clerk Alyssa Hunter said the office did respond in an email to all the county clerks in Arkansas.

An email, sent later on June 30 from Martin's office, said there "might be some issues with some of this data being incorrect" and to wait for further correspondence.

On July 5, confronted with incorrect records in the Arkansas Crime Information Center data, Mitchell Minyard, a programmer analyst in the secretary of state's Elections Division, said: "This makes me feel like ACIC is being given bad data across the board."

In a letter dated July 6, Peyton Murphy, assistant director of the Elections Division, told clerks that each case should be "investigated individually," but didn't specify how.

Polk County received the names of 32 people. After checking with the local circuit clerk's office, the office ultimately removed 14 from the rolls.

"If we didn't have any proof, we made them active again," Hunter told a reporter.

'PR move'

Polk County and others in Arkansas were caught off guard by the large list of felons they received from the secretary of state's office.

Internal emails, provided to the Democratic Party and the ACLU of Arkansas via answers to Freedom of Information Act requests, show that officials knew that the large list of felons would be difficult to go through.

On June 6, Chase Hall, an account manager at Election Systems & Service, the vendor that runs the state's voter registration database, told Minyard in an email: "I was thinking you may want to give the counties a week notice prior to publishing the felon data."

On June 14, Leslie Bellamy, director of the Elections Division, asked Kelly Boyd, chief deputy secretary of state, whether the Elections Division could release the felon file.

"I think we might as well," Boyd replied. "If we have some really biggies, you might want to give your contact in that county a call and ease the surprise just a little."

Bellamy sent the information to Minyard, who said the office should provide a couple of days' notice.

"Probably send the letter this afternoon, and then publish the batches Thursday afternoon. That way people have a little more than a day to mentally digest what's coming, and then Friday to look at it, get mad, and then go cool down over the weekend?" Minyard said.

"Or would it be more effective news cycle wise to announce Friday afternoon and publish at 5:00 pm?

"I can do either, just not sure what the best PR move is here though."

The office ended up notifying clerks 10 days later, at 1:03 p.m. Friday, June 24, and flagging people identified as felons on Monday, June 27.

Bellamy had said on May 26 that the updated information needed to be released as soon as possible.

"We are rapidly approaching the presidential election and need to purge," she said in an email. The general election is Nov. 8.

Felons list

The secretary of state's office requested the entire database of felons from the Arkansas Crime Information Center. That includes information that goes back to the 1970s.

Arkansas law allows felons to regain the right to vote once they are discharged from probation or parole; have paid all probation or parole fees; have satisfied all terms of imprisonment; and have paid all court costs, fines or restitution. A felon also can have his crime pardoned and become eligible to vote again.

Amendment 51 to the Arkansas Constitution states that when convicted felons show proof of that information to the county clerk, they shall be added back to voter registries.

Stormy Cook, an information systems coordinator for the center, said in an email to Peyton and Minyard on July 7, 10 days after the data were was released: "When we spoke earlier this week, I understood that anyone on the provided ACIC list who submitted justification was removed."

Cazort of the Arkansas Crime Information Center said Monday that Cook "was inquiring if the secretary of state had removed from the felon list all persons who had gotten their voting rights restored."

The secretary of state's office had not removed those people from its felon records. The statewide voter database does not note who has regained voting rights.

In the email, Cook continued: "ACIC administration has assembled staff to review each record we provided your office. Unfortunately, this is a massive list and it will take a very long time. I had hoped the list from your office would narrow the results somewhat. I hope this will save our staff some valuable minutes that they can apply to subjects who are being excluded."

In response to Cook, Murphy, the assistant director of the secretary of state's Elections Division, said that wouldn't be necessary.

"As for individuals who have submitted discharge or pardon paperwork, we do not have that information readily available, as it is submitted at the county level," he said on July 7. "However, I don't believe it is necessary at this point for you all to go through this entire list and investigate each one, but rather wait to see who contacts you regarding their name erroneously being on this list."

Nearly a month later, he said he changed his mind.

"Considering that the inaccuracies appear to have far exceeded what we anticipated at the time of my July 6 letter and July 7 email, I do think reviewing each record that has been provided may be the most prudent way to go about this," he said. "Hopefully we can identify some patterns in the erroneous records and at least have a good place to start."

Cazort said he did not believe that the secretary of state's office ever provided the list of the 7,730 voters flagged as felons to the Arkansas Crime Information Center.

Legal challenge

The day after Cook sent her email to Martin's office, Boyd, the chief deputy secretary of state, told employees to prepare for a lawsuit.

"I am sure you all have read recent news reports of threats by the ACLU to file suit against the SOS regarding the felon file issue," he wrote on Aug. 8. "I feel it incumbent upon us to be fully prepared in the event these threats, either from the ACLU or other entities, come to fruition."

Both the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the state Democratic Party have said the secretary of state office's responses to Freedom of Information Act requests were inadequate.

On Aug. 30, David Mitchell of the Rose Law Firm made his "final attempt to obtain the public records lawfully requested by Mr. Burks twenty seven days ago." In the letter, he narrowed the original request.

Mitchell was hired by the Democratic Party to represent Chris Burks, general counsel for the party, who had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the secretary of state's office on Aug. 3.

"They won't even give us less than everything," Burks said. "We're certainly trying to be reasonable."

He expected to file a lawsuit Tuesday.

Holly Dickson, legal director at the ACLU of Arkansas, said she has been meeting with affected voters to look at the necessity of filing a lawsuit.

"No, I don't think they've complied with the letter or the spirit of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act," she said. "They should be transparent and this may force us into a side fight."

A Section on 09/03/2016

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