The real election scandal was the disenfranchisement
of black voters
by Juan Gonzalez
In These Times magazine, January 2001
The long and bitter post-election battle in Florida began
as a simple partisan fight over whether Al Gore or George W. Bush
would be the next president, but it rapidly escalated into something
far more serious. Quite simply, the Florida vote-counting fiasco
has sparked a major public debate over the very nature of our
electoral system and revealed profound problems in the way our
nation chooses its leaders.
Perhaps the most troubling of those problems is the vast disconnect
that has emerged between the right to vote that so many Americans
cherish and the slipshod, amateurish and unequal way those votes
are handled and counted. The nation has been aware for weeks that
185,000 ballots- nearly 3 percent of those cast in Florida-were
disqualified by machine counts that registered either two candidates
chosen for president (overvoting) or none at all (undervoting).
That percentage-higher than the 2 percent average in most national
elections-is reason enough for concern. But not until several
weeks after the election did hard facts emerge on the astonishing
number of black Floridians whose ballots were disqualified.
In a November 17 New York Daily News column, I reported on
the nearly 27,000 votes disqualified in Duval County, noting that
a huge percentage of them came from the mostly black precincts
of Jacksonville. In some black precincts, more than 30 percent
of ballots for president were discarded for overvoting or undervoting.
While only one in 14 ballots in heavily white precincts of Duval
were thrown out, the average was more than one in five in the
And Jacksonville was not alone. A December 1 report in the
Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel revealed that a third of 22,800 disqualified
votes in three South Florida counties came from mostly black precincts.
In those areas, the discarded votes averaged at least 8 percent.
That was followed by a December 3 report in the Washington Post
that precincts in Miami-Dade County where blacks constitute more
than 70 percent of voters, nearly 10 percent of ballots were invalidated;
but in counties that were 70 percent or more non-black, the average
was only 3.4 percent. Backwater rural communities produced the
same amazing figures. In northeast Gadsden County, a former plantation
area where blacks constitute a majority of the population, more
than 2,000 of the county's 16,800 votes were thrown out.
To Bush loyalists, and cynics in general, these statistics
prove only that many uneducated black voters haven't a clue as
to what they're doing in the voting booth-and if they can't read
instructions and lose their vote, that's their problem.
It is clear, however, that badly designed ballots in some
counties made things worse. Palm Beach's butterfly ballot is already
the stuff of legend. In Duval County, the official sample ballot
produced by the county's Republican canvassing board instructed
voters to "vote on every page" and listed all presidential
candidates on a single page. But the actual ballot, only half
the size of the sample, listed the candidates on two pages and
directed, in small print: "Vote appropriate pages."
"We realized afterward it created a lot of confusion,
and we won't be doing it that way again," says Susan Tucker
Johnson, spokeswoman for Duval's canvassing board. Amazingly,
a front-page New York Times story on that county's problems never
mentioned the sample ballot snafu. The Times report, which was
rife with several other errors, ascribed the confusion by black
voters to poor instructions from Democratic Party activists.
In reality, no one in Florida was prepared for the enormous
turnout of black voters on Election Day. While 540,000 blacks
voted in the 1996 presidential election, this year 893,00 showed
up at the polls, a 65 percent increase. That number would have
been even greater were it not for the hundreds and perhaps thousands
of blacks denied the right to vote because their names did not
appear on voter rolls or because they had been mistakenly purged
as convicted felons. And of course, it does not include the 400,000
black men who, because of a single felony conviction, are banned
for life from voting in the Sunshine State.
But those blacks who managed to cast a vote confronted other
problems. The Washington Post reported that 26 percent of black
voters reside in counties where their vote was verified and counted
by an optical scanner as soon as it was cast, returning it for
possible correction, while 34 percent of whites were in counties
with those machines.
Gadsden County, for instance, has optical scanning machines,
but its votes are counted in one central place after the polls
close. "This counter we got cost about $50,000," says
Denny Hutchinson, supervisor of elections in Gadsden. "It
probably would cost 10 times that much for a counter in every
precinct. We haven't been able to afford it."
But most of Florida's richest counties have optical scanners
in every voting precinct. In those counties it is impossible to
vote for two candidates for the same post because the scanner
rejects the ballot. A lot of "smart" Republicans, in
other words, had a little help from their voting machines.
"The same neighborhoods that have poor schools, poor
roads and poor health care end up having poor voting machines,"
says Rep. Alcee Hastings, the South Florida Democrat. While Hastings,
who is black, does not believe there was intentional racism at
work on Election Day, he is quick to add, "Race was a factor,
damn right it was."
The formal literacy tests of the Jim Crow days may be gone,
but some of the ballots have gotten so complicated, Hastings says,
that "you've got to have at least a high school education
to decipher them." What happens to the millions of Americans,
many of them black and Hispanic, who are functionally illiterate,
or have only a sixth-grade education. "They still work every
day, they still pay taxes, they still raise children," he
says, "but the election system is not being fair to them."
We live in a nation where state lotteries and race track betting
booths flawlessly keep track of every pick by their millions of
customers on a daily basis. So the revelation that politicians
of both parties have allowed a third-class and unequal voting
system to flourish-one that can easily be manipulated to subvert
the will of the voters-is a scandal so huge that American elections
will never be the same again.
It is a scandal sure to lead to major reforms of voting procedures
in every state during the next few years, and that could be the
most lasting peoples' victory of the 2000 election. As for Jeb
Bush and those Republicans in the Florida legislature who fought
so hard to prevent every ballot from being counted, something
tells me their days are numbered. The state's 893,000 black registered
voters and all those elderly Jewish voters in Palm Beach are not
about to forget the lesson they learned this Election Day.
None of us will.