Never Again

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 black precincts.

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.

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