Florida election count smacks of racism

My turn

Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

It is ironic that this year's Martin Luther King Day in Juneau is the first in recent memory without a commemoration, just weeks after an election in which massive numbers of blacks and other minorities were effectively disenfranchised by means which recalled the pre-Voting Rights Act South of Bull Connor, Lester Maddox and literacy tests.

While national attention has focused on chads and butterfly ballots, both major parties as well as the mass media have studiously ignored the protests of people of color who were singled out for "special attention" to make sure that their voices, overwhelmingly Democratic, would go unheard.

In Florida, the secretary of state, who served as co-chairman of Bush's Florida election campaign, first arranged the "purging" of the voter rolls by a Texas-based outfit whose CEO contributed $100,000 to the Republican National Committee. The company, Database Technologies, cleared the voter rolls of more than 12,000 "ex-felons," almost all of whom were black, and almost all of whom turned out to have no criminal record. Some 4,000 individuals, about a third of those removed from the rolls, were unable to surmount the inappropriate legal barriers required to assert their right to vote on Nov. 7.

On election day, roadblocks were set up in black precincts around Tallahassee, home to the largest number of white supremacist groups in the United States. Polling places in predominantly black precincts closed early or never opened, while others were moved from their original locations without notice. After voting closed, some ballot boxes in heavily black precincts were not picked up. Further, the faulty voting machines that produced the chad fiasco were disproportionately concentrated in minority precincts.

Black voters reported having to produce voter ID cards not required of whites, while many precinct workers illegally demanded two forms of ID from Haitians. Black college students who had signed up during fall registration drives were turned away from the polls because their names did not appear on the rolls. Many blacks who were on the voting rolls and had ID's were nevertheless asked a litany of questions, including whether they had been convicted of a felony.

Observers who attempted to assist voters by reminding them that they could legally sign an affidavit and vote a questioned ballot were kicked out of polling places, while illegal poll watchers who threatened people, telling them "I know where you work, you're going to get fired," were unobstructed, according to the editor of the Fort Myers Community Voice.

For those people of color who succeeded in voting in the face of the organized intimidation of Florida officialdom, their votes were up to 10 times more likely to be tossed out than those of affluent whites, according to a computer analysis conducted jointly by the Washington Post and MSNBC. In Duval County, a Republican stronghold, more than 17,000 of the 27,000 votes discounted by the canvassing board came from black precincts. This reflected the pattern throughout the state: over half of the 187,000 votes dismissed for various reasons came from the black communities. A study of all 614 precincts in Miami-Dade showed that black voters were 15 times more likely to have their votes thrown out than whites.

On Nov. 11, the NAACP held public hearings on these practices, largely ignored by the media. A 300-page catalog of the testimony was assembled and sent to the Clinton Justice Department, which did nothing. When the Congressional Black Caucus tried to challenge the Florida vote at the U.S. Senate's Jan. 6 Electoral College certification ceremony, not a single senator of either party could be found to support the protest.

Perhaps most egregious of all was the Supreme Court's role: It delayed the recount for several days, and then used the approach of an artificial deadline to cancel it and thus award the election to Bush. The five Justices in the majority included Justices Scalia and Thomas, who had family ties to the Bush campaign. Federal law, which they ignored, required both to abstain from the decision.

As Josef Stalin put it, "those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything."

Ron Reed lives in Juneau, and is part of a group organizing a protest march and mock funeral against the inauguration to take place at noon Friday from the Federal Building to the Capitol.

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