(Dis)counting the Black Vote

Despite the outrageously large number of African-American votes nullified in Florida (the subject of a lawsuit filed this week by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., and civil rights leaders), Al Gore remained conspicuously silent on the issue until he was being fitted for his political coffin. Suddenly, he was "very troubled" by the "serious allegations" involving suppression of the black vote.

"The disenfranchisement of African Americans," Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., told me, "is not being taken seriously by Gore, and will likely be ignored in a Bush administration. As during the 1877 Compromise -- which also involved a dispute over electors in Florida -- Republicans and Democrats are content to leave African Americans politically vulnerable. But we cannot allow a 2000 Compromise when political rights -- protective of all other rights -- are at stake."

A detailed analysis of the Florida vote by The Washington Post last week produced a staggering finding: the higher the percentage of black voters, the higher the rate of rejected ballots. For instance, up to a third of the ballots cast in Jacksonville's black precincts were tossed out -- four times more than in neighboring white precincts.

This huge disparity in discarded votes is a reminder that we are indeed two Americas -- not just when it comes to education, health care, housing and our vaunted prosperity but even when it comes to voting.

In the precincts of the other America, there were longer lines, more unreliable voting machines and less access to technology that instantly identified mismarked ballots and gave voters a second chance. So, even when it comes to this most egalitarian of acts, some are more equal than others.

The African-American turnout in Florida was an astounding 65 percent higher than in 1996. Many new voters were spurred by Jeb Bush's One Florida program, which sought to dismantle affirmative action in university admissions and state contracting. "We'll remember in November" was their slogan. And they did.

The problem was that when many of these freshly registered voters showed up at the polls, they were not on the rolls and were not allowed to vote. First-time voter Dedrana McCray was one of them. She arrived at her polling place in Opa-Locka with her valid voter registration card and ID in hand, but was turned away because she was not on the list, and phone lines to the county office that could verify her status were constantly busy. Score one for George W. Bush.

Too bad McCray didn't live in one of the 18 more affluent precincts in the county that were equipped by the election commission with laptop computers that allowed them to tie into the main registration rolls. Even though the powers that be, from Gov. Jeb Bush down, knew that the highest number of new registrants were in black districts, the laptops went disproportionately to white or Cuban-American districts. How many African Americans were turned away for want of a PowerBook?

And it wasn't only new voters who had trouble. In an unprecedented move, Florida had hired a private company (laden, as it turns out, with Republicans) to purge its voter rolls. But the "scrub list" the company supplied was riddled with inaccuracies -- once again disproportionately penalizing African Americans. In Hillsborough County, for instance, 54 percent of those on the error-filled list of felons to be excised from the rolls were black, though African Americans account for less than 12 percent of the county's voting population. Score more for George W. Bush.

"I asked the vice president on numerous occasions," Rev. Jesse Jackson told me, "to incorporate both in his remarks to the American people and in his legal strategy the huge black disenfranchisement that happened in Florida. But he didn't for fear of being accused of playing the race card. It's hard to believe that race is still a third rail of American politics. It's a reminder that neither party marched in Selma."

On a TV panel last week, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume expressed outrage at the lack of attention being paid by the mainstream media to the voting violations in African-American communities. Aren't you equally outraged, I asked, by the lack of attention being paid by Gore -- who, after all, received 93 percent of the African-American vote? Mfume spread the blame around, then finally conceded that Gore has "a special obligation given the historic allegiance that black people have had to the Democratic party .... The party that benefits has an obligation to say something."

And the party that does not benefit also has an obligation to say something, unless Bush is satisfied with 7 percent of the black vote in Florida and 8 percent nationwide. Indeed, he should not just say something, he should join in the call for a full investigation into the disproportionate number of rejected black ballots. And if he does end up in the White House, he should make it a priority to ensure Congress passes electoral reforms that no longer perpetuate the ugly division of America into two nations.

It would be a small but significant step toward giving African Americans more than a single, take-it-or-leave-it choice on Election Day.

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