BETWEEN THE LINES: NAACP, ACLU Challenge Florida's Electoral System

This year's celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took on special significance for many in view of last November's disputed presidential election that was ultimately settled by a 5-4 vote in the U.S. Supreme Court, giving the White House to George W. Bush. In the minds of activists across the nation, the disenfranchisement of African Americans and other minority citizens in Florida and elsewhere reveals that King's lifelong struggle to win voting rights for all Americans is far from over.

In the wake of the Nov. 7 election and widespread reports of voting irregularities in Florida, a spotlight was cast on that state's electoral system, where investigations by civil rights groups identified unfair voting practices that they say resulted in the invalidation of a disproportionate numbers of black voters' ballots cast for president.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Louis Bograd, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who discusses a lawsuit filed by his organization, the NAACP and other groups on Jan. 10 challenging what they assert is Florida's discriminatory electoral system.

Louis Bograd: I think it would be fair to describe our lawsuit as the next stage in the struggle for equal voting rights for African Americans and other minority citizens in this country. Years ago there were efforts to suppress the opportunities for African Americans to vote, by (imposing) poll taxes and literacy tests. We no longer face those obstacles, but many African Americans now face new impediments in voting as the recent election demonstrated. The purpose of this litigation is to expose and eliminate some of those impediments to voting.

Between The Lines: Could you summarize some of the instances of disenfranchisement that investigators from the ACLU and other groups in Florida recorded that occurred (there) and other places that occurred on Election Day?

Louis Bograd: There are many different types. I think they fall generally into two categories. I'm sure most of your listeners have become far too familiar with the problem of Votomatic punch card voting machines and the whole failure of those and certainly other kinds of voting machines to accurately record and count votes that have been cast by voters. It turns out that in Florida -- as in many other states -- it is the predominantly poor minority communities that continue to use these unreliable systems of voting that regularly fail to accurately reflect the votes for a substantial percentage of the voting population.

So one category is that category of votes that aren't counted. But there also are a whole host of practices we've identified that prevented many citizens -- disproportionately African Americans -- from casting votes. These included Florida's improper efforts to purge the voter rolls, where they hired an independent contractor to identify people whose names should be struck from the rolls, without providing any opportunity for notice and an opportunity to challenge. Many voters, especially African Americans, were denied the right to vote when they showed up at the polls and were told they were no longer registered because of a felony conviction or for having moved out of state, even if that turned out not to be the case.

In addition, we encountered many instances where local election officials failed to process voter registrations in a timely fashion, or where they failed to maintain the list of eligible voters at voting precincts in an accurate fashion. Frequently, if someone had not voted in a recent election, their name would be put on some sort of inactive list, which meant that they were still registered and eligible to vote but there was no record of that fact at the polling place. Because of the heavy African American turnout on Election Day, election officials in many precincts could not get hold of their central offices to verify someone's registration and therefore denied them the right to vote. Those were among the principal allegations in the lawsuit that we filed last week.

There are a number of other forms of allegations that we've heard about that we have not yet included in the case, including the failure of many election officials to provide language assistance at the polls for Haitian Americans and other voters who had difficulty reading English. We're heard about instances of potential police interference with African Americans getting to the polls. We tried to be very careful in filing this lawsuit, to include only claims we felt we could document and find plaintiffs to represent. The ACLU and the other groups involved remain open to expanding the lawsuit and adding additional claims if we can document further instances of abuse.

Between The Lines: There is a lot of talk of bipartisan cooperation both in the House and Senate to allocate money to counties and municipalities to upgrade voting machinery. Are there other systemic problems beyond the simple mechanics of the voting machines that you are concerned with and hope to correct before the next set of elections?

Louis Bograd: I think until this election, most of us and most Americans had not focused their attention on just how many little steps there are in the election process, and just how many things can go wrong in the process -- from a voter going to register to vote to the time they get cast their ballot, and have it counted. We are very concerned about improving the quality of procedures at every stage of that process, and in particular in trying to put into place enforceable procedures that will ensure that minority voters in this country are treated with the same respect, the same dignity and are as likely to have their votes counted as all other citizens.

Louis Bograd is co-counsel in the case of NAACP v. Harris. Contact the groups supporting the lawsuit by calling 1 (800) 221-4277 or visit the NAACP's Web site at www.naacp.org. The ACLU can be reached at www.aclu.org

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