Counting on Indignation

When Donnise DeSouza arrived at the Robert Morgan Vocational School in Florida's Miami-Dade County in November of 2000, she fully expected to vote. Registered since 1982, the African American attorney arrived at the polling place an hour before closing.

To her surprise, DeSouza was told her name was not on the rolls. A poll worker sent her to the Richmond Fire Station to vote. She arrived with 10 minutes to spare, and was directed to a "problem line," where she waited for her registration status to be verified. At 7pm -- the poll's closing time -- a poll worker informed her that if her name was not on the roll, she couldn't be alllowed to vote and there was nothing she could do, DeSouza recalls. The poll workers stopped voter verifications and refused DeSouza's request for an absentee ballot.

DeSouza later found out that the poll workers, by law, should have continued efforts to verify her voting status since she was inside the precinct prior to closing. Even more jarring, she discovered that her name had been on the rolls of registered voters all along.

"A lot of what happened that day was clearly race-related," DeSouza says.

DeSouza's experience was far from exceptional. The 2000 presidential race in Florida presented a slew of inequities, including a high proportion of nullified ballots in black precincts, police roadblocks barring access to polling sites, the relocation of polling sites without notice, and unjustified computerized voting purges.

Unfortunately, Florida was not alone. In its 2001 report, "How to Make Over One Million Votes Disappear," the Democratic investigative staff of the House Judiciary Committee reported "at least 1,276,916 voters in thirty-one states and the District of Columbia had their votes discarded."

The impact of such underhanded tactics on attitudes in the black community was evident. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of black Democrats who say "people like me don't have any say about what the government does" climbed 24 points between 1999 and 2002 (34 percent to 58 percent), while white Democrats' views kept relatively stable.

"Right now, they definitely do not believe it is a fair process," says Stephanie Moore, director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, a nonprofit electoral reform organization.

"Folks are still upset" about the 2000 election, which was stolen "right in front of everyone's eyes," says Rashad Robinson, field director for the Center for Voting and Democracy. But given African American history, Robinson adds, "we were not surprised."

"I guess since they couldn't prevent us from securing the right to vote, they're now trying to prevent our results from standing," says veteran civil rights activist Joseph Lowery. The co-founder and former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is now chairman of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, an organization for electoral reform and voter empowerment. Lowery feels "the jury is still out" regarding the impact of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), the 2002 law that requires states to adopt centralized electronic voting systems.

Robinson is cautiously optimistic. "I think provisional balloting will help," he offers. Under HAVA, voters whose eligibility is in doubt on election day can cast provisional ballots to be counted once eligibility is determined. "The question is, will people know they have this right? If you don't know you have certain rights, it's like you don't have them at all," he says.

Accordingly, more than 120 civil rights, labor, and business organizations have joined together for the Unity '04 campaign to increase black voter turnout and ensure all votes are counted. The coalition has spent the past eight months registering and educating voters while laying the groundwork for a massive voter turnout in November. Among its key participants are the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, the NAACP, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The lawyers' group will monitor polling sites, set up a voter rights hotline, and provide on-the-ground legal assistance in the event of difficulties.

Several groups are focusing on new voters. "Younger folks are not participating in electoral politics as much as older African Americans," explains Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. She points out close to half of the black voting age population "is between eighteen and thirty-five." Unfortunately, says Campbell, too many active youth "don't see that the vote makes much of a difference. We're working hard to turn this around."

"The black youth vote will be extremely important in the upcoming elections," says Angela Woodson of Cleveland's Blacks United in Local Democracy. The youth organizer is one of a group of African American planners of the National Hip Hop Political Convention, a political education and voter empowerment forum set for Newark, New Jersey, in June. Other vehicles, including Russell Simmons's Hip Hop Summit Action Network, are registering young voters nationwide.

"We've got to educate youth as to why it's important for them to vote in this election," says Woodson.

"I'm hoping what happened in Florida will backfire on those who wanted us to be disillusioned and disenfranchised," says Lowery, predicting a large and well-organized African American turnout in November. There is "a righteous indignation" among black voter advocacy groups to ensure that what happened in 2000 will not be repeated.

Perhaps Melanie Campbell best sums up the challenge ahead.

"As much work as we put in to turn out the vote," says Campbell, this time "we have to devote the same effort to ensuring our votes get counted."

This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship, a project of the Independent Press Association. Damien Jackson is a 2002-2003 fellow.

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