Blocking the Black Vote in Jacksonville

At 8:30 this morning, members of the Jacksonville Leadership Coalition met to discuss precisely how they were going to make sure all voters in Duval County will be able to vote tomorrow. It was, perhaps, the most important meeting of the hundreds of meetings the group – representing more than 100 churches as well as unions and civic groups – has had in several months of steady organizing.

Florida Republicans have been busy too, compiling and disseminating lists that members of the coalition believe will be used to challenge voters on Tuesday. (Because of Florida law, poll watchers cannot use their right to challenge a voter during early voting.)

There have been several lists: First was Duval County's list that identified 60,000 voters as "inactive." (Last week the new Supervisor of Elections, Bill Scheu, made it clear that "inactive" voters – who had not recently voted – were absolutely allowed to vote and could not be challenged.)

The Republicans created another list by sending out cards to all newly registered voters in Duval County. Over 2,600 were returned with incorrect addresses. Mindy Tucker Fletcher, sent down from D.C. to Florida to act as senior adviser to the Florida GOP during the campaign, said the Duval list would not be used to challenge voters but to revise the Republicans' mailing list. Oddly, all the names and addresses belonged to Democrats.

Another list, which culled new voters with similar addresses, pinpointed students of Edward Waters, one of the oldest black colleges in the country. But the list that has most infuriated the voting rights coalition is one sent out late last week by the GOP's Fletcher. That list purports to identify 14,489 "felons who have voted in one of the last two cycles or are newly registered," 925 of whom either voted early or have received absentee ballots in this election. The Republicans admit that they produced these new lists working from the notorious state felon list, which was thrown out earlier this year because it was riddled with errors but which they claim to have cleaned up. (In September Fletcher had mocked the Democrats' effort to register people who had been wrongfully purged from voter lists, saying they were having a "felon voter registration event.") The revised lists have been sent to the governor and made available to Republican poll watchers.

The coalition had hoped the issue of a felon's list was dead – and so had Supervisor Scheu, who has drawn up a policy paper concerning review of voter challenges at the precinct on election day, using input from the daily 4 o'clock meetings that he has held since his appointment, listening to the concerns of members of the coalition, as well as Republican and Democratic leaders and lawyers.

Headed with the Duval County seal and a phrase, "Your Vote Is Your Voice," Scheu's rules regarding challenges specifically state that all challenges must be based on the personal, first-hand knowledge of the person making the challenge or reliable documentary evidence, and that "under no circumstances will a challenge be allowed if it is based on race. ... Likewise, no challenge will be allowed if it is based solely on the felon component of the Florida Central Voter Database. Merely alleging that a voter is listed on the State's withdrawn felon list is insufficient without also being supported by additional evidence." "What I want to do is make sure that this is a good election, a fair election," Scheu told me.

His task is not going to be made easier by the record numbers of poll watchers who will be inside precincts to monitor voters. Challenges could stall the election and scare away legitimate voters, not only here, but all over Florida. The stakes are high: So many new people have moved to Florida since the 2000 election that the state has gained two electoral votes and now controls one-tenth of the number needed to elect a president. There are more than 1.5 million new voters in the state.

Jeb Bush, the state's governor – and Scheu's boss – has made it clear that such challenges are fine by him. "I don't think it will cause problems," he told reporters. "I do think that people who are not eligible to vote shouldn't and the people who are should. ... These are all marginal issues. ... I hope people would keep it in the proper perspective: 99.9 percent of the people that are voting have already voted before in other elections."

Challenges have a long, dark history. In Florida poll watchers were first given the right to challenge voters in 1868, just a year after blacks were granted the right to vote. (At the time, one white delegate to the Florida Constitutional Convention declared that the legislature had successfully prevented Florida government from becoming "Niggerized.") After Reconstruction, the challenge/poll watcher law was re-enacted, but it hasn't been used for decades.

On Tuesday poll watchers will be able to challenge an individual's qualifications to vote by filing a sworn affidavit. In Duval the challenge is to be resolved on the spot by three election workers, or by having the voter cast a provisional ballot. Usually challenges are rare: Ion Sanchez, a Democrat, said no challenge had ever been used in 16 years that he has been supervisor of Leon County. But in a marvelous bit of doublespeak, the Republicans' Fletcher says that challenges could be "the best way to make sure legal votes aren't disenfranchised by illegal votes." (A report, "Securing the Vote, a Report on Election Fraud," would suggest the Republicans' concerns are overstated. The paper, released by the nonprofit group Demos, shows that election fraud is at most a minor problem across the 50 states and does not affect election outcomes.)

Gearing up for the election on Sunday at Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church, Elder Lee Harris invoked the history of blacks' voting in Florida ("when they would shake just walking to vote") in his sermon. Next door, at Election Protection's temporary headquarters in the church's education center, the Rev. R.L. Gundy, head of the Jacksonville Leadership Coalition, was putting pins on the map of Jacksonville, marking the "hot spots" where the group expects voters to be challenged.

Many of the 50 lawyers who have come here to work with Election Protection had toiled through the night, preparing a memo to Supervisor Scheu, outlining their concerns. As it stands now, an inspecting panel of three will decide whether the challenge is "reasonable."

"The reasonable standard is too low," said Juanita Powell-Williams, a local attorney heading the Election Protection legal effort. "It is not of sufficient weight to deny someone their constitutional right to vote," she said last night at 10:30.

The Rev. Willie Bolden, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Truth and Justice campaign, has been flying down every week from Atlanta to work with the coalition. A veteran of the civil rights fights of the 1960s, Bolden was chosen by Martin Luther King Jr. to work with the SCLC. "In all those years," he says, "even in the bad days of the 1950s and 1960s, there were never voting challenges like the ones going on now. They would physically intimidate you, maybe burn a cross in your yard – but they never challenged your right to vote by saying you were a felon."

He summed up his feelings about challenges at last Friday's meeting with the supervisor, when Republicans – represented by Mike Hightower, head of the Duval County Republicans, and four lawyers flown in from Texas with lapel pins identifying themselves as the "Texas Task Force" – refused to say that they would work to limit voter challenges. Bolden challenged them: "This is simply suppression of people's right to vote," he said. "You're not doing it in the white community. It's just another form of the KKK – only you don't have hoods and sheets, instead, you're wearing Brooks Brothers and Armani."

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