Catherine Danielson

Bite the Ballot

At the conclusion of the 2000 presidential election, Americans received an unpleasant reminder that the ghosts of our national past still haunt us. That November, as the nation’s voting scandals were exposed, we squirmed under what we learned about African-Americans and the vote. It’s not so easy to remember, because the mainstream media has moved on. But those who do not recall the past are condemned to repeat it.

An untold number of votes were never counted in that election. An unknown number more could never be cast as ex-felons were purged from voter rolls, police blockades kept African-Americans from voting and Departments of Motor Vehicles mysteriously lost and mishandled voter records and applications. Polling places moved without notifying anybody. Poll books inexplicably disappeared.

Allegedly, voters were turned away from polls in many states because of their race, told they couldn’t vote at a polling place because they had NAACP stickers on their cars, ordered to get to the back of the line, and even told to get behind white voters. In Florida alone, ballots cast by blacks were rejected at a rate almost eight times higher than those cast by whites. And similar allegations to every one of the above occurred in 22 states.

Now the 2002 election is coming. Some of the primaries have already occurred. And it’s imperative to try to understand one question. Will we ever have justice in voting in America? The signs to date are mixed to say the least, but some beacons of hope are visible.

Most reports of voting irregularities have focused on the South. This region of the country undoubtedly had the most numerous and shameful incidents of vote irregularities. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights eventually concluded, after long investigation, that the civil rights of African-Americans had been violated in Florida during the process of the 2000 election. Largely as a result, the U.S. Department of Justice at last filed a lawsuit against counties and cities in Florida, Missouri and Tennessee.

Tennessee in particular is scraping the bottom of the barrel, the worst of the worst for voters. Being one of the three states sued by the DOJ is only the beginning. It is also one of six states given a solid "F" from the NAACP in its election reform report. The state budget disaster has kept any money from being spent on replacing ancient voting machines, training poll workers or educating voters. Even the staunchly conservative Nashville newspaper, the Tennesseean, admits that "very little has changed in Tennessee’s election process since the 2000 election brought calls for changes here and nationwide."

Yet before the rest of the country starts to pat itself on the back, we must look at the big picture: Few states are doing all that much better as we gear up for the 2002 elections. Many states are facing horrible budget deficits this year, and have been waiting in vain for federal money to support voting improvements.

A few good programs have been enacted. For example, the governor of Alaska has provided voters with an 800 number to call to locate their polling place. California now runs a program in which absentee voters are contacted in case of a problem with their ballot. Georgia passed the most comprehensive election reform legislation in America. Maryland provided for voters remaining registered even after a move. These provisions, though, are only a drop in the bucket.

Only five governors signed any kind of noticeable election reform legislation. No state has made the replacement of the oldest type of voting machine a priority. No state audited its felon purge list to make sure it was actually correct. Most states still hold that training poll workers is a county or local responsibility, making it impossible to know if an election is being administered the same way throughout a state.

Virtually no election reform bill anywhere addressed the age or condition of voting machines. The much-ballyhooed Florida Election Reform Act signed by Jeb Bush has caused no changes to date; no part of it will be enacted in time for the 2002 elections. In fact, Florida has already contracted with a private company to set up a statewide voter registration system, even though that’s specifically prohibited by the act.

On a national level, the bill Congress attempted to push through reforming national elections remained deadlocked for an unusually long time, and organizations such as the ACLU point out fatal flaws with what was finally passed. Just to replace the outdated voting machines in California alone would cost about what Congress is making available to the entire country for all election reform. Most disturbing of all, there is no guarantee that racial bias won’t rear its head again -- as well as the well-documented discrimination on the basis of national origin, status as a non-English speaker, or physical disability.

Civil rights leaders and many election officials predict that areas which had trouble before will simply find it happening again. Inadequate voter reform efforts, lack of funds and time spent, and redistricting without properly notifying most people have caused Mary Frances Berry, chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to say that the upcoming 2002 election is a "mini-disaster waiting to happen." Already, there have been significant problems in the primaries in Los Angeles County, St. Martinville and Winnfield parishes, Louisiana and Tennessee.

Yet there is a quiet hope this year, one that lies almost entirely in grassroots response from the African-American community, which seems to know that it can only move forward, not back. "This is what happened," the Rev. Edward Robinson of Nashville says." Now we know how they threw away votes and took advantage of us. But you vote regardless of whether you go to the polls or not... Politicians will only respond on how or whether we vote."

The national NAACP has assigned a voter empowerment coordinator in each state, one who works with people where they live, through the organizations vital to them -- labor unions, black colleges and their sororities and fraternities, local NAACP branches, the Urban league, black employee networks and community centers.

A 36-city NAACP bus tour traveled through the South this summer to increase awareness about the vital importance of voting. It’s as grassroots as grassroots can get, a face-to-face effort of going into neighborhoods with a bullhorn on top of a car and yelling at people to vote, sending speakers to high schools, getting DJ’s on urban radio stations to urge voter registration during evening drive-time. Anything and everything that serves the black community is becoming involved. And in all areas of the country, but especially the South, this means churches. The Missionary Baptist Church in Tennessee alone consists of 400 churches with 300 to 6,000 people per church, all taking their marching orders from the national NAACP, all fighting to register, to educate, and to get out the vote. There is a strength running under the media radar, a steely determination to win through and perhaps even triumph.

Regardless of how this may make some people feel about issues such as the separation of church and state, the fact remains that the state isn’t going to do what it should. At best, the state will do nothing. In a country addicted to convenience in shopping, working, eating, traveling, dressing and general lifestyle, the best we can seemingly hope for is that voting is made into an ordeal. The worst? For many in America, the 2000 elections were the worst. It’s tempting to throw our hands up and give in, finding something better to do on election day. Turn on the TV later to see who won.

But the fact remains that for virtually all of us, someone, at some point, fought for our right to the franchise. Unless your ancestors came over on the Mayflower and owned significant property after they landed on Plymouth Rock, someone bled and died so that you could go to the polls and cast that vote. This priceless privilege comes with no guarantees. It should, but it doesn’t. The sooner we face up to this unpleasant reality and know that it really does affect us all, the sooner we can join the fight against it.

Catherine Danielson is the founder of United Progressive Citizens for Action, a non-profit organization in Tennessee dedicated to researching and publicizing the need for election reform. For more information and updates about voter fraud, visit nashvilleinsanity.com.

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