The Boston Phoenix December 21-28, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

Racial divide

Bush won because hundreds of African-Americans in Florida weren't allowed to vote. Now he's got to live with the consequences.

by Dan Kennedy

protest It seems you just can't get elected president these days without friends in high places. Just ask George W. Bush, who'll be greeted with strains of "Hail to the Chief" thanks to Florida's Republican secretary of state, Katherine Harris, who did everything she could to stop the recount, and to five members of the US Supreme Court, who made sure it wouldn't start again.

To those six, you can add a host of other Florida officials (including, peripherally, Harris herself) who did everything they could to make sure the state's extraordinarily high black turnout didn't rise quite high enough to elect Al Gore. No, it wasn't Selma, Alabama, circa 1965 -- no clubs, no hoses, no attack dogs, nothing that crude. Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that there was an organized, systematic campaign to deny African-Americans the right to vote.

But through a combination of accidents, errors, and fate, it appears likely that somewhere between several hundred and several thousand eligible black voters -- more than enough to overturn Bush's official 537-vote margin of victory -- were improperly deleted from the voting rolls, or intimidated by police road blocks or bumptious poll workers into not voting. And if they did vote, equipment failures made it far more likely that they would have their ballots thrown out than their white counterparts.

From the moment Bush became president-elect, he has emphasized the inclusive tone he hopes to set. In particular, he's tried to reach out to the black community with two high-profile appointments of African-Americans: Colin Powell as secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser.

But Bush's black problem isn't going to go away simply because his most important foreign-policy officials are African-American. Indeed, the discerning observer will note that Powell's and Rice's principal qualification is the same as that of so many others with whom Bush has surrounded himself. That is, they worked for Bush's father a decade ago.

The NAACP funded a $12 million get-out-the-vote campaign this year, and nowhere was that call heard more enthusiastically than in Florida. Black turnout in the state rose from 10 percent in 1996 to 15 percent in 2000, according to exit-poll data reported by the Voter News Service. Given that African-Americans make up just 13.4 percent of the state's voting-age population, black voters didn't just wield their fair share of power -- they wielded disproportionate power. Enough to elect Democrat Bill Nelson to the Senate over Republican Bill McCollum, one of Bill Clinton's more priggish tormentors in the impeachment scandal.

But though the black vote was big enough to elect Nelson, it wasn't quite big enough for Gore. Some 93 percent of black voters in Florida supported Gore, which means that only a slight increase in turnout would easily have overcome Bush's lead. And turnout would have been higher if Florida officials had not erroneously labeled some black voters as felons, or left them off the voting rolls, or saddled their precincts with equipment that rejected an unusually high proportion of ballots.

Taken together, these developments add up to a major hurdle for Bush to overcome. As it is, he will enter office under the cloud of having lost the popular vote and having been awarded the Electoral College not through the will of Florida's voters, but by a five-to-four margin of the Supreme Court. And it seems likely that the most visible, lingering symbol of his barely legitimate victory will be Florida's black voters, who tried to elect Gore but were prevented from doing so. Bush will hardly be the first modern president to enter office a diminished figure (see "W. Has Company," This Just In), but that makes his task no less difficult.

Unsurprisingly, Bush's supporters have chosen to sneer at the messengers of these unglad tidings and ignore the message. When the Reverend Jesse Jackson compared what had happened in Florida to the violent attacks on civil-rights demonstrators in Selma 35 years ago, he was denounced as a rabble-rouser. "Jesse Jackson will say anything to inflame passions," proclaimed the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. "Inflammatory charges," wrote black conservative columnist Thomas Sowell.

To be sure, Jackson's metaphor was factually inaccurate. Emotionally, however, it held a great deal of truth. It was only a generation ago that African-Americans marched and fought and died for the right to vote. Politics is largely symbolic, and for Black America few symbols are more potent than the franchise. What happened in Florida may not have been deliberate. But it happened. Of that there is little doubt.

Voting problems in the past election were hardly unique to Florida. On Monday, the Los Angeles Times weighed in with a wide-ranging investigative piece that revealed such scandals as vote-buying in Texas, fraudulently signed mail-in ballots in Oregon, and payoffs from voting-machine companies in Louisiana. The Wall Street Journal found that some African-Americans were prevented from voting in -- of all places -- Selma. Boston, too, had its problems (see "Florichusetts," News and Features, December 8).

In Florida, though, just about every problem you can name had a negative effect on black voters. And, of course, the margin between Bush and Gore was so unimaginably thin that even the smallest problems took on outsize significance.

David Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank that analyzes the black electorate, speaks of "three inescapable facts": that it was clear, before the election, that Florida would be pivotal; that the race was extremely close; and that the outcome would be determined by black turnout. "Given those conditions, do I think there were some individual decisions made where people on the other side wanted to discourage blacks from voting? Yeah," Bositis says.

The NAACP has interviewed hundreds of Florida residents who say they were harassed, intimidated, or otherwise improperly disenfranchised. Both the US Department of Justice and the federal Commission on Civil Rights are investigating. We may learn more about exactly what happened in the months to come, provided Bush's Justice Department sees these probes through to their conclusions. For the moment, though, three big problems stand out:

* False criminal records. According to a piece published in the Internet magazine Salon, an effort overseen by Katherine Harris to wipe the names of felons off the voting rolls was fraught with mistakes. (Florida, like many states, does not allow most felons to vote, even after their sentences have been completed.) Early this year, the private company Harris hired to do the work -- many of whose executives had given large campaign donations to Republican officials -- labeled 8000 voters as felons even though they were guilty of nothing worse than a misdemeanor. (Like George Bush and Dick Cheney, for instance.) The company, ChoicePoint, then sent out a corrected list. But Salon reported wide variations in the use Florida's counties made of the information; it appeared that though some ignored both the original and the corrected lists, others made zealous use of the data, but may have been less than vigorous in making sure the corrections were entered properly. Worse, the author of the Salon piece, Gregory Palast, reported in Salon and in a follow-up in the London Observer (where he's on staff) that at least 7000 other people, and maybe considerably more, had also lost their voting rights through ChoicePoint's mistakes. Now, consider that Florida's felons are disproportionately African-American, and that an estimated 31 percent of the state's black men are already disenfranchised because of their felony records, and you can see how devastating these mistakes were. The Miami Herald reported that at least 445 felons illegally cast Florida ballots. But Palast's findings suggest that many times that number were wrongly identified as felons and thus prevented from voting.

* Low technology. Florida officials devised a system for dealing with people whose names did not appear on voting rolls yet who insisted they had registered: poll workers were equipped with laptop computers so that instant checks could be made. Trouble is, few of those laptops made their way to predominantly black precincts. In those places, poll workers were instructed to call county offices, and were invariably greeted with a busy signal. The result: prospective voters were told to go home. The Times found that in Miami-Dade County, which is 20 percent black, laptops were sent to 18 precincts that were mainly Hispanic (that is, Cuban-American, and thus Republican), three that were mostly white, and just one that was largely black. In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, none of the 10 laptops went to any of the majority-black districts. Democratic congressman Alcee Hastings told the Times, "Is it a racial thing? I don't think so. But is it something that had a cumulative effect and had an impact on the African-American vote? I think that's the case."

* Those damn punch cards. Obviously there was no racist intent in the fact that some votes were cast on outmoded punch-card machines and some on more modern optical-scanning systems. There was, however, a racially disproportionate result, owing to the fact that the punch-card machines were far more likely to be used in black and poor areas. In a statistical analysis of what a statewide hand count might have revealed, Slate's Jacob Weisberg reported that 15 out of every 1000 punch-card ballots in those counties that used the very worst counting machines showed no presidential choice, and were thus rejected -- yet only three out of every 1000 paper ballots were rejected by optical scanners. That's pretty hard to explain away, though some have certainly tried. A particularly lame attempt was made on December 18 by New York Times columnist William Safire, who wrote, presumably with a straight face: "Were more ballots of black voters set aside because of errors in marking? Probably, because a greater percentage were first voters, and it stands to reason that inexperienced voters of whatever race are more likely to miscast their ballots." (Let's see, I want to vote for Gore. That means I punch out the hole for Bush, right?) Nice try. In fact, what the widely differing rejection rates really show is how ludicrous it was for the Supreme Court to apply equal-protection standards to the recount, but not to the votes as they were originally cast.

The Bush political dynasty has always had an uneasy relationship with African-Americans. On the one hand, they espouse inclusive rhetoric, starting with the "kinder, gentler" George H.W. Bush, who supported civil-rights legislation as a Texas congressman and who could never understand his inability to garner black votes. On the other hand, the Bushes have never hesitated to use race in order to get what they want. As the New Republic's Franklin Foer observed in a recent essay, "They're so convinced of their personal decency that they expect it to trump the deep, long-standing ideological differences that separate their party from black public opinion."

It was the old man, after all, who was the beneficiary of the infamous Willie Horton ad. And though he has always insisted his campaign had nothing to do with it, he never criticized it, either. Florida governor Jeb Bush was elected in 1998 by reaching out to the black community, which he had spurned in his unsuccessful '94 race. Yet when black legislators occupied his office to protest his anti-affirmative-action "One Florida" plan, Bush ordered aides to "throw their asses out." (The governor later claimed he was referring to reporters.)

George W. has always talked a good talk when it comes to race, and his Philadelphia convention was a regular Potemkin Village of diversity. Yet when he needed to put John McCain away in South Carolina, he didn't hesitate to appear at Bob Jones University, which had banned interracial dating. And he looked the other way as the ugly forces he had accepted as his allies made hateful calls, hinting that the McCains' adopted Bangladeshi daughter was really the randy senator's illegitimate black love child.

The December 17 Sunday New York Times gave over most of its op-ed page to a symposium devoted to answering the question CAN BUSH MEND HIS PARTY'S RIFT WITH BLACK AMERICA? Maybe he can. But by winning through the disenfranchisement of hundreds or perhaps thousands of black Floridians, Bush has gotten off to the worst of all possible starts.

"The question is, what do you do about your frustration?" asks Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, which has just formed a task force to look into electoral reform. "I don't think people are just going to walk away from this. They are going to want some redress."

For Campbell, whose bipartisan organization includes members of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees, such redress would take the form of a level playing field: getting rid of punch-card systems and establishing uniform methods of voting and counting across the country.

For many other African-Americans, though, redress isn't going to come until they have a chance to vote Bush out. Partly by accident, partly by his eagerness to benefit from an electoral meltdown that hurt black voters more than it did whites, George W. Bush has emerged as a potent symbol of black discontent. Already, Jesse Jackson and other black-community leaders are calling for demonstrations on Inauguration Day. That may be just the beginning.

It may not be fair, but Bush, the self-styled healer and uniter, the man who cast himself as the antidote to divisive Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, may turn out to be the most divisive figure of all. And there's not a thing Colin Powell or Condi Rice can do about it.

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

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Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here