The November Vote: D

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Editor's note: Because of magazine deadlines, this piece did not make it into the August edition. However, we felt it's content was still timely.

It's just the beginning of August. The Democrats have just concluded their convention; the Republicans are less than a month away from theirs—and thus, the general election campaign has yet to begin. But one can say with a gloomy confidence that America is on course to endure another scarring controversy over whether some Americans are in danger of being wrongly denied—whether by accident or deliberately—their right to vote.
The stunning aftermath of the 2000 Election proved that such concerns cannot be taken lightly.

Then, as Maida Cassandra Odom writes in the current issue of the National Urban League's Opportunity Journal magazine, the election "exposed voting-process failings that shook Americans' faith in the system. A Harvard study found some 1.9 million Americans' ballots were discarded as spoiled, and [other] reports suggested half of those votes were cast by non-whites. African-American disenfranchisement was compounded when black voters were turned away from the polls in huge numbers because their names had been incorrectly purged from voter lists."
Since then Congress has enacted legislation and established a new federal agency, the Election Assistance Commission, to fix the old flaws and ensure this year's voting goes smoothly.

But Odom pointedly noted that "an unwieldy system of state and county fiefdoms, corruptible technology and conflicting political interests make it increasingly clear that 2004 is, at best, only a test year for reform. Nobody's promising that what went wrong in [2000] won't go wrong again."
In other words, at this most critical time in the nation's history, November's election could, as the saying goes, be déjà vu all over again.

Certainly, the news about the voting-process in the state of Florida, where four years ago the most widespread and egregious voting breakdowns occurred, casts serious doubt that its system has been cured of the potential for wholesale violations of voters' rights.

For example, recent disclosures have called into question the technological capability of the new touch-screen machines installed in Miami-Dade County after the 2000 voting difficulties.

Making matters worse was the fact that Miami-Dade election officials knew a year ago the machines had malfunctioned, but did not publicly acknowledge the problems until two months ago—after they were forced to do so by pressure from a citizens group, the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition.

Referring to the machines' problems, Lisa Rodriguez-Taseff, chairwoman of the coalition, told the New York Times, "This shows that unless we do something now—or it may very well be too late—Florida is headed toward being the next Florida."

These machines are how more than half the Florida electorate will have to vote this November, despite their record of machine mishaps and lost votes in the 2002 gubernatorial primary and other smaller elections.

An even more serious matter is the state's process of purging its lists of convicted felons.

Florida doesn't allow those convicted of a felony to vote without them petitioning to restore that right. In 2000 on election day thousands of Floridians were turned away from the polls because they had been misidentified as being on the state's list of convicted felons; many of them were African Americans, who as a group overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

This year Florida officials hired a private company to develop its felons list, but refused to make the document available to the media until a judge ordered its release. It totaled some 47,000 names.

Well, it didn't take journalists and others long to discover several egregious errors.

One was that the names of 2,100 Floridians who had been granted clemency, and thus were eligible to vote, were on the banned-voter list.
Another was that just 61 of the entire list were Hispanic.

Thus, the list would have led to the wrongful disenfranchisement of many black voters—who as a group overwhelmingly vote Democratic—while allowing a significant number of Hispanics convicted of a felony to vote. Florida election officials said that a "methodological flaw"was responsible for the glitch that put thousands of African Americans in jeopardy of not being allowed to vote while not scrutinizing Hispanic names.

Perhaps. But many critics subscribed to the view implicitly expressed by Times columnist Paul Krugman: "It escaped nobody's attention that in Florida, Hispanic voters tend to support Republicans."

No American election for any office, especially the highest one in the land, can afford the suspicion of electoral skullduggery. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was right last month to ask the Justice Department to investigate whether Florida's process of purging its voter rolls violated provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Black America, and America, struggled mightily and at length in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to expand the fundamental right of citizenship—access to the ballot—to all those eligible. Everything possible must be done to prevent this November from being, compared to November of 2000, a case of déjà vu all over again on voting rights.

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