The politics of the black community, so critical to Democratic Party fortunes in the 2000 elections, will also be important if Democrats are to have any chance of taking back the House or Senate in 2002. However, given what happened in November and afterward, black enthusiasm will depend on such factors as the strength of election reform, black receptivity to President George W. Bush’s “outreach” strategy and the level of power blacks feel within the Democratic Party.
Thus far, the resolution of what can only be considered a massive violation of the civil rights of blacks and others has begun by addressing electoral reform legislative proposals. Nearly two dozen such bills have been introduced in Congress and an estimated 800 in state legislatures. At the same time, Bush and the Democratic leadership have begun the difficult dance involved in establishing a commission to develop recommendations. One problem with the proposals at both levels is that they are heavily weighted toward fixing voting equipment and other material aspects of the electoral system. However, many of the problems blacks faced in Florida and in other states stemmed from intentional racial discrimination in the administration of voting systems, a problem that new machines will not fix.
Any proposed legislation should include a prohibition against such intentional discrimination–an example of which was the allegedly unlawful purge of black voters carried out by state officials. Law enforcement officers should be enjoined from setting up roadblocks on Election Day near polling stations, and election officials should be prohibited from engaging in racial discrimination at the stations. Moreover, legislation should require that whatever commission is formed be both diverse by party and representative of those most seriously affected–something included in none of the legislation thus far proposed. Contracts between nongovernmental organizations and the states for the work of revising the electoral system should be given to experts from the affected communities, and matching-funds regulations should include a concentration on modernizing the equipment in the communities most affected by the problems.
The only bill that contains the essence of this “civil rights” approach has been put forward by two Democrats, Senator Christopher Dodd and Representative John Conyers. But for it to have a chance of being considered, the coalition of groups that supports it must mount a formidable campaign to elevate it above other bills that are attracting various constituencies.
Some of the corrective for civil rights violations is contained in a class-action lawsuit brought by the NAACP and other organizations against Florida election officials. Corrective proposals are also contained in the preliminary assessment by the US Commission on Civil Rights, which held hearings in Florida [see John Lantigua, page 11].
Ultimately, grassroots organizations must be mobilized, first to see that corrective proposals are, indeed, included in the legislative proposals, and then to participate themselves in the corrective actions. For example, “Freedom Schools,” so prevalent in the civil rights era, should be created not only to encourage blacks to turn out in big numbers but also to train them to use the new voting equipment and to assert their voting rights. Even with the faith that I place in such actions, I must confess to a cynicism about the likelihood that Republicans will rush to correct the problems in Florida and other states, especially since the reforms would benefit constituencies who are likely to try to vote Republicans out of office.