On July 10, 2000, in the midst of the presidential campaign, GOP candidate George W. Bush addressed the national NAACP convention in Baltimore and denounced such “new forms of racism” as racial profiling and redlining. But even as he spoke, a very old, traditional form of racism was being implemented in Florida: the disfranchisement of eligible voters, especially blacks, which helped Bush win that state and the election.
Despite one well-reported incident involving a police checkpoint near a polling place, disfranchisement 2000-style did not depend on intimidation. Cattle prods and attack dogs, the legacy of former Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor, were nowhere in evidence. Instead, Florida state elections officials and hired data crunchers used computers to target thousands of voters, many of whom were then purged from the voter rolls without reason. And many thousands more saw their votes thrown out as a result of error-prone voting machines and poorly designed ballots, the results of an underfunded and chaotic electoral system.
In all, some 200,000 Floridians were either not permitted to vote in the November 7 election on questionable or possibly illegal grounds, or saw their ballots discarded and not counted. A large and disproportionate number were black.
Florida’s black leaders, already engaged in an emotional, bitter confrontation with Governor Jeb Bush, George W. Bush’s brother, had mounted an unprecedented voter registration effort to defeat candidates they saw as political enemies. According to exit polls, 65 percent more black voters went to the polls in Florida in 2000 than in the 1996 election, and of the votes that were counted, blacks went at least 9 to 1 for Democrat Al Gore. But the votes that were tallied were not enough. After the US Supreme Court cut off ballot recounts, Bush had a margin of 537 votes out of more than 5.8 million cast. The closeness of the final count made all votes not cast and not counted that much more crucial. (As one example, the Palm Beach Post recently reported that Gore lost 6,600 votes in Palm Beach County alone because of the infamous butterfly ballot, more than ten times Bush’s margin of victory.)
State officials deny racist intent in their actions, but the US Commission on Civil Rights conducted two hearings in Florida in January and February to determine why so many Floridians were denied the right to vote. In a preliminary assessment, the commission noted that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 “was aimed at subtle, as well as obvious, state regulation and practices” that could deny citizens the right to vote because of their race. The commission said it found evidence of “prohibited discrimination” in Florida’s polling process. A final report is due this summer.
The NAACP and others filed suit on January 10 against Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was a co-chair of the campaign and is responsible for the conduct of fair elections in Florida, and other Florida officials, charging them with violating the Fourteenth Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The suit demands many reforms of the Florida electoral system.
But no future remedy can undo what happened in 2000, only a portion of which has been revealed through the hearing, the suit and media reports. “They done got us,” said civil rights veteran Elmore Bryant of Marianna, Florida, referring to the GOP-mandated purge of voter rolls. “They had themselves a game and we had no game. The old leaders in the ’60s wouldn’t have let this happen. We woulda had us a game too, but we didn’t. They done got us good.”