When Donna Brazile learned in late May that the Justice Department might sue three Florida counties over voting rights violations that disfranchised minority citizens in the 2000 presidential election, the woman who managed Al Gore’s presidential campaign called her sister in Florida’s Seminole County. In one of the milder examples of the harassment suffered by thousands of African-American and Latino voters in the disputed election, Brazile’s sister had been forced to produce three forms of identification–instead of the one required under Florida law–before she could cast her ballot.
Informed that the Feds were riding to the rescue eighteen months after the fact, Brazile’s sister asked, “What took ’em so long?” When the Justice Department finishes its tepid intervention, the question likely to be asked is, Why did they bother?
When it comes to missing signs of serious trouble, failing to respond to clear threats and then botching the cleanup of the mess, the Justice Department’s response to the 2000 election crisis has been at least as inept as the much-criticized terrorist-tracking performance of the FBI and the CIA. Although it is charged with enforcing Voting Rights Act protections, Justice was nowhere to be found when its presence could have made a difference–not just for Florida but for a nation that had its presidential election settled by a 5-to-4 decision of the US Supreme Court.
Immediately after the November 7, 2000, election, minority voters who had never committed crimes complained of having had their names removed from voting rolls in a purge of “ex-felons,” of being denied translation services required by law, of seriously flawed ballots, of polling places that lacked adequate resources and competent personnel, and of harassment by poll workers and law-enforcement officials [see Gregory Palast, “Florida’s ‘Disappeared Voters,'” February 5, 2001, and John Lantigua, “How the GOP Gamed the System in Florida,” April 30, 2001]. But after newspaper analyses uncovered evidence of disproportional disfranchisement of minority voters, and even after a US Commission on Civil Rights review condemned Florida’s Governor, Jeb Bush, and its Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, for running an election marked by “injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency,” another year passed before Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd told the Senate Judiciary Committee in May that the civil rights division was preparing to act.
“Act” is a generous characterization. Eleven thousand election-related complaints have been whittled down to five potential lawsuits–targeting three Florida counties, along with St. Louis and Nashville. The Florida suits focus on the failure of Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola county officials to provide Spanish- and Creole-language assistance to voters. Issues of accessibility for the disabled and flawed registration procedures are also likely to be addressed. And, encouragingly, Boyd told the Judiciary Committee that his department would examine the purging of eligible voters from election rolls in a process overseen by Harris’s office.
But don’t expect to see Harris–now a Congressional candidate–in court anytime soon. Boyd wants to settle his suits before they are filed, through negotiations with local officials. That will bring limited reform to three of Florida’s sixty-seven counties and perhaps a bit more restraint on the part of the Republican-controlled Secretary of State’s office. There is no real evidence, however, that John Ashcroft’s Justice Department is going to call anyone in Florida–least of all the President’s brother or his political allies–to account for the widespread disfranchisement of minority voters.
Justice Department attorneys continue to limit the scope of an investigation that should be examining the collapse of voting rights protections in all Florida counties, from Palm Beach in the south to Duval in the north and Gadsden in the west–where as many as one in eight ballots cast by minority voters was discarded. In addition, Jeb Bush and the Florida legislature continue to reject needed reforms and to stall the allocation of sufficient funds to bring voting machinery in predominantly minority precincts up to par with equipment in predominantly white precincts. And the US House and Senate remain deadlocked over legislation that would promote and fund reforms in other states–like Illinois, which had a higher rate of ballot spoilage than Florida. Until the Justice Department and state and federal legislators get serious about making real reforms, the 2002 and 2004 elections won’t be any more fair or functional than the flawed election of 2000.