Florida revisited: Schadenfreude amid the carnage of the democratic process.
George W. Bush, whose administration is addicted to secrecy, wants presidential papers classified indefinitely, not for the usual 12 years.
Serious shortcomings in voting access were illustrated in the 2000 'recount.'
The recent election has shown that election reform is necessary to preserve our democracy.
The contested presidential election is hard to sort out, but news outlets still try to proclaim unfounded 'facts.'
The 2000 presidential election debacle showed that the country needs electoral reform, but there's only silence from both sides of the aisle.
The Shays-Meehan bill would help reform campaign financing--but there is a much better solution.
Joseph Heller would have had a field day with the hearings of the US
Commission on Civil Rights in Tallahassee last week.
Thomas Jefferson was not anticipating a summer holiday when he told Lafayette that "the boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave." In Philadelphia, where Jefferson and his countrymen created a monumental wave back in 1776, a new generation of patriots will meet from June 29 to July 1 to turn a tide of anger over the denial of democracy in Florida into a national movement for electoral reform.
The national Pro-Democracy Convention, organized by the Institute for Policy Studies, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Nation Institute and others, comes at a moment of more activism on voting rights and electoral reform than at any time since the 1960s. From energetic voter-registration drives in Florida, where young people gathered in mid-June to kick off Democracy Summer, to a renewed push for instant-runoff voting in Vermont, to a move in Congress to make real the promise of the Voting Rights Act, there's a sense that from the disappointment that was Florida there may come a movement capable of assuring that, in the words of Representative Cynthia McKinney, "We will not allow a repeat of Florida 2000."
Essential to this movement is the recognition that Florida was only part of the story. Across the United States more than 2 million presidential votes went uncounted last November. Election officials actually discarded more ballots in Illinois than in Florida--3.9 percent compared with 2.9 percent. Added to this are concerns about aging voting equipment, restrictive registration laws, failed implementation of the federal motor-voter law and bans on voting by former prisoners that continue to deny millions of citizens--especially people of color and the poor--full access to the franchise.
With Democrats now in control of the Senate, there's a chance to crystallize the energy of this new movement by passing the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act. Written by Chris Dodd, Senate Rules Committee chairman, and John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, the bill addresses basic issues of access and equal opportunity and sets universal standards for voting machines. It has the support of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Council of La Raza, the National Organization for Women, the National Federation of the Blind and at least 172 Congress members. Citizens will have a chance to voice their support at hearings across the country this summer.
Meanwhile, the House is preparing for a post-July 4 showdown on the related issue of campaign finance reform. House majority whip Tom DeLay has vowed to defeat the reform effort, modest as it is, but supporters hope momentum created by Senate passage of a similar measure and by a Supreme Court decision upholding restrictions on party contributions to candidates will overwhelm defenders of what Senator Russ Feingold calls "a system of legalized bribery."
Electoral reforms are never easily won--just ask a suffragist, or, for that matter, the Civil Rights Commission members who were excoriated for exposing the "injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency" that disfranchised minority voters in Florida. No single law will cure what ails our democracy. But now is the time to take the first steps. American democracy was devalued last year, and it will require a wave of liberty to begin to set things right.
With each new look at the November election in Florida, the argument of the Bush Five on the Supreme Court--that manual recounts would lead to the unequal treatment of voters--appears more ludicrous. The election itself was a statewide orgy of unequal treatment. In a draft report, the US Commission on Civil Rights, which investigated election irregularities in the Sunshine State, depicts a voting system rife with bias. "African American voting districts were disproportionately hindered by antiquated and error-prone equipment like the punch card ballot system," the commission notes. Which means more black and low-income voters--who tend to vote Democratic--had their ballots invalidated. The commission confirms what The Nation and other publications have found: The sloppy and inconsistent use of error-laden purge lists prevented eligible voters from casting ballots. "The purge system," the commission observes, "disproportionately impacted African American voters who are placed on purge lists more often and more likely to be there erroneously." In some counties voters of Hispanic or Haitian origin were not provided ballots in their native language--despite federal laws that require it.
There were other inequities. When Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered a recount, eighteen of Florida's sixty-seven counties didn't recount the votes; they merely checked the math from the original count. In two counties, elections officers shut off the mechanisms on the voting machines that identified errors on ballots and allowed the voter a second chance. Other counties kept these devices on.
According to the commission, "widespread disenfranchisement and denial of voting rights" occurred, but "it is impossible to determine the extent of disenfranchisement or to provide an adequate remedy to the persons whose voices were silenced...by a pattern and practice of injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency." And Jeb Bush, Harris and other state officials were to blame--not for having "conspired to produce the disenfranchisement of voters" but for having ignored the needs of voters. The draft, which Jeb Bush denounced as unfair, notes that it would be appropriate for the Justice Department to investigate whether Florida state and county officials violated the Voting Rights Act. Jeb Bush's office squealed bias and grumbled about the timing of the draft's release.
As the commission's report and various media investigations show, thousands of Florida voters were the victims of widespread institutional neglect. That neglect may not have been designed as a campaign strategy, but it worked as well as if it had been. Republicans, after all, have long believed that their candidates fare better in races with low turnout. There is no question that Bush's twisted path to the White House was paved by voting-system problems unaddressed by his brother and Harris--and that he got the presidency because of the unequal treatment of Florida citizens.