On the grounds outside the Gadsden County Courthouse, not far from the monument honoring Confederate soldiers, is a sign that recalls how the Florida Panhandle county has “provided Governors, Supreme Court Justices and numerous other high state officials.” Erected years ago, the marker fails to note the region’s most recent contribution to American political lore: Gadsden County can justifiably claim to have played a critical role in determining the result of the 2000 presidential election. The feat was not accomplished by counting ballots marked by an unprecedented outpouring of voters but rather by discarding 1,951 votes–12 percent of all those cast in this majority African-American and overwhelmingly Democratic county. A ballot design so flawed that it made Palm Beach County’s butterfly ballot look like a model of precision led to the disfranchisement in Gadsden County of almost four times the number of votes that Al Gore needed to beat George W. Bush in Florida and win the presidency.
That pile of discarded ballots formed a heartbreaking footnote to the great lost political story of Florida in 2000: A record turnout of new voters, many of them African-Americans from Miami’s Liberty City to rural counties on the Panhandle, radically altered the political landscape in a state that was supposed to be securely Republican. News organizations that could not see beyond dimpled chads, and a Gore legal team that failed to recognize where and how most Democratic votes were lost, generally missed that story. But it is well remembered by folks in Democratic strongholds like Gadsden County–where an upsurge in African-American electoral activism has begun to upset what the Miami Herald referred to as a white-run, “virtual apartheid” political system that prevailed into the 1990s. Their determination to turn voters out–and to get their votes counted this time–could decide the outcome of this year’s highest-profile gubernatorial contest: First Brother Jeb Bush’s run for a second term against Democratic challenger Bill McBride. “In 2000, a lot of people voted for the first time, and their votes were thrown out, not just here in Gadsden County but all over Florida,” says Gadsden County teacher Brenda Holt, a McBride supporter who traces her activism to 2000. “Maybe some people thought the problems would make people give up on voting, but I don’t think so. I think we’re coming back again, and this time, all of our votes are going to count.”
If, on November 5, Holt’s predictions come true, it will be a proper conclusion to one of the most remarkable stories of the 2000 campaign. In the fall of that year, a loose coalition of African-American voters, trade unionists, college-town liberals, working women and seniors upset the Bush family’s Florida franchise to make a safely Republican state suddenly competitive. Grassroots organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts pushed the turnout up from just 49 percent in 1998, the year in which Jeb Bush was elected, to 70 percent in 2000. A disproportionate number of the new voters were members of minority groups angered by Jeb Bush’s attack on affirmative action: African-American voter registration jumped 9 percent in the months prior to the 2000 election, compared with a 1 percent increase in white voter registration. On November 7, 2000, this coalition-without-a-name brought to the polls enough Democratic voters to secure the state for Gore. But getting enough voters to the polls did not guarantee victory. Confusing ballot designs like the one that disqualified Gadsden County voters and tens of thousands of others across the state, election rules dating to segregation days, antiquated equipment, open intimidation, the heavy hands of Jeb Bush’s political and legal teams, and, when all else failed, the intervention of the US Supreme Court denied enough Gore ballots to give the state’s twenty-five electoral college votes to George W. Bush.
“The grassroots work of people who were mad about Jeb Bush’s policies in Florida–and worried that his brother would do the same things nationally–is what made Gore viable in Florida,” says Doug Martin, communications director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees council that represents Florida public employees. “Our people are still pissed. And we learned something in 2000: If we can just get the votes counted, there are enough of us to beat the Bushes.”
This year’s Florida ballots will feature key players from the 2000 debacle. Former Secretary of State Katherine Harris and former State House Speaker Tom Feeney, who tried to have the legislature declare George W. Bush the winner, are positioned to win open Congressional seats. So too is State Senator Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat who battled to get Miami-Dade County ballots counted. And Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts, who was ready to go to jail if that was what it took to get her county’s presidential votes counted, is challenging Republican Representative Clay Shaw. But no figure from 2000 features so prominently as Jeb Bush. And the First Brother is running scared. At the start of the year, polls had Bush leading McBride by thirty-one points. But a late-September Mason-Dixon Florida poll had Bush pacing McBride by a within-the-margin-of-error difference of 49-43. (One percent backed gay-rights activist Bob Kunst, who complains that Democrats have not been aggressive enough in taking on Bush; 7 percent remain undecided.)
Electing McBride is a goal, says Florida AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Dwayne Sealy, but unseating Bush is a mission. “If Jeb Bush loses here, that sends a signal all over the country that people are waking up to what these Bush brothers are up to.” Both men, he notes, back tax cuts for corporations and the rich while seeking to undermine public education and services with voucher and privatization schemes. Both have politicized government institutions, policy-making and judicial appointments. Both have strained relations with minority communities. “I think Jeb’s messed up worse than his brother. The state’s economy is a disaster, the schools are in crisis, our social-service programs are in crisis. After four years of Jeb, we’ve gone from a $3 billion surplus to where the state is broke,” said Sealy. Referring to breakdowns in voting and vote counting in fourteen counties during the September primary, he added, “To top it all off, after Bush said everything was fixed, this state couldn’t even organize an election.”
Until recently, only die-hard Democrats talked seriously about the prospect that Bush could lose. With 100 percent name recognition, campaign resources in excess of $30 million and a home-state political network built up over almost two decades of work on behalf of his father, his brother and himself, Jeb Bush was supposed to be unbeatable. Even when former Attorney General Janet Reno entered the Democratic primary contest to oppose Bush, Republicans remained optimistic. Reno had high name recognition and bases of support, but she also carried high negatives. So enthusiastic was the Bush camp about facing Reno that Republicans bought television ads attacking her chief primary opponent, McBride. Starting as a virtual unknown, McBride elbowed his way into the race with personal wealth, connections forged as the managing partner of Florida’s largest law firm and a savvy understanding of the Democratic passion for beating Jeb Bush. Though early polls had McBride trailing Reno by twenty-eight points, the teachers’ union, the state AFL-CIO and key Democrats endorsed him. It wasn’t really a matter of issue differences; McBride’s tepid liberalism pretty much paralleled Reno’s. Rather, the rationale was summed up by Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, who said before the primary, “I think McBride is the only candidate who can beat Bush in November.” McBride argued that, as a competent guy with little baggage, he was an ideal alternative to an incumbent who has not worn well.
In his successful 1998 campaign, Bush pitched himself as someone who would manage the state by building bipartisan consensus. Instead, the stubborn, easy-to-anger and highly partisan governor has proven to be a divisive figure who has been accused of politicizing state government. (Despite Bush’s claim that Florida does not need federal help to fix local electoral systems, civil rights activists say national election standards are needed to force real reform. They remain skeptical about compromise legislation recently agreed upon by Congress, however; they worry that it allows states to erect new barriers to participation.) Bush’s critics say he is vulnerable because of dissatisfaction with his school funding schemes and with his attempts to impose artificial standards on schools that lack basic resources. They also believe that revelations about children getting lost and injured in the state’s child welfare system have sown doubts about whether Bush’s “run government like a business” management style is all it’s cracked up to be. When McBride discusses the child welfare scandals, he highlights Bush’s 1999 declaration that “as the new governor of this state, I am the person people will now look to to provide a solution. That’s my responsibility, and I accept it.” Instead, McBride says, Bush has offered “too many excuses and too little effective action.” McBride barely beat Reno in primary voting so marred by irregularities that it took a week to certify a winner, but Reno quickly threw her support behind McBride; so did a third candidate, State Senator Daryl Jones, who opposed Bush’s “One Florida” plan to gut affirmative-action programs.
Activists see the fight over the One Florida plan, which Bush proposed shortly after taking office, as the starting point for the organizing that threatens his re-election. Ten thousand people marched on the Capitol to protest One Florida, and legislators occupied the governor’s office. After Tallahassee activist Barbara DeVane-Gilberg joined the occupation, Bush told her, “If you don’t like what I’m doing, you can hold me accountable.” DeVane-Gilberg grabbed his hand and said, “Not to worry, Governor–One Florida, one term.” She now leads We ALL Count, a group that has worked to coordinate opposition to Bush. “Someone said after 2000: ‘Why didn’t we do something?’ The answer was: ‘What can we do–short of revolution?’ Well, this is the revolution,” she says.
The revolution’s success will be determined by the ability of activists to gin up a turnout that can begin to rival the 2000 phenomenon. “Between now and November, our work is all about getting out the vote,” says Florida AFL-CIO president Cindy Hall. Voter registration among union members is up 23 percent so far this year, and could yet see a 30 percent increase. And the state AFL-CIO, aided by the national AFL-CIO and several internationals, has committed $1 million to the get-out-the-vote drive. The campaign will be aided by a referendum (backed by McBride and opposed by Bush) to mandate reductions in class sizes in public schools–a priority of the teachers’ union–that is expected to generate record turnouts by educators.
Ramped-up voter registration and identification campaigns by unions are paralleled by civil rights and seniors’ groups. “Florida is the battleground state for democracy in 2002,” says Andrew Gillum, a former Florida A&M student body president who works with the People for the American Way Foundation’s “Arrive With Five” campaign. Wearing a “You Have the Right to Vote” T-shirt, Gillum asks Floridians to sign forms pledging to bring five other voters to the polls with them. The forms are fed into a computerized database that will power a massive get-out-the-vote drive. The “Arrive With Five” campaign has focused particular attention on African-American communities–whose votes formed 15 percent of the electorate in 2000, up from 10 percent in 1996. Working with the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the League of United Latin American Citizens and local organizations, People for the American Way has developed “Election Protection,” a program to distribute voter-education materials and monitor voting problems.
The September 10 primary mess provided a grim reminder that in Florida, even when citizens turn out they don’t always get to cast ballots–or have them counted. It appears that serious efforts are now being made to fix the problems that were not resolved on Primary Day, although activists remain wary. They know there will still be problems. Up in Gadsden County, for instance, the new elections supervisor, Shirley Knight, the first African-American to hold that post, could not convince the majority-white county commission to increase the number of polling places. “So we’ll still have voters driving 10 to 12 miles to the polls, which is a real hardship,” frets Knight. But voters who make it to the polls should have an easier time of it; Knight has used state grants to purchase new equipment while simplifying the ballot design, developing voter-education programs and personally delivering absentee ballots to the homes of voters. While Gadsden County discarded almost 2,000 spoiled ballots two years ago, only four were discarded September 10. And, notes Knight, 43 percent of Gadsden County voters cast ballots that day–one of the state’s highest turnout rates.
Knight still reflects on how things might have been different if she had been in charge in 2000. “You still hear people bring up how we might have a different President if we had had a better ballot,” she says. “But they’re not giving up on voting. Just the opposite–I think people are more determined to vote.” That, says Brenda Holt, who is running as a Democrat for a seat on the county commission (if she’s elected, her vote would tip the balance in favor of expanding the number of polling places), is the most important news out of Florida this fall. “I hear people everywhere saying they want to vote early, get their vote counted early,” she says. “I still think we have to be watchful, because we’ve seen it all break down here. But if we can get these people out and get their votes counted, and I think we can, Gadsden County might just decide it all again. The difference is that this time, we might just get the result we want.”