Nation Investigation Reveals Florida Officials Shut Out Tens of Thousands of Black Voters on Election Day
NEW YORK - April 12 - While stories of Florida's hanging and dimpled chads have covered news pages since Election Day, a new Nation investigation reveals that Florida elections officials -- including Secretary of State Katherine Harris -- engineered an electoral system that was stacked against black voters from the start and was in place well before the election.
According to the investigation by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Lantigua in the April 30 issue of The Nation, Florida's black community -- bitterly at odds with Jeb Bush -- mounted a voter registration drive that increased black voter turnout in November by an astounding 65 percent. In what many in the black community saw as a direct response to their efforts, the state took steps that led to the wrongful disenfranchisement of many current voters and failed to make preparations to accommodate the huge numbers of new black voters.
"Despite one well-reported incident involving a police checkpoint near a polling place, disfranchisement 2000-style did not depend on intimidation," Lantigua writes in The Nation. "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 on Election Day or had their ballots discarded and not counted. A large and disproportionate number were black, according to The Nation, which has been recognized for its ongoing reporting on the Florida election debacle.
"The Nation's investigation into the way Florida, under Governor Jeb Bush, systematically purged the state's voter rolls and denied tens of thousands of African Americans their right to vote is a frightening wake-up call for our democracy," according to Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. "The revelations in our story cannot undo the corruption in Florida's election last November, but they can and should spur reforms that will ensure that 2000 is the last time that African Americans will be unfairly targeted and denied their rights in the voting booth in Florida or anywhere in America."
A pending NAACP lawsuit charges Secretary of State Harris and other Florida officials with violating the 14th Amendment and the 1965 Voter Rights Act and demands many reforms to the Florida electoral system. In its March interim assessment, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said it had uncovered evidence that is likely to lead to "findings of probable discrimination."
According to The Nation's investigation:
-- In 1998 and 1999, Florida contracted with two data analysis firms to purge the voter rolls of felons and other ineligible voters. (Florida is one of only 14 states in the nation that does not restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.) In both cases, the results were error-filled and targeted blacks in extremely disproportionate number. "I felt like I was slingshotted back into slavery," Reverend Willie David Whiting, a black pastor from Tallahassee, said after arriving at his polling place to find himself listed as a convicted felon and refused the right to vote despite never having spent a day in jail.
-- Emmett "Bucky" Mitchell IV, the assistant general counsel to the Florida Division of Elections who headed the purge effort, knew that the purge lists would include people who were not felons because of the intentionally loose standards used to draw up the purge lists. Mitchell justified the standards to The Nation on the following grounds, "Just as some people might have been removed from the list who shouldn't have been, some voted who shouldn't have." In other words, because an ineligible person may have voted somewhere else, it was acceptable to deny a legitimate voter the right to vote. Mitchell said this policy was approved by the former head of the Division of Elections, after consultation with Secretary of State Harris.
-- More than a year before the election, thousands of complaints were already coming in from citizens who had been unfairly purged. Many more wouldn't discover the state's errors until Election Day when they were not allowed to vote.
-- Florida state officials refused to appropriate $100,000 targeted for voter education that had been requested by county supervisors -- education that was critical for many of November's first-time black voters. The lack of informed voters, along with the lack of sufficient machines and poll workers, contributed to the chaos on Election Day.
The Nation also details numerous other problems that came to light after the election, including cases of voters who registered in plenty of time but were not allowed to vote. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund documented numerous incidents where Latino voters were improperly denied the right to vote. The organization also cited polling places that could not provide bilingual ballots and had no bilingual poll workers, as required by law. Furthermore, there were many occasions where Florida electoral laws were misunderstood by poll workers to the detriment of voters.
Nation contributor Gregory Palast documented Florida's improper purging of out-of-state felons, whose right to vote had been automatically restored, in a report in the February 5, 2001 issue of The Nation, which can be accessed at www.thenation.com. Subsequently, Florida changed its policy.
John Lantigua shared the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his work at the Miami Herald on voter fraud in the 1997 Miami mayoral race.