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The lynching of the black vote

By Robert Kuttner, 12/10/2000

MANY BOOKS WILL be written about the stolen presidential election of 2000. And when they are, one prominent factor will be the Republicans systematic and extra-legal effort to reduce black voting, details of which are just now being pieced together.

Black turnout was way up this year, and nowhere more dramatically than in Florida. Black voters there were upset with Governor Jeb Bush's retreat on affirmative action. They were mobilized by effective registration and get-out-the-vote drives by civil rights groups and black churches.

Jesse Jackson spent weeks in Florida, speaking to large African-American crowds, with a punchline that became a familiar refrain: Stay out of the Bushes!

Although black turnout tends to slightly lag white turnout, this year 16 percent of registered voters in Florida were black, up from 10 percent in 1996. And blacks, loyal to Clinton-Gore and unhappy with the brothers Bush, gave Gore-Lieberman a striking 90 percent of their votes nationally and 93 percent in Florida, up dramatically from what Clinton-Gore received in 1996.

But Republican strategists were ready. And it is becoming increasingly obvious that a combination of deliberate vote suppression coupled with more subtle institutional discrimination combined to deny thousands of black Florida voters their franchise.

As the New York Times first reported, Florida election officials devised a laptop program allowing local election officials to tap directly into the master database in Tallahassee to determine whether a voter who did not show up on local rolls was in fact registered to vote. But only one of the laptop computers was distributed to a black area.

The Times reported that the precincts equipped with laptops favored Bush. In predominantly black precincts, if a voter found his or her name wrongly omitted from the rolls, a harried polling place worker had to try to get through to Tallahassee on the phone, and the lines were invariably busy. In Miami-Dade, black votes were thrown out at four times the rate of white votes.

It also turns out that many of the blacks whose names were mysteriously disqualified were not purged accidentally. As Gregory Palast reported in the internet magazine Salon.com, Republican officials hired ChoicePoint, an outside vendor with Republican ties, to cleanse the rolls of felons - but at least 8,000 names, disproportionately minority, were improperly deleted.

Other black voters reported being harassed, turned away, or given misleading ballot instructions. Republican officials have been quoted suggesting that if a disproportionate share of ballots from black precincts were spoiled, well, you know, these people arent too smart. Sorry, Florida voters are plenty smart about spotting racism.

In addition, a disproportionate share of archaic punch- card systems prone to error were in precincts with large minority populations. The whiter counties had more modern, optical scanners and lower rates of uncounted ballots.

The institutional racism of poorer and blacker communities getting shoddier public services is an old story. But some of the racism, it now develops, was deliberate.

Republican ''ballot integrity'' programs to intimidate black voters have long been familiar in the white south. Republican agents, sometimes aided by local police, warned blacks seeking to vote that even innocent technical errors in their registration information, such as wrong addresses, could subject them to arrest. Blacks seeking to vote were often photographed, with the implication that they might be arrested later.

Thirty-five years after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, it was reasonable to assume that these relics of America's racist past were now just something for the history books. But electoral racism is alive and well in Florida.

Before the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, blacks were deterred from voting by lynchings. Today in the Internet age, black voters are lynched by laptop.

At the Republican National Convention, there were more blacks as token entertainers than there were black delegates. The cynicism of George W. Bush's minstrel show was the object of wide ridicule. Apparently it didn't fool many black voters. But when slick public relations failed, the Bush campaign evidently stooped to cruder methods.

Investigations and lawsuits will eventually establish just how many black votes were suppressed or stolen. But it's already clear that the number easily exceeds Bush's current lead in Florida.

We've been hearing a lot of media blather lately about the importance of bipartisanship and unity. Instead, the pundits should be investigating this theft. If Bush does take the oath of office January 20, he will take office as a fraud. And if he preaches bipartisan or racial healing, he is an even bigger fraud.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.
His column appears regularly in the Globe.


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