WASHINGTON - The nation's top African-American leaders questioned yesterday the legitimacy of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's expected presidential victory, saying it was secured by the U.S. Supreme Court and not by the voters.
"He will be president legally. But he does not have moral authority, because his crown did not come from the people. It came from the judges," the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said on CNN after leading a rally of hundreds of blacks and union members in Tallahassee, Fla.
Blacks voted for Gore by a 9-to-1 margin, according to various analyses after the election.
Jackson said 18,000 African-American ballots were thrown out in Duval County because those voters mistakenly cast ballots for two candidates for president. They followed a sample ballot in a local newspaper that was different from the one in the booth, he said.
Thousands of other black voters around the state found their names were missing from the voting rolls, Jackson said, while broken voting machines in other counties failed to count votes.
"Well, many people feel it's stolen. They feel robbed. They feel disenfranchised," Jackson said. "So there is a sense in which people were targeted and that there was a systematic, planned disenfranchisement of people."
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume echoed those concerns later in a telephone interview with reporters.
Asked about Bush's legitimacy as president, Mfume said: "That remains to be seen. In the minds of a lot of voters, they may see this future president is lacking the kind of legitimacy we afford to presidents. ... I'm not sure legitimacy is something Mr. Bush ever gains."
Both men said that efforts by news organizations and other groups to recount the estimated 45,000 undercounted ballots - those kicked out by machines without recording a vote for president - could reverse Bush's victory in Florida.
Officials in that state have said there was no evidence of an organized or deliberate effort to deprive African-Americans of their right to vote.
Mfume said the NAACP believes there was "voter suppression and voter intimidation" there and will press the Justice Department and the FBI in the next administration to investigate. Such a move, Mfume said, will "move [Bush] closer to acceptance."
"What happened in black precincts in black neighborhoods this election shouldn't happen again," Mfume said.
Like other black officials and Democratic leaders, Mfume said he was "extremely disappointed" in the U.S. Supreme Court decision that reversed a Florida court decision to begin a recount. That opinion was repeated by black lawmakers in Congress.
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., an Illinois Democrat and son of the civil rights leader, called the high court "a willing tool of the Bush campaign."
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat, said the court's ruling "leaves a stain on democracy." Of Bush's claim to the presidency, he said, "The people are going to be left saying, `I am not certain this guy won the election.'"
Another Florida Democrat, Rep. Carrie P. Meek, agreed. "Black voters, if I may speak for them, I don't see them supporting George Bush in any way. I will respect him and I will work with him, but I don't think that [extends] to my constituents."
Not all black leaders were willing to question Bush's legitimacy.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, was asked if the country can come together after the divisive election.
"I hope so. A lot of it will depend on the next president," Rangel said. "He will have to make extraordinary efforts to be bipartisan."
Another pillar of the Democratic Party, organized labor, also sharply criticized the Supreme Court vote.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the justices were "ignoring the fundamental principle of `one person, one vote' in their decision."
"It profoundly threatens the faith of citizens in our democracy and our system of justice," Sweeney said in a statement.
"That faith will be most sorely tested in minority communities," he said, "where hundreds of reports of harassment, intimidation and faulty voting machines now cast a pall over the progress we have made in more than three decades of fighting for voting rights for all Americans."
Still, Sweeney said his organization will not turn its back on a Bush presidency.
"Despite our virulent objections to the flaws in the voting process," he said, "the AFL-CIO will work with Gov. Bush to bring our nation together and address the many important concerns of America's working men and women."