The differences in voting in Florida were like black and white

December 17, 2000|By Tonyaa J. Weathersbee

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A couple of years ago, a rumor was ripping like a chainsaw through African-American chat rooms. It warned that unless we acted now, we would lose the right to vote come 2007 -- the year the 1965 Voting Rights Act expires.

Turns out I shouldn't have laughed.

Oh, I know that the 15th Amendment guarantees black people the right to vote. I also know that only part of the Voting Rights Act, which forbids poll taxes and other impediments to stop blacks from voting, is up for renewal. On top of that, it has been renewed three times already.

I was pretty smug about it all. Then Florida happened.

During the 2000 presidential election, a good number of black Floridians were denied the right to vote. Thousands more were denied the right to have their vote counted. None of that happened because a federal act had expired or a constitutional amendment had been revoked. It happened because election officials were particularly indifferent and insensitive toward black voters.

In Duval County, Fla., where I live, 42 percent of the 27,000 ballots that were discarded like day-old bread came from mostly black precincts such as mine. People either voted for more than one candidate, or they didn't choose a candidate. Yet officials here say it was a lapse in voter responsibility.

No way some of that could be the fault of the machine.

In some south Florida precincts, Haitian-American voters who needed Creole-speaking translators couldn't get them. In Palm Beach County, some black voters couldn't even get a new ballot if they messed one up. Few majority-black districts had laptop computers, where workers could check to see whether a voter was registered if that person's name wasn't listed. Instead, they were at the mercy of busy phone lines.

And if first-time voters didn't bring enough identification to the polls, few were offered the affidavit option. If they didn't know to ask, well then, that was just tough.

Yet when it came to dealing with mostly white voters, election officials in Florida eased up on all the sanctimony.

For example, Sandy Goard, the election supervisor in Seminole County, allowed GOP workers to spend three weeks in a back room of her office, where they filled in voter-identification numbers on postcards from voters requesting absentee ballots. Originally, Ms. Goard had planned to throw them out because they lacked the numbers, as required by state law.

Election officials, however, weren't nearly as accommodating toward black voters. And that they weren't says a lot.

Among other things, it says that they're hypocrites. All their election-year gripes about voter apathy and low turnout meant nothing. Because this year, we turned out. We made up 16 percent of the people who showed up to vote -- even though we make up only 13 percent of Florida's voting-age population.

Yet when we came to the polls, election officials were as prepared to refuse us as to assist us.

I'd hate to think that the rumormongers may have had a point. I'd hate to think that 35 years after Bloody Sunday, African-Americans have to be wary about losing our basic rights because some people still refuse to regard us as anything more than accidental players in the future of this country. I'd hate to think that even as we try to do the responsible thing, in the same spirit as our military and overseas counterparts, we should brace for our actions to be met with suspicion instead of respect.

The rumormongers might have been confused about history. But if what happened in Florida is any indication, they weren't confused about the racial realities that black people still have to confront. So I won't laugh again.

Even though I wish I could.

Tonyaa J. Weathersbee is a columnist for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org. This article was prepared for the Progressive Media Project and was distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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