Race was big factor in ballot rejection

March 05, 2002|By Allan J. Lichtman

WASHINGTON - Hidden within the political controversy over the future of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is a fundamental dispute over whether race still matters in people's lives today.

A statistical study of Florida's 2000 presidential election that I conducted for the commission uncovered vast racial disparities in ballot rejection rates that are not explicable by nonracial factors.

Dissenters on the commission and their allies on the right have desperately sought to deny and obscure this finding, not because it's wrong but because it contradicts their presumption that America solved its race problems in the civil rights era of the 1960s.

My analysis showed that about one in every seven or eight African-Americans statewide who showed up for Florida's presidential election had their ballots set aside as invalid.

The rejection rate for ballots cast by blacks was more than 10 percentage points higher than the rejection rate for ballots cast by whites. Projected to the approximately 600,000 votes cast by blacks in Florida's presidential election, this means that if the black rejection rate had been equivalent to the white rate, more than 60,000 additional ballots cast by blacks would have been counted in the election.

Studies by independent scholars, including political science professors Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and Anthony Salvanto of the University of California, Irvine, have confirmed that blacks in Florida were much more likely than whites to have their ballots disqualified. Independent analyses by the news media confirm this finding.

The Washington Post studied nearly every uncounted ballot in Florida, concluding that 13.6 percent - close to one in seven - of "ballots in heavily black precincts were set aside," compared with 4.5 percent "in precincts where at least 80 percent of the voters were white."

Two members of the Civil Rights Commission who filed a dissenting report did not substantively dispute the finding of wide racial disparities in ballot rejection rates in Florida.

They argued instead that socioeconomic factors such as education and income, not race, accounted for different rates of ballot rejection. Implicit in their critique was the disparaging presumption that African-Americans were incapable of voting properly, even though heavily black jurisdictions such as Baltimore City have conducted elections with rejection rates of 1 percent or less.

My study showed that blacks were much more likely to have their ballots set aside than whites after controlling for education, income, poverty, literacy and first-time voting - a finding that independent analysis confirmed.

According to a New York Times study of 6,000 Florida precincts, "even after these factors [education, income, ballot design] and others were accounted for, the study showed a significantly higher rate of rejected ballots in precincts with a large proportion of black voters."

The dissenters are no longer promoting their socioeconomic explanation, but are still seeking to obscure what happened in Florida through the absurd argument that black Republicans were the major victims of ballot disqualification, with rejection rates 50 times higher than for black Democrats. No matter that such a rejection rate would produce many times more disqualified black Republican ballots than there are black Republicans in the state.

No less absurd is the assertion of critics of the Civil Rights Commission that black or white skin makes no difference for people's lives today. Never mind the wealth of studies documenting racial disparities not only in voting rights but also in matters of everyday life, from police stops to mortgage lending, heath care, hiring and promotion.

Imagine if Florida had a black governor and secretary of state last year, Al Gore had narrowly won the state and whites, not blacks, were the main victims of ballot rejection. The commission's dissenters would have decried this result as the crime of the millennium and demanded an investigation of every precinct in the state.

But Florida's officials were white, George Bush won the state and black, not white, ballots were most likely to go uncounted.

So the dissenters would have us ignore what really happened in Florida, with the result that we'll never find out why African-Americans disproportionately lost their right to vote or how to make sure this doesn't happen again - anywhere in America.

Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, conducted the study of ballot rejection rates in Florida for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He has been an expert witness in more than 60 federal voting rights cases.

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