Suing for democracy

May 28, 2002

IF THE U.S. Justice Department really wants to correct flaws in the nation's voting procedures, its decision to sue a handful of local election boards isn't too late. Yes, the horse is out of the barn, but closing the door is of the utmost importance.

Almost two years ago, catastrophic vote casting and vote counting problems in Florida led to a situation in which nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, not the voters, decided the election of George W. Bush. Since then, a number of reforms have been instituted across the nation to modernize election procedures and voting apparatus. And a variety of calls for action have brought further pressure to purify a neglected system.

The Justice Department won't say which election boards it has targeted for violations of the Voting Rights Act, hoping to reach an out-of-court settlement with each of them. The process may be a prudent one, though the scope of the inquiry might well have been wider - reaching to the state level, for example. In any case, the Bush administration now joins critics of the elections in a somewhat ironic questioning of its own election. But better irony than further neglect.

"Irregularities" were so numerous in Florida that the victims can be forgiven if they saw intent: Too many citizens who should have been allowed to vote were turned away. Too many who entered the polling booths were confused by the ballot configurations. Too many ballots were thrown out as a result of mechanical failures. A nearly criminal lack of care was found: A recount in Volusia County, Fla., turned up uncounted ballots in someone's car.

Minority voters in particular found themselves as far from the ballot box on Election Day 2000 as they had been in the deepest, most blatantly racist South decades ago. Despite a record number of minority registrants, polling places in black neighborhoods were ill-prepared for the turnout. The police were too much in evidence - an intimidating presence - in some polling places.

Members of Congress joined the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and various other organizations, including the NAACP and the ACLU, requesting action by the Justice Department. The commission found that thousands of Floridians were deprived of the franchise by a bewildering - and shameful - array of problems. Mary Frances Berry, the commission chair, said the failures were presided over by Democratic as well as Republican election officials.

A lawsuit filed in St. Louis alleges similar trouble for minority voters there. The Justice Department investigated allegations in Nashville, Tenn., and elsewhere. Every state has had to re-examine its system.

The performance of officials in Florida, in particular, was nothing short of shameful. Because so many of its officials were Republican, the charge of political interference there was inevitable. That fact is recalled now to underscore the necessity of having an election process that can withstand charges of political manipulation - because in elections, you have to get it right the first time. An orderly democratic system requires it, and voters demand it.

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