Senator John Kerry made a fantastic statement while speaking to a predominantly black audience in Indianapolis last Tuesday. Admonishing the Bush administration for calling “[the Kerry campaign] pessimists for speaking truth to power,” he stated: “Don’t tell us disenfranchising a million African Americans and stealing their votes is the best we can do. This time, in 2004, not only will every vote count–we’re going to make sure that every vote is counted.”
Kerry’s statement came just a few days after a dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by the immediate past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D., Texas), sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan requesting that the U.N. provide election observers to monitor the 2004 U.S. presidential election. The representatives contend that U.N. involvement is necessary to prevent a repeat of “the nightmare of the 2000 presidential election.”
The representatives cite as the basis of their request certain alleged findings of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that countless Floridians were denied the right to vote in 2000 and that “the disenfranchisement of Florida’s voters fell most harshly on the shoulders of black voters and in poor counties.”
The theme of massive black disenfranchisement and stolen votes has been repeated ad nauseam since 2000, and has become more pronounced and hysterical during the current election cycle. (In December 2000, Rep. Johnson asserted on the floor of the House that there was overwhelming evidence that George W. Bush had lost the Florida popular vote.) John Kerry referred to alleged voter harassment and intimidation while speaking to a Rainbow/PUSH Coalition audience last week.
The allegations that a million African Americans were disenfranchised, harassed, and intimidated from voting, and thus had their votes stolen, are utterly false. The allegation that George W. Bush lost the popular vote in Florida is also completely false.
The six-month investigation of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found absolutely no evidence of systematic disenfranchisement of black voters. The investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice also found no credible evidence that any Floridians were intentionally denied the right to vote in the 2000 election.
Many Florida voters, irrespective of race, spoiled their ballots by mistake. But voter error is not the same thing as “disenfranchisement” and it certainly isn’t evidence of a nefarious plot to steal black votes.
In fact, Florida 2000 was not a startling anomaly. Ballot-spoilage rates across the country range between 2-3 percent of total ballots cast. Florida’s rate in 2000 was 3 percent. In 1996 it was 2.5 percent.
Glitches occur in every election. Some glitches are massive, others not. This is not to downplay the problem, but to put it into perspective. For example, the number of ruined ballots in Chicago alone was 125,000, compared to 174,000 for the entire state of Florida. Several states experienced voting problems remarkably similar to those in Florida. But the closeness of the 2000 election in Florida, and the attendant electoral implications, placed the state at the fulcrum of a remarkable opportunity for racial demagoguery.
The myth that President Bush lost the popular vote, even though a million black Democrats were supposedly disenfranchised, has also become a verity. This, despite the fact that every single vote count–including those conducted by various media–unequivocally establishes that Bush won. In fact, the Miami Herald election 2000 report notes that had the looser count standards sought by Al Gore been employed, Bush’s margin would’ve increased. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, in counties using punch-card voting, mismarked ballots were more likely to affect Bush than Gore.
The toxic claim that countless blacks were denied the right to vote isn’t simply irresponsible, it dangerously undermines public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system. It’s compounded by a host of other pernicious urban legends that filter through the black electorate each election cycle, such as the perennial claim that the Voting Rights Act is about to expire, stripping all black Americans of the right to vote.
These cynical efforts may succeed in stirring up the base, but at the expense of inflaming racial resentment and suspicion. Yet those who once obsessed over the incendiary effects of the Willie Horton ad don’t seem equally concerned about politicians who traffic in tales of massive disenfranchisement on a third-world scale. At this writing, a quick Nexis scan shows not one challenge to Senator Kerry’s outlandish claims.
Kofi Annan, not surprisingly, rejected the congressmen’s appeal for election monitors. But if Annan changes his mind, the investigations of both the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Department of Justice reveal where the U.N. may wish to send its observers: Under Florida law, responsibility for the conduct of elections falls upon county supervisors. The Justice Department found that three Florida counties committed violations of the Voting Rights Act during the 2000 presidential election. (The infractions were that some poll workers had been hostile to Hispanic voters and bilingual assistance hadn’t been provided to some Haitian and Hispanic voters.) The next time Senator Kerry tells a black audience about massive disenfranchisement, he might also inform them that in none of the offending counties was the county supervisor a Republican–and in 24 of the 25 counties with the highest ballot spoilage–er, disenfranchisement–rates, the county supervisor was a Democrat. (In the remaining county, the supervisor was an independent.) Perhaps then he’ll better appreciate the consequences of playing the race card.
–Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.