Former President Jimmy Carter’s op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post, entitled “Still Seeking a Fair Florida Vote,” recycles many of the usual myths emanating from the 2000 election–but with some subtle twists.
There are two primary themes in Carter’s piece. The first is that Florida’s failure to have a nonpartisan official or commission conduct the election process violates the “basic need for an unbiased and universally trusted authority to manage all elements of the electoral process.” Carter asserts, not altogether unreasonably, that a nonpartisan state official is necessary to oversee the 2004 election so as to avoid strong political biases that may affect the outcome. He cites the fact that Florida’s former Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Florida Governor Jeb Bush are strong supporters of the president. However, he provides absolutely no evidence that their support had any effect whatsoever on the outcome of the 2000 election. Furthermore, he neglects to mention that in Florida neither the governor nor the secretary of state has responsibility for the manner in which elections are conducted. That responsibility falls to county supervisors who are independent of the governor and secretary of state (keep in mind that the legendary butterfly ballot was designed by a Democratic-county supervisor, much to the consternation of other Democrats). Indeed, the overwhelming majority of problems that arose in Florida 2000 occurred in Democrat-controlled counties.
Carter’s second point–that voting procedures and standards should be uniform to ensure accurate vote tabulation–has some merit, especially given the equal-protection arguments set forth in Bush v. Gore. But Carter’s argument in support of this point displays the type of partisanship he maintains pervaded the Florida 2000 electoral process. He casually notes that the ballots of several thousand blacks, more likely to vote Democrat than Republican, were disqualified in 2000, suggesting that blacks were victims of both political bias and unevenly applied standards. This is consistent with a recurrent theme in the present campaign that there’s a vigorous effort on the part of Republicans to suppress or steal black votes. (John Kerry even asserts that a million black votes were stolen in the 2000 election, and there are almost daily assertions that Republicans are attempting to prevent blacks from voting.)
Frankly, this is getting tiresome, but it can’t go undisputed. Thousands of ballots were spoiled in the Florida 2000 election. It’s impossible to know with certainty whether the ballots were spoiled by white voters or black voters. If we extrapolate from data in heavily “black” and heavily “white” precincts, however, it’s likely that black voters were more likely to spoil their ballots than white voters. Spoiled ballots do not equal stolen votes. Moreover, Carter neglects to note that in 96 percent of the counties with the highest black-spoilage rate, the county supervisor charged with administering the election was a Democrat. It’s doubtful that Carter is implying that “biased” Democratic election officials unjustifiably threw out thousands of ballots cast by black voters, but that’s precisely the direction in which the facts take his argument.
Carter concludes that it’s “unconscionable to perpetuate fraudulent or biased electoral practices in any nation” and that it will be necessary to “focus maximum public scrutiny on the suspicious process in Florida.” Yet, despite his concern for the integrity of the electoral process in Florida, Carter fails to make a single reference to the real possibility of outright vote fraud–a problem that could easily be magnified in the 2004 election given numerous reports of problems related to voter registration and absentee ballots. Florida’s investigation into the March 9, 2004, Orlando mayoral election is but one example. In that election, a runoff was avoided by a mere 234 votes, despite the fact that at least 264 absentee ballots were drawn into question because they were all witnessed by the same person. The questionable ballots were cast by elderly blacks and, as a result, some have alleged that the investigation is simply a ham-handed attempt at voter intimidation and suppression. (To be fair, the investigation wasn’t a model of historical sensitivity, something the Florida Department of Law Enforcement acknowledges.) The Orlando Sentinel, however, notes that the investigation is fully warranted, concluding that “the state investigation is not unfairly targeting blacks. Part of the probe is focused on the activity of the mostly white fire union that supported (the mayor’s) reelection bid. The grand jury that met this week considered allegations that some improper payments may have gone to union members.”
The 2000 election in Florida was not particularly unusual. The problems experienced in that state also occurred in many other states and in most previous elections. Even Florida’s ballot spoilage rate was within the usual range. But Florida 2000 has devolved into a partisan talking point employed to excite the black electorate with allegations of voter intimidation and stolen ballots. No one disputes that the electoral process needs improvement. But highly charged allegations of bias and partisanship, especially with a racial tinge, won’t accomplish that objective.