Last Thursday’s challenge by certain congressional Democrats to the certification of the 2004 presidential election was but the latest chapter in the urban legend that began four years ago in Florida.
Back then, activists claimed that dogs and hoses were used to keep black voters from the polls. Claims that thousands of blacks were disenfranchised, harassed, and intimidated from voting ran rampant. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights conducted a six-month investigation of the charges and found absolutely no evidence of systematic disenfranchisement of black voters. The civil-rights division of the Department of Justice also found no credible evidence that any Floridians were intentionally denied the right to vote.
These findings did little to dispel the myth of massive disenfranchisement. Politicians and activists persisted in circulating outlandish stories of nefarious schemes to steal votes, stories that became more numerous and absurd during the run-up to November 2004. Speaking before predominantly black audiences, John Kerry repeatedly suggested that a million black votes were stolen in the 2000 election. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D., Tex.) asserted that George W. Bush lost the popular vote in Florida, despite the fact that every official and media count showed that Bush clearly won. In July, 2004 Johnson led a group of a dozen congressmen who requested that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan provide U.N. election observers to monitor the November election to prevent a repeat of “the nightmare of the 2000 presidential election.”
As the November 2004 presidential election drew near, the mythologists issued dire warnings of Election Day calamities. When polls gradually began to make clear that Ohio would be 2004’s electoral ground zero, thousands of election lawyers and observers swarmed to the state. The mythologists railed against inevitable black-voter suppression and intimidation. The media braced for a repeat in Ohio of the narrow popular-vote margin and ensuing recount circus that occurred in Florida 2000.
But then, much to the chagrin of the mythologists, Bush defeated Kerry in Ohio by 119,000 votes. The army of election lawyers and observers reported no major problems. The predicted calamities failed to materialize: no stolen votes; no harassment and intimidation; no widespread confusion.
Since the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is specifically charged with investigating deprivations of voting rights, its staff had been instructed to monitor the election and report back to the commission at its meeting the following week. The commission dispatched observers to battleground locations.
Given that distortions of the Commission’s Florida 2000 report formed much of the basis for the disenfranchisement myth, several commissioners were concerned that any irregularities reported by staff, however minor, would be hyped into yet another “stolen election.” But at the commission’s November 12, 2004, meeting, the staff reported . . . absolutely nothing.
The mythologists were undaunted. When initial claims of disappearing votes, voter intimidation, and rigged “Republican” election machines proved false, they tried to make the most of less-titillating claims that long lines, inadequate numbers of voting machines, and partisan election officials “disenfranchised” voters. Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Cal.) asserted that 5-10,000 black voters in Columbus had abandoned voting lines out of sheer frustration. Rep. John Conyers (D. Mich.) admonished that we should be as concerned about voter disenfranchisement in our country as we are in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Iraq. And Rep. Maxine Waters (D. Cal.) stated that she was “ashamed to say” that Ohio’s chief election officer, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, is black.
If there was a conspiracy to disenfranchise Ohio voters, black or white, its execution was profoundly inept. Ohio voter turnout increased from 4.9 million in 2000 to 5.5 million in 2004. Estimated black-voter turnout alone rose by 25 percent.
Many of these black voters apparently failed to pay attention to the subtext of the disenfranchisement claims–that Republicans were trying their best to prevent blacks from voting. Yet President Bush’s percentage of the black vote in Ohio increased from 9 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2004. The total number of black votes cast for the president in Ohio increased by more than 100 percent.
The massive voter turnout did result in long lines. Long waits, however, were not peculiar to Ohio nor to predominantly black areas. And there’s scant evidence to support Sen. Boxer’s contention that as many as 10,000 black voters left long lines in Columbus.
The claim that partisan election officials affected Ohio’s election outcome was also embarrassingly weak. The county boards of election in Ohio are bipartisan. At least one black Democrat election official expressed bewilderment that anyone would think that he would permit disenfranchisement of his own people.
The final refuge of the mythologists was purported irregularities related to Ohio’s 160,000 provisional ballots. The mythologists contended that Blackwell had erected formidable barriers to casting provisional ballots and had discarded/invalidated huge numbers of them (presumably to the detriment of John Kerry). But as the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports, more than 75 percent of such ballots were counted as valid–a percentage more than three times greater than the percentage of provisional ballots counted in Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts. In fact, it just so happens that Ohio counted a higher percentage of provisional ballots than any other state in the country.
Errors and problems will occur whenever 120 million voters go to the polls. This is not to diminish the issue–we should continue to strive to reduce such problems. But random mistakes constitute neither a disenfranchisement conspiracy nor a stolen election. In the meantime, it would be helpful if ostensibly responsible individuals refrained from inflammatory disenfranchisement rhetoric that erodes public confidence in the electoral process.
–Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.