Politics & Policy

Florida Forever

The political urban legend that facts won't kill.

Several pundits have predicted that there will be a huge turnout for the Florida Democratic primary Tuesday, particularly among black voters. This, despite the fact that John Kerry has effectively secured the nomination.

The reasons are twofold: (1) Democrats will make every effort to get out the vote to demonstrate that Florida will be in play during the general election; and (2) black voters, incensed that they were systematically harassed, intimidated and prevented from voting in the 2000 presidential election–the “stolen” election–will stream to the polls in droves.

The second reason is a political myth repeated ad nauseum during the Democratic presidential primary. But political myths can overcome facts through sheer repetition: The New Deal ended the Depression; tax cuts caused budget deficits in the eighties, etc. These myths serve vital partisan imperatives–especially when the policy cupboards of the partisans are bare or vermin-infested.

Even before the last vote had been cast in the 2000 presidential election, activists had descended upon Florida, claiming a widespread conspiracy to disenfranchise black voters. Allegations that state troopers put up roadblocks and checkpoints to prevent blacks from voting were rampant. Dogs and hoses were allegedly used to drive black voters from the polls. Bull Connor’s heirs had been unleashed–all at the direction of Governor Bush and his sidekick, Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated over a six-month period beginning in January of 2001. Its 200-page majority report, “Voting Irregularities in Florida During the 2000 Presidential Election,” excoriates Florida’s election officials for various acts of misfeasance. But the conclusions drawn by the report often bore little relationship to the facts contained therein. And media descriptions of the report did little to dispel the widespread belief among the black electorate that blacks had been systematically targeted for harassment, intimidation and disenfranchisement.

Of course, very few actually read the report. But the handful that did (especially the incisive dissent authored by Commissioners Abigail Thernstrom and Russell Redenbaugh) discovered the astonishing mendacity underlying the myth.

There’s absolutely no evidence that a single person was intimidated, harassed, or prevented from voting by Florida law enforcement. Despite claims of rampant police intimidation and harassment, the only evidence of law-enforcement “misconduct” consisted of just two witnesses who described their perceptions regarding the actions of the Florida Highway Patrol. One of these witnesses testified that he thought it was “unusual” to see an empty patrol car parked outside a polling place. There was no evidence that sight of the vehicle somehow intimidated the witness or any other voters from casting ballots. There was no evidence that the erstwhile occupant of the vehicle harassed voters. There was no evidence that the empty vehicle was there for the purpose of somehow disenfranchising anyone assigned to vote at that location.

The second witness had filed a highly publicized complaint with the NAACP regarding a police motor-vehicle checkpoint. In the hysterical recount period following the election the complaint took on a life of its own and apparently became part of the basis for the legend that legions of cops were harassing thousands of black voters throughout Florida.

The evidence, however, shows that the checkpoint in question was two miles from the polling place. Moreover, it was not even on the same road as the polling facility. During the checkpoint’s approximately ninety minutes of operation, citations for faulty equipment were issued to 16 individuals, 12 of whom were white. The uncontroverted evidence shows that no one was delayed or prohibited from voting due to the lone checkpoint.

There’s no evidence of systematic disenfranchisement of black voters. The myth of a nefarious plot to thwart black voters from casting ballots is wholly unsupported by the evidence. Inconvenience, bureaucratic errors and inefficiencies were indeed pervasive. But these problems don’t rise to the level of invidious discrimination. (There was one case in which a black woman alleged that she was turned away from a poll at closing time whereas a white man wasn’t.)

Much has been made of the “felon purge list”, i.e., a list of those individuals who, under Florida law, were to be barred from voting due to felony convictions (see the “Felon Franchise). The list had been prepared to prevent the kind of fraud that had occurred in the infamous Miami mayoral election in which a number of ineligible felons voted.

The list was inaccurate; it included people who shouldn’t have been on it. Thus, the myth holds that the purge list was somehow a tool to deny blacks the right to vote.

But facts are stubborn things. Whites were actually twice as likely as blacks to be erroneously placed on the list. In fact, an exhaustive study by the Miami Herald concluded that “the biggest problem with the felon list was not that it prevented eligible voters from casting ballots, but that it ended up allowing ineligible voters to cast a ballot” (This quote, as well as many of the facts contained herein, come from Commissioners Abigail Thernstrom’s and Russell Redenbaugh’s dissent to the Commission report.). According to the Palm Beach Post more than 6,500 ineligible felons voted.

State officials were not at fault for widespread voter “disenfranchisement”. The myth holds that Governor Bush, in league with Secretary of State Katherine Harris, either by design or incompetence, failed to fulfill their electoral responsibilities, resulting in the discriminatory disenfranchisement of thousands of black voters. This was purportedly a key to the overarching Republican plot to steal the election from Al Gore.

Again, reality intrudes. The uncontroverted evidence shows that by statute the responsibility for the conduct of elections is in the hands of county supervisors, not the governor or secretary of state. County supervisors are independent officers answerable to county commissioners, not the governor or secretary of state. And in 24 of the 25 counties that had the highest ballot-spoilage rates, the county supervisor was a Democrat. (In the remaining county the supervisor was not a Republican, but an independent.)

Moreover, as is simply put by Commissioner Thernstrom, voter error is not the same thing as “disenfranchisement.” Even if more black than white voters spoiled their ballots by mistake, that’s not evidence of a scheme to discriminate on the basis of race, and it certainly doesn’t evoke images of dogs and fire hoses.

After issuance of the commission’s report some diehards, perhaps realizing that history frowns on demagoguery, desperately sought any facts that might support the myth. The Justice Department was pressed for action.

The Justice Department conducted a thorough investigation. The result:

The Civil Rights Division found no credible evidence in our investigation that Floridians were intentionally denied their right to vote during the November 2000 election.

The Justice Department did find violations of the Voting Rights Act in three counties. The infractions were that some poll workers had been hostile to Hispanic voters, bilingual assistance hadn’t been provided to two Haitian voters and some Hispanic voters had been denied bilingual assistance. None of the offending counties was controlled by Republicans.

Of course, there’s a reason why charges of disenfranchisement have great traction among the black electorate. After all, the Voting Rights Act wasn’t simply a piece of feel-good legislation. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and worse remain vivid memories for far too many.

That’s precisely why baseless claims of voter harassment on the basis of race are particularly odious. They inflame racial tensions by perpetuating a belief that the shameful practices from two generations past continue unabated; that a virulently racist hegemony is forever poised to subjugate minorities.

The consequences of generating suspicion of the electoral process for the sake of partisan advantage are at once insidious and profound. They dangerously undermine the legitimacy of government and encourage rejection of its authority.

The myth is poisonous to society and democracy. Its antidote is a relentless, adamant repetition of the truth.

Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. A version of this piece was first published last year on NRO.

Peter Kirsanow — Peter N. Kirsanow is an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

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