Are Florida's Black Voters Paranoid - or Disenfranchised? Nightline Should Go Back and Get the REAL Story
Ted Koppel and ABC News should be ashamed of themselves. Rather than exploring the legitimate reasons why blacks felt they were targeted in Duval County and throughout Florida, Nightline presented a one-sided report which made it appear that African Americans are simply being paranoid.
Although the report did note that there is a history of discrimination against blacks at the polls, Nightline presented that as ancient history and not as an ongoing phenomenon. But African American voters WERE targeted in Florida statewide. In Duval County, the only question is whether blacks were targeted because they were likely to vote Democratic, or whether Democratic voters were targeted because blacks make up a very large proportion of Democratic votes, and an insignificant number of Republican voters.
STATEWIDE TARGETING OF BLACKS FOR DISENFRANCHISEMENT
ABC News/Nightline completely ignored the facts that support 'black paranoia' about this election. Koppel himself tried to make it appear as if instances of discrimination were merely anecdotal - and that UNTIL definitive proof of discrimination was made available, people should simply assume that blacks are reacting inappropriately. Koppel made no effort to cite the preliminary findings of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, which point to clear evidence of discrimination, much of it intentional. The most egregious example of how blacks were targeted in Florida was the 'felons list' scandal, which of course was never mentioned in the Nightline report.
In Florida, there is now compelling evidence that State Republican election officials, including Governor Jeb Bush himself, conspired to deprive thousands of legal voters their right to cast a ballot on November 7th, 2000 in a manner that specifically was designed to disenfranchise a disproportionate number of African American voters. Under the direction of Katherine Harris and Clay Roberts, a company called DBT/Choicepoint was instructed to provide county election officials with lists of names to be removed from the vote rolls that they knew would result in the removal of legitimate voters from the registration rolls.
1) DBT/Choicepoint was instructed by the Republican state officials to create "felons lists" based on wholly inadequate criteria that were likely to result in a large number of 'false positives' (non-felons who were identified as felons). DBT/Choicepoint was further instructed to ASSUME that the databases they were using were inaccurate, and that clerical errors in the entry of identifying data occurred with such frequency that it was necessary to transpose first and middle names, and to match only 90% of the last name, in order to identify 'felons.'
It is essential to note that because of America's legacy of slavery, there is far less variety in the last names of African American than of white Americans. The blacks who were brought to this country as slaves were stripped of their identities, and provided 'last names' of their owners. Because of this, African Americans are far more likely to be mis-identified as a felon due to the inadequacy of the matching criteria.
2) Republican state election officials MISREPRESENTED Florida Law to DBT/Choicepoint, telling the company that it was the responsibility of the County level election officials to verify the felon status of people whose names appear on the list prior to removing them from the voter registration rolls. The statute in question (101.0975) is abundantly clear that there is an assumption of ACCURACY in the list. Under the statute, the state was supposed to contract for a list of felons - not 'possible felons', or 'probable felons', but the names of people who had actually committed felonies, and had not had their rights restored. The law itself COMPELS county election officials to remove those individuals whose names are on the felons list UNLESS those officials can verify that the individual named is an eligible voter.
3) An analysis of the history of the "felon's list" statute makes it clear that the law was never intended to be used to 'scrub' the voter registration rolls of 'out-of-state' felons, but was to intended to facilitate communications between counties, and to maintain an accurate record of Florida felons. (At the point at which the law was passed, there was no mechanism by which a felon who was registered to vote in a county other than the one s/he had been convicted in could be removed from the rolls. Nor was there a mechanism that prevented a felon who had been removed from the rolls from re-registering, or that identified a re-registered felon as such) Indeed, the original contracts for both the first company contracted for the "periodic maintenance" of the Central Voter File (Database Analysis), and DBT/Choicepoint itself, included the use of in-state data only.
Nevertheless, Harris and Roberts oversaw a renegotiation of the contract with DBT/Choicepoint in which out-of state databases were used in compiling a felons list. The states chosen were those with relatively high percentages of African Americans, and most of these states had a long history of discrimination in their criminal justice systems that resulted in a disproportionate number of convictions of blacks. Even if one wishes to argue that discrimination no longer occurs (a rather tenuous argument at best, given the contemporary use of 'racial profiling' in identifying people who are 'more likely' to commit crimes) it cannot be argued that past discrimination is irrelevant in this case. A seventy-year-old African American, convicted of violating "race laws" in 1960, is just as much of a 'felon' as a 20-year-old white drug dealer convicted in 2000.
Although some of these states are among the small number of states that deny former felons their right to vote for the rest of their lives, some of the states that Harris and Roberts requested be used in compiling the 'felons list' were those that automatically restored the voting rights of felons upon completion of their sentences. This was done DESPITE statutory language that disenfranchises ONLY those felons whose rights "have not been restored" and a Florida State Court ruling (Schlenther v Florida) in early 1998 that made it abundantly clear that the State of Florida COULD NOT deny civil rights to felons whose rights were restored in the state in which they were convicted. The Governor's Clemency Board, chaired by Jeb Bush himself, instructed County supervisors to REMOVE THESE VOTERS FROM THE ROLLS DESPITE THE FACT THAT THEIR CIVIL RIGHTS HAD ALREADY BEEN RESTORED.
It is important to note that states like North Dakota and Minnesota, which have miniscule black populations, were not used in the creation of the felons list, while states like Georgia, New York, and Ohio, all of which have relatively high percentages of African Americans, were used. Although there is no complete, definitive list of the states used for the felons list, all of the states whose databases were used had relatively high percentages of African Americans.
IRREGULARITIES IN DUVAL COUNTY
The Nightline Report consistently harped on 'voter error' as the reason for the high number of overvotes in Duval County. In fact, the high error rate can be directly attributed to INCORRECT instructions to voters which, if followed, resulted in votes for President being lost. It can also be attributed to a ballot whose design can only be attributed to deliberate fraud.
Under Florida law, Democratic candidates in ALL races appeared in the second ballot position in 2000. The instructions on the SAMPLE BALLOT - the one used by voters who were conscientious in coming to the polls knowing how they would vote—told voters to "be sure to vote on every page." In other words, a voter who wanted to vote A STRAIGHT DEMOCRATIC TICKET could do so by following the instruction, and punching the second hole on each page of the ballot. According to an article in the New York Review of Books, over 5000 conscientious voters went to the polls, followed the instructions, and had their ballots rendered invalid—a disproportionate number of these ballots were from heavily African American precincts where there were a lot of voters who wanted to VOTE DEMOCRATIC in all races. (Florida exit poll show that 93% of blacks voted Democratic for President, and 88% voted Democratic for Senator. Analysis of Congressional races in Duval County's African American precincts confirms that "straight ticket voting" was widely practiced.)
Nightline, of course, made no effort to explain this simple fact, all it did was note that the sample ballot made it appear that all candidates would be in a single column WITHOUT MENTIONING the erroneous instructions provided on the ballot. To attribute the problems in Duval County solely to 'voter error' - when conscientious voters following the instructions on the sample ballot would inevitably 'overvote' their ballot - is a complete misrepresentation of what happened in Duval County.
It is also highly likely that hundreds, if not thousands of LEGALLY PRESCRIBED VOTES were not counted as legal votes because Duval County's ballot was ILLEGALLY DESIGNED. Under Florida law, you CANNOT count a ballot as overvoted because of the presence of a "write in vote" UNLESS the name of a "qualified write in candidate" appears on the ballot. Unlike most of the large punch card counties, Duval County allowed voters to punch a hole next to the "write in instructions", and included the WRONG INSTRUCTIONS on the ballot. Under Florida law, ALL ballots with write in votes must be inspected by hand to determine if there is a "qualified write in candidate", and to make sure that LEGALLY PRESCRIBED votes are counted as such—that ballots are not illegally counted as overvotes. According to Dick Carlberg, Assistant Elections Supervisor for Duval County, the actual ballot cards were never examined; only the secrecy envelope where the voter had to write in the candidate's name was looked at. If there was no name of a 'qualified write in candidate' in that envelope, the ballot was then counted by machine. This was illegal.
(Duval was not isolated - in fact, at least nine other Republican controlled counties illegally ignored these legally prescribed votes—and had these counties not acted illegally, Al Gore would have seen a net gain of 194 votes DESPITE the fact that these counties voted for George W. Bush. A full explanation of the law, and the impact of the illegal exclusion of legally prescribed votes, can be found at http://failureisimpossible.com/needtoknow/lostvotes.htm)
The ballot used at the polls was so poorly designed that it appears to have been a deliberate attempt to confuse non-Republican voters. (The ballot itself is on the web at http://duvalelections.coj.net/balpage_01.html.) And one very significant change was apparently made in the layout of the ballot that points to intentional confusion of non-Republican voters.
When looking at the ballot, one of the most significant things is what does NOT appear on it - there are no lines between the tickets for President. The simple inclusion of such lines could have significantly reduced the number of overvoted ballots.
The placement of the arrows pointing to the appropriate chad to be punched out for each candidate is designed to confuse non-Republican voters. Rather than have the arrows point from the name of the Presidential candidate, or the party, the arrows are located BELOW the name of the Vice Presidential candidate. For all parties other than the Republican Party, the name of the party is actually CLOSER TO THE WRONG HOLE than it is to the correct hole - a voter who was looking for "Democratic" would have two choices—with the Bush hole being CLOSER to the word "Democratic" than the Gore hole. Because the ballot told voters to "vote for group" and there are two names listed for each ticket, it is safe to assume that thousands of voters punched both the Gore and Bush holes on the ballot.
According to the NY Review of Books articles, HALF of the 22,000 Duval County overvotes were overvoted on the FIRST PAGE ONLY. There are two logical explanations for this - voters who voted for both Gore and Bush because of the ballot design, OR voters put holes in unassigned chads because those chads lined up with the name of the candidate they intended to vote for—and those holes were counted as votes. When asked if the latter was a possibility, Dick Carlberg said it WAS possible that unassigned holes were counted as votes.
Finally, from looking at the video of the Nightline report, it appears that at some point the arrows themselves were moved. The video appears to show that the arrows are directly across from the names of the Vice Presidential candidates on the sample ballot. On the actual ballot posted on the internet, those arrows are well BELOW the Vice Presidential Candidate's names If the video of the Nightline report is an accurate representation of the sample ballot, it is clear that the arrow was moved at some point to make it appear that the actual ballot would be far less confusing that it was.
In other words, the overvote in Duval County was due NOT to voter error, but by illegal acts and inappropriate design by the election officials in Duval County. The problem in Duval was "ELECTION OFFICIAL ERROR" not voter error. Yet Nightline never explored the full extent of the problems caused by the actions of REPUBLICAN elected officials whose actions resulted in DEMOCRATIC voter confusion.
INTENT AND FRAUD IN DUVAL COUNTY
The question of INTENT on the part of these election officials was never explored either. And although the kinds of "mistakes" made by Duval officials could be perceived as 'innocent' if we were talking about people who were complete novices, the Duval Supervisor of Elections, John Stafford, was far from a novice. In fact, he was a professional computer programmer who had been working for the Duval County Division of Elections for over 10 years. In 1993, Stafford was promoted to "Chief Elections Assistant", and in 1999 received the endorsement of the County Republican Party for the Supervisor of Elections election, which he won. Additionally, according to Stafford himself, at least five people were involved in the design of the ballot. It is simply not credible that no one was aware of the laws of Florida, or noticed how the design of the ballot and the incorrect instructions would lead to voter confusion.
Furthermore, On Thursday, November 9th, Stafford lied to the Chair of the Duval County Gore campaign when he was asked about the number of overvotes and undervotes, telling the Gore chair that there were only a handful of uncountable ballots. Stafford also told him that the final numbers would not be available until Monday (November 13th), yet certified the vote to the state that evening despite the fact that there were discrepancies involving THOUSANDS of votes that were not resolved. The Gore chair did not find out about the vote totals until being called by a reporter for comment about the huge number of overvotes at 6PM on Friday; which was far too late for the Gore campaign to do the necessary work required to request a manual recount under the statutes of Florida.
Since the election, Stafford has gone to great lengths to avoid having his election and ballots examined. Most significantly, Stafford has refused to provide access to the media of the audit tapes that are required by law to be made, and which show the condition of each and every ballot counted by machine. And in a complete reversal of what rationality would dictate, Duval County is now claiming that there are FEWER overvotes, and MORE undervotes, than were originally reported.
RACISM ON NIGHTLINE
The entire thrust of the Nightline Report on Duval County was to make it appear that African Americans had no LEGITIMATE reason to be angry with any one but themselves for "not following instructions". "Voter error" is consistently emphasized throughout the report - other than a few asides regarding the "one page" ballot design and a local news report of "problems at the polls" ABSOLUTELY NO ATTEMPT WAS MADE TO ACCOUNT FOR WHAT HAPPENED IN DUVAL THAT WAS NOT RELATED TO 'VOTER ERROR'. By FOCUSING on the concerns of African Americans in an exploration of Duval County, then emphasizing 'voter error', Nightline sent a clear message to its viewers that blacks are stupid, irresponsible, and paranoid.
This is racism, pure and simple. Blacks were disenfranchised in Duval County because they vote Democratic - and the Republicans who run Duval County are well aware that blacks in Duval County vote Democratic. Blacks in Duval know that the GOP County officials are aware of this. Given the state of race relations in Florida, and the GOP's record on racial issues in Florida, blacks in Duval County had good reason to suspect that they had been deliberately disenfranchised. Yet because Nightline did NOTHING in terms of examining the actions of the GOP controlled election apparatus, Nightline left its viewers with an inappropriate and utterly racist impression of blacks in Duval, and completely misrepresented the LEGITIMATE concerns of blacks in Duval, in Florida, and in the nation as a whole.
Nightline should return to Duval County, this time treating the WHITE REPUBLICANS with the same skepticism that it treated black Democrats. Why doesn't Nightline get John Stafford on camera, and ask him about HIS mistakes, and what the results of those mistakes were? Why doesn't Nightline interview someone who is KNOWLEDGEABLE about the facts in Duval County, rather than interviewing a schoolteacher who clearly was not ready to give your reporter chapter and verse on irregularities in Duval County? Why doesn't Ted Koppel ask the question "what did the GOP controlled election apparatus do in Duval County that lead to 27,000 votes not being counted" rather than "why didn't the Democratic party tell its voters to ignore the instructions found on the sample ballot?"
Nightline and Ted Koppel presented the absurd notion that it is the responsibility of the Democratic Party to make sure that corrupt and/or incompetent GOP officials do not steal elections, and that if the Democratic Party does not make a Herculean effort to prevent the corruption of the election process by the GOP, the American people have no right to expect fair elections. Scapegoating the Democrats, and scapegoating black voters when the real culprits are GOP election officials who did not do their jobs (or did them illegally), is not merely absurd, it is an outrage.