Jim Crow Returns to The Voting Booth


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Does America Have An Apartheid Vote-Counting System?

by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Greg Palast

The inaugural confetti has been swept away and with it, the last quarrel over who really won the presidential election.

But there is still unfinished business that can’t be swept away. After taking his oath, the president called for a "concerted effort to promote democracy." The president should begin with the United States.

More than 133,000 votes remain uncounted in Ohio, more than George W. Bush's supposed margin of victory. In New Mexico, the uncounted vote totals at least three times the president's plurality -- and so on in other states.

The challenge to the vote count is over, but the matter of how the United States counts votes, or fails to count them, remains.

The ballots left uncounted, and that will never be counted, are so-called spoiled or rejected ballots -- votes cast by citizens, but never tallied. This is the dark little secret of U.S. democracy: Nationwide, in our presidential elections, about 2 million votes are cast and never counted, most spoiled because they cannot be read by the tallying machines.

Not everyone's vote spoils equally. Cleveland State University Professor Mark Salling analyzed ballots thrown into Ohio's electoral garbage can. Salling found that, "overwhelmingly," the voided votes come from African American precincts.

This racial bend in vote spoilage is not unique to Ohio. A U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigation concluded that, of nearly 180,000 votes discarded in Florida in the 2000 election as unreadable, a shocking 54 percent were cast by black voters, though they make up only a tenth of the electorate. In Florida, an African American is 900 percent more likely to have his or her vote invalidated than a white voter. In New Mexico, a Hispanic voter is 500 percent more likely than a white voter to have her or his ballot lost to spoilage.

Unfortunately, Florida and New Mexico are typical. Nationwide data gathered by Harvard Law School Civil Rights Project indicate that, of the 2 million ballots spoiled in a typical presidential election, about half are cast by minority voters.

The problem is that some officials are quite happy with the outcome of elections in which minority votes just don't count. They count on the "no-count."

Before last November's election, the American Civil Liberties Union sued five states for continuing to use punch-card machines, those notorious generators of "hanging" chads and "pregnant" chads that disproportionately disenfranchise black voters.

Four of those states settled with the ACLU by adopting simple fixes to protect voters. One state, notably, refused: Ohio, which forced 75 percent of its voters to use punch-card machines. In minority and low-income areas, these old machines on average spoil an unacceptable 8 percent of the votes cast on them. In high-income white districts, spoilage is typically 1 percent.

In Ohio, the decision to keep the vote-destroying machines in place in African American districts was made by the state's Republican attorney general, Jim Petro, and its secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell. Blackwell, not incidentally, co-chaired the Bush-Cheney re-election committee. The election in Ohio was fundamentally flawed, a fact compounded by the widespread use of electronic voting machines susceptible to manipulation and hacking.

This election saw an explosion in a new category of uncounted, ballots: rejected provisional ballots. In Ohio alone, more than 35,000 of these votes were never tallied. Once again, the provisional ballots were cast overwhelmingly in African American precincts.

Why so many? In November, for the first time since the era of the Night Riders, one major political party launched a program of mass challenges of voters on Election Day. Paid Republican operatives, working from lists prepared by the party, fingered tens of thousands of voters in Ohio, Florida and elsewhere, questioning their right to a ballot.

One of these secret "caging lists" was obtained by BBC Television from inside Republican campaign headquarters in Florida. Every one of the voters on those sheets resided in African American neighborhoods, excepting a few in precincts of elderly Jewish voters.

These lists helped Republican poll workers challenge voters on the basis of an alleged change of address. An analysis of one roster showed that several of those facing challenge were African American soldiers whose address changed because they were shipped overseas.

Challenged voters were shunted to "provisional ballots," which, in Ohio and elsewhere, were not counted on the flimsiest of technicalities.

Who won the presidential race? Given the millions of ballots spoiled and provisional ballots rejected, the unfolding mystery of the exit polls and widespread use of electronic voting machines, we will never know whether John Kerry or George W. Bush received the most votes in Ohio and other swing states.

But we can name the election's big winner: Jim Crow.

Last Thursday, the president said, "Our country must abandon all the habits of racism."

From benign neglect of the voting machinery to malign intent in challenging minority voters en masse, the United States is turning that ill habit into an electoral strategy.

In 1965, Congress gave us the Voting Rights Act, promising all people the right to cast a vote. It is now time to making counting that vote a right, not just casting it, before Jim Crow rides again in the next election.

Rev. Jackson is founder of Rainbow Coalition/ People United to Save Humanity (Operation PUSH). Greg Palast, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, investigated the election for BBC Television.

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