Chicago Tribune
December 4, 2000

The Racial Subplot of the Electoral Impasse

by Salim Muwakkil

The election turmoil has yet to produce a legitimate president, but it has provided the nation with valuable civics lessons and illuminated many dark corners of our electoral infrastructure. It also has reminded us of the continuing importance of race in our national consciousness.

For example, many of you who read the previous sentences will not read this one. The word "race" stopped you cold. You didn't want to read yet another "whining" story about black victims and white villains. Well, don't feel unique. That sentiment is widespread among journalists and editors at some of the nation's leading news shops and may partially explain why much of the media initially discounted the flurry of complaints from black Floridians that their votes were being systematically suppressed.

Even after a Nov. 11 public hearing conducted by the NAACP revealed blatant attempts to impede some African-Americans and Haitian immigrants from casting ballots on Election Day, the media avidly dismissed the story. Rather than probe the African-American community's allegations of vote suppression, the media chose to attack the Rev. Jesse Jackson's effort to publicize those charges. "Why hasn't someone given the hook to Jesse Jackson, with his phony claims of African-American disenfranchisement?" asked one Wall Street Journal columnist .

The foreign media weren't quite so dismissive. A front-page story in the Nov. 13 issue of The Times of London, for instance, opened with this sentence: "The FBI is being asked to investigate how thousands of mainly black supporters of Al Gore were given ballot papers that had allegedly already been marked for rival candidates." The story fleshed out charges that up to 17,000 ballots in the Miami area had been tampered with in an example of "organized corruption." Of course, some foreign journalists are simply trying to embarrass the U.S. by highlighting our continuing racial tensions. Still, it's sometimes easier to get a clearer picture of this nation through media based elsewhere. Especially when it comes to racial issues.

In recent days, however, the coverage of Florida's disgruntled black electorate has changed a bit, it least in one important publication. Last week The New York Times published two articles that comprehensively explored black voters' complaints. A Nov. 29 article found that most of Florida's black voters live in counties than used less-reliable punch cards. "More black voters than white voters live in counties using punch cards," the article noted. Nearly 4 percent of the ballots are thrown out because the machines read them as blank or invalid. The other counties used modem, optical scanning systems that, according to the Times, rejected only 1.4 percent of the ballots.

The next day the paper published a front-page article examining charges that many of Florida's black voters were prevented from casting their ballots. "... Interviews with election officials and voters across the state suggest that some African-Americans--it is unclear exactly how many--were turned away from the polls." The article noted the state's tarnished history in dealing with minority voters, but found little racist intent in this election. "Interviews around the state suggest that the most significant obstacles confronting black voters appear to have stemmed from logistical problems."

But the NAACP begs to differ and has launched a federal lawsuit seeking an investigation into how the election was conducted and seeking protection for minority voters in future elections. "We want a court order to make Florida assure the right of every qualified citizen to cast a ballot and to have it counted," said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume at a news conference announcing the suit. The complaint is based on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was passed to help topple state-erected barriers, primarily in the South, that blocked African-Americans from voting.

The group passed up an opportunity to join a lawsuit filed by New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice challenging a Florida statute that permanently disenfranchises felons. The suit charges the statute was enacted in 1868 specifically to deny blacks the right the vote and today has racially discriminatory effects. In fact, according to a study by The Sentencing Project, nearly one-third of all black men in Florida are denied the vote because of the law. Even after paying their debt to society through prison time and being urged to become productive citizens, felons forever are banned from exercising the most basic rights of citizenship. If nothing else, this is a perverse incentive.

Unresolved issues of race are boiling beneath this election impasse and, unfortunately, they're likely to stay that way.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times.

Copyright 2000 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

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