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don't re-live the past

Lost votes sting blacks in Jacksonville

By Shannon Colavecchio, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2000

JACKSONVILLE -- On the west bank of the St. Johns River, the waterfront mansions of Ortega share prime real estate with BMWs, pristine lawns and Old South porches decorated for the holidays.

Less than 10 miles away in the impoverished neighborhoods of Northside, humble but well-kept homes lose themselves amid boarded-up houses long choked with beer cans and abandoned plastic toys. Churches are everywhere, offering worship alongside old-fashioned barber shops, cluttered convenience stores and "home-cookin' " barbecue joints.

In the weeks since the Nov. 7 presidential election, these two starkly different Jacksonvilles -- one white, one black -- have grown even further apart.

There is a seething frustration on the black side of town, a sense that the election cheated black voters in this Old South citadel of white financial privilege.

On Election Day, blacks here turned out with uncommon ferocity, confident their votes could ensure Al Gore's ascension to the presidency. But their effort was thwarted when more than 10,000 black votes -- enough to help hand Florida's 25 electoral votes and the presidency to Gore -- were tossed out because they were "under-votes" (ballots where no hole was clearly punched for any candidate) or "over-votes" (ballots punched for more than one candidate for president).

Supervisor of Elections John Stafford said these voters and more than 15,000 others likely were confused by an unprecedented ballot listing the presidential candidates on two pages. The sample ballot listed the 10 candidates on one page. It also instructed, "Vote all pages."

But in the black community, such explanations are only feeding long-held suspicions, reopening tender wounds and reminding folks of the bitter years after Reconstruction, when the post-Civil War South passed laws designed to disenfranchise blacks all over again.

"I have never seen so many people from the African-American community as concerned as they are about this election. This is going to be with the African-American community here forever," said Northside native Alvin G. White, former CEO of Jacksonville public schools and now director of Jacksonville University's School of Education.

While the nation's eyes were focused on the furor over Palm Beach County and its one-page "butterfly ballot," Duval County Democrats -- many of them black -- were complaining loudly that Duval's two-page presidential ballot led to 27,000 presidential votes being tossed out.

In the 1996 presidential election, just 7,316 ballots, or less than 3 percent of the 261,640 cast, were disqualified. This year's disqualified ballots represent 9 percent of the more than 291,000 votes cast.

Of Duval's 22,000 overvotes this year, more than 42 percent came from precincts in four districts, including Northside, where voters are overwhelmingly black, working-class and Democratic. Those precincts accounted for about 20 percent of the presidential votes in Duval, where George W. Bush won by 44,000 votes.

Black leaders have pointed to these numbers as confirmation of their long-standing belief that in this wealthy insurance capital, the political system remains as exclusionary as a debutante ball.

"There is a black Jacksonville, and there is a white Jacksonville," declared Councilwoman Pat Lockett-Felder, a black native whose district encompasses one of Jacksonville's four minority areas. "There always has been, but we really saw that with this election. And I am so afraid, because I don't know what's going to happen to our city."

In a lawsuit dismissed Thursday by a Leon County circuit judge, black leaders, including U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., and former state Rep. Tony Hill, said voters were confused by differences between the actual ballot and Duval County's sample ballot, which listed all the presidential candidates neatly on one page.

The suit, filed against Bush, first-term Supervisor Stafford and the other three memberscq, duval has 4-member canvassing board of the county canvassing board, also alleged that voters without identification were turned away from the polls -- even though state law allows registered voters without ID to sign an affidavit and vote.

Other voters had registered at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles but could not vote because the department never sent their registration information to Stafford, the suit maintained.

Black leaders say first-time voters, told by experienced voters they must be sure to vote on each page, wound up voting twice in the race for president because the candidates snaked from one page onto the top of another, a sort of caterpillar cousin to Palm Beach County's butterfly.

Election officials say they had little choice in the design because there were an unprecedented 10 candidates. Don't worry, they say, the punch card system is history and may be replaced with touch-screen voting as soon as the 2002 general election.

"Whether you're black or white, over-votes are an unfortunate thing," said Jacksonville General Counsel Rick Mullaney, a Republican who sits on the canvassing board. "But what's really unfortunate is that some people see this as a systematic attempt to disenfranchise people.

"We categorically deny that," Mullaney said, pointing out that more than 12,000 over-votes came from mostly white precincts that favored Bush. "I think in the past five to 10 years, we've started to make some real gains in race relations. The challenge now is to reclaim the confidence of the entire community . . . that none of these election shortcomings were based on race."

Students of local race relations say that won't be easy, given the rich history of racial struggles here. Many people still recall headline-generating race riots in 1960 and 1964. Memories of the Ku Klux Klan's "Ax Handle Saturday" attack, waged against more than 400 black students protesting a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter, remain vivid.

Jacksonville blacks have fought to vote since the 1890s, when Democrats -- fearful of blacks' growing power and allegiance to Republicans -- passed laws to dilute the minority group's voting rights.

In the 1960s, as whites fled the economically declining city and its rising black population, leaders consolidated city and county government -- with the promise that it would increase minority representation on the elected council and fatten the tax base required to improve roads and schools in minority neighborhoods.

Today, Jacksonville, an old railroad and sawmill town that grew into a financial powerhouse, still feels more Georgia than Florida, full of gracious manners and drawls as thick as molasses.

Five of the 19 council members are black, and the sheriff is black. As they've done since settling here more than a century ago, blacks have established successful businesses amid the banking giants and corporations that make Jacksonville one of the state's financial hubs.

Blacks are starting to move into neighborhoods all over the city, no longer letting their color segregate them to certain areas of Jacksonville.

But the school board is still struggling to desegregate schools, through magnet programs aimed at drawing white students into poor minority schools.

And even now, some white supremacists have been known to flaunt their beliefs with burning crosses and Klan fliers in a working-class white neighborhood near Northside, said Isaiah Rumlin, president of the local NAACP.

"There is racism here; it's just more subtle than in the past," said White, the former CEO of the public schools who also served as assistant superintendent of integration.

Along Moncrief Avenue, which runs through Northside, residents' disgust with the election and their heightened sense of isolation is palpable.

"They've pushed us back 100 years with this voting system," said 51-year-old native Bill Gordon, standing inside Denmark's Food Store. "It's like telling us we don't matter. We already feel like second-class citizens, and now they're cutting into our most important power: our vote."

Gordon says he's especially angry because so many blacks here were voting for the first time, largely because of the Democratic Party's aggressive get-out-the-vote campaigns in churches, black colleges and shopping centers across Florida. Rumlin, who helped organize Northeast Florida's voter registration drives, estimates at least 3,000 new black voters were registered in Jacksonville.

The Supervisor of Elections' office has not yet compiled turnout figures for black voters, but statewide estimates put black turnout at a higher-than-normal 16 percent.

"People like (the Rev.) Jesse Jackson sometimes blow things out of proportion," said financial consultant Doug Diamond, a white native who served on the local Republican Executive Committee in the 1970s. "If people don't follow the instructions on how to vote on the ballot, that doesn't make it racial. To me, that's just a voter's mistake."

"We are going to have to do a better job next time of voter education, especially for people voting for the first time who need to know their rights," Rumlin conceded. "And I'm not just talking about black voters, because let's be realistic here: This was not isolated to the black community."

"We cannot let this be a setback to race relations here," he said. "We're going to have to come together, pastors and leaders and the supervisor of elections, to make sure this doesn't happen again."

 

Black voters angered by hurdles

By Joel Engelhardt, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2000

RIVIERA BEACH -- On Election Day, after the networks anointed Al Gore the winner of Florida, the black leaders of the Get Out the Vote campaign hugged and celebrated in their war room at the Hilton Airport Hotel.

Voting in unprecedented numbers, black people had played a critical role in Gore's win. Overwhelmingly, by more than 90 percent statewide, blacks chose Gore over George W. Bush.

The triumph didn't last. The victory that briefly rekindled long dormant dreams of the struggle for civil rights quickly dissolved into a nightmare of lost votes and allegations of precinct misconduct so serious it has triggered federal lawsuits and an inquiry by the U.S. Justice Department.

Black voters are outraged. They are filing affidavits, saying they weren't allowed to vote, or, in one case near Tallahassee, that they had to dodge a police roadblock to get to the polls, or that voting equipment in black precincts is old and faulty.

They are angry that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's secretary of state wouldn't accept late returns from South Florida. The hand-recounted ballots she refused to acknowledge were -- in many cases -- black ballots.

Saturday's U.S. Supreme Court decision to at least temporarily halt a new recount in 64 Florida counties didn't help matters.

The election season started with anger at Jeb Bush. His decision to kill the state's affirmative action programs, made without consultation with black leaders, was more than enough to draw a declaration of war from the black community.

But blacks also remember with dismay Jeb and George W. Bush's father, the president until 1992. His administration, they say, did not help blacks economically or politically. After eight years of gains in the Clinton administration, they didn't want to see the advances end.

And they were being feverishly courted by the new Democratic ticket. Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate, came to Riviera Beach and met with black leaders at the Villa Franciscan retirement community. He told them he had been a freedom rider with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.

What other candidate at the top of a presidential ticket has ever set foot in this mostly black city, wondered Mikel Jones, a host of the meeting and an aide to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar. Hastings loaned Jones to the Gore campaign.

Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater rolled up his shirtsleeves and walked Riviera Beach precincts. He even ventured into Stoneybrook, a low-income housing project.

"People were stunned," Jones said. "They said, 'I'm going to come vote. Nobody's ever asked me before.' "

Between February and the Oct. 10 registration deadline, they added nearly 3,700 black voters to the county's registration rolls. More than 59,000 blacks were added statewide.

Armed with $20,000 from the Gore campaign, they organized, then fanned out 400 strong on Election Day, megaphones booming, to get people to the polls.

They filled precincts with so many voters that frenzied poll workers could hardly keep up.

It was a proud moment for the recharged black leadership in Palm Beach County, a moment that put the apathy of the past three decades firmly behind.

Then it all fell apart. The network call of Florida for Gore was rescinded. To this day, George W. Bush retains a slim lead statewide. Instead of celebration, the black community is filing affidavits.

• • •

Pam Williams, 49, of Riviera Beach is a voter. To her, the right to vote means blacks marching through the streets of her native Raleigh, N.C. It means soldiers, dressed in green. It means the angry shouts of the Ku Klux Klan.

It means all her children should vote, even her son, Al. For years, ever since he turned 18, he resisted. "Mom," he would tell her, "it doesn't make a difference." He's 31 now and in this election, when the race seemed so close, he gave in. He registered and he voted.

They talked that morning, mother and son, almost giddily. At 3 p.m. Pam Williams went to the polls at Greater Bethel Primitive Baptist Church, the county's largest black precinct, where 1,563 people, most of them black, would cast their ballot on Nov. 7.

Pam Williams went there to vote for Al Gore. But she didn't. She voted for Pat Buchanan.

She didn't mean to. She blames the butterfly ballot. She blames herself. She blames the confusion of a crowded polling place.

Nothing went smoothly at Precinct 66, she said. Voters had to help find their own names on thick computer printouts. A couple dozen voters stood in line waiting to find out why their names weren't on the rolls. The precinct clerk ran back and forth to the only phone, in a back office at the church, trying in vain to get through to the county election office. The overloaded lines kept ringing busy.

Voters in that precinct used a different kind of punch-card voting machine. Instead of Votomatics, the larger, more costly machines, they voted on Data Punch machines.

That meant no lights built into the machine. Data Punch machines often are used in big precincts with a lot of voters because they don't need to be plugged in. No plugs means no electric lines running back and forth.

But in the dark cathedral of Greater Bethel Church, that made it difficult for voters to see.

The Data Punch machines are smaller. They hold fewer chads -- the tiny perforations that voters punch out of the ballot to record their vote, said precinct worker Grace Minns-Atkins.

As she set up the machines that morning, Minns-Atkins saw chads falling out the side. They fill up fast during the day, she said. That, some experts say, promotes under-votes, where the ballot is not punched.

"That stuff does jam up and once they jam up you cannot get your stylus in there," Minns-Atkins said, repeating an argument Democratic lawyers introduced to the nation in a Tallahassee courtroom.

Voters using Data Punch machines were three times more likely to cast an invalid vote, a Palm Beach Post study showed.

After waiting in line and watching the chaos, Pam Williams took her turn at the voting booth, like she had so many times over the past 25 years.

"I punched what I thought was Gore and almost immediately I knew something was not right," she said. "It was a nagging feeling. When I got home and I looked at my sample ballot I knew what had happened and I was upset."

Pam Williams believes she is one of the 17 people in Precinct 66 to vote for Buchanan. Nothing illegal there, the courts have said. The butterfly ballot that confused her stands. She's angry. Angry enough to travel to Tallahassee for a protest last week and go there again this week to tell her story to legislators.

"The light was horrible. The noise level was extreme. It was the worst I've ever been subjected to."

Later, she spoke to her son. He was right, he told her. "'It didn't really make a difference because my vote wasn't counted and neither was yours,'" he said.

"That really hurt," she said, "because I believe in this."

Pam Williams knows her son is not alone among disillusioned young voters.

"We have the best country in the world. And to think that we're here in the year 2000 and people have concerns about their voting rights -- it's scary. It really is.

"When they say we're not counting this vote it's like they're saying this person doesn't count."

Willis Williams, 50, of West Palm Beach, is an organizer. He gets people to the polls. He goes door to door to persuade them to register. He remembers the edge, the excitement, of the 1960s. Blacks sacrificed themselves for the future. He hates to see it wasted.

"There was a difference in the '60s. Everybody was excited. Kids nowadays have the attitude that this was just given to them on a silver platter. They don't know the hard work black people have done to assure the kind of lifestyle they have now."

The turnout Nov. 7 thrilled him. The aftermath shocked him.

Robbie Littles, 57, a former West Palm Beach city commissioner, is a fighter. He grew up in the city and he remembers the spirit of the '60s. For decades, few remembered with him. But in the election of 2000, the intensity burned again. On Election Day, his gravelly voice blared through a megaphone on the streets of Riviera Beach, reminding people: "You got four hours. Vote straight Democratic ticket. Vote Gore-Lieberman, Hank Harper, Rafael Rondon, Ed Bieluch."

People honked and pointed at the "I voted" stickers on their shirts. He saw pride and enthusiasm not evident since the '60s.

But elections are won with numbers and the numbers don't register pride.

They show, stunningly, that 15 percent of the people who cast their vote in the race for president at Greater Bethel Church in Riviera Beach -- 240 proud voters -- threw out their suffrage by punching two holes on the slim computer card. Another 4 percent, 60 more voters, cast no vote for president.

Four years ago, only 47 people voted for two or more presidential candidates and only 44 for no candidate at all in Precinct 66.

And even though the numbers show that 222 more people voted at Greater Bethel in 2000 than in 1996 and about 2,000 more voters showed up at the county's 38 largest black precincts, they also show the horrible truth: 2,562 voters in those 38 precincts -- 12 percent -- cast votes for two or more presidential candidates. Those votes were thrown out.

Countywide, voters in black precincts were 130 percent more likely to have their ballots thrown out for double punched ballots or under-votes, a Palm Beach Post study showed.

Why? What happened?

Gwen Johnson of Wellington said that in the weeks before the election, she used an absentee ballot to show hundreds how to vote. She warned them it would be confusing because the 10 presidential candidates were spread over two pages. But the pages didn't face one another on the absentee ballot as they did on the ballot in the polling places.

She told them at churches and meetings of community groups to punch the second hole on the ballot -- the hole for Gore. But on Election Day, that hole would count for Buchanan.

And Mikel Jones knows that many black voters believed they had to vote for both Gore and Lieberman. Thus, they voted twice and spoiled their ballot.

Some undoubtedly will become disillusioned and give up, black leaders admit. But most, they say, will be ready to fight. They'll remember the slights of November 2000. They will keep the newly rekindled coalitions with organized labor and the Jewish community. And they'll focus their anger on Republicans.

"Two years from now we're going to knock on the same doors. We're going to do it again," Jones said.

"It's the new millennium's civil rights struggle. We can't rest on our laurels. We will not concede, not to George Bush, not to Jeb Bush."

And they learned a lesson perhaps forgotten from the years when poll taxes blocked southern blacks from registering, much less voting. Next time, Jones said, they will do what they didn't do this year. Before ferrying people to the polls, they will hold workshops and seminars to teach them what to do when they get there.

 

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