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Denied the right to vote in Florida
"An injustice has taken place here"

November 21, 2000 | Pages 8 and 9

WHEN FLORIDA Gov. Jeb Bush vowed that Florida would go to his brother on Election Day, his statement had an ominous ring. After all, Al Gore led George W. Bush in most Florida polls. His promises to protect Social Security and enact a Medicare prescription drug benefit were tailored to appeal in Florida.

But Jeb Bush just oozed confidence. Many had to wonder: Was the fix in?

And now we know.

"There are just too many shenanigans going on," said Stan McKnight of Juno Beach, a town in Palm Beach County in southern Florida. "I know that Jeb Bush promised his family that he would deliver the state of Florida to them, and I am not above believing that anything is possible as far as Republican dirty tricks. There have been a lot of dirty-trick Republican people in this area for many years. This is the county that's home to Rush Limbaugh, and I don't put anything past these people."

Nearly two weeks after the election, the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes was still anybody's guess. The Gore campaign is trying to overcome Bush's tiny margin in the vote totals by pushing for hand recounts of votes in four southern Florida counties. Day in and day out, the media debated the intricacies of punch-card ballots and ballot layouts.

But far more was rotten in the state of Florida on Election Day. ERIC RUDER reports from Florida on how the Bush brothers used every trick in the book to get the result they wanted.

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WHEN ELECTION Day arrived, the Bush brothers were ready. They had their cronies sprinkled across the state--from the secretary of state's office to individual polling stations staffed by pro-Republican election workers.

Dirty tricks are nothing new in U.S. elections. But the closeness of the Florida outcome cast a spotlight on the corruption--and exposed how politicians regularly steal people's democratic right to vote.

Bob Kellner, who lives in Broward County, says poll workers used language barriers to win a few Bush votes in heavily Democratic areas. "In Miami, many Haitian voters don't speak English," Kellner said. "So they had pictures of the candidates lined up. People would point to the candidate they wanted to vote for--usually Gore--and then poll workers, who were largely Cuban supporters of Bush, would 'help' them vote for Bush."

That was if voters actually made it to the voting booth. Large numbers had to deal with old-fashioned racist intimidation--recalling stories of the Jim Crow South before the civil rights movement.

Jacques Eyssallenne's experience was repeated countless times in heavily Haitian American precincts. "While I was away at college, I still had my permanent address in Broward County," Eyssallenne said. "But they wouldn't let me vote--even though my permanent address is there. What perplexed me was that there were big posters at the polling stations that said if you live outside that precinct or have a different address than the one you used to have, it's a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. And most people just don't want to deal with that. Not every voting place had those signs. They had the signs in areas that were predominantly Caribbean American--I'm talking about Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians and other Caribbean people."

In several counties, state police set up roadblocks near polling stations to check driver's licenses and look for expired tags--in clear violation of their own procedures.

But Florida Highway Patrol spokesperson Ken Howes dismissed all criticism. "They're just out there doing their job," Howes said. "Yes, departmental policy was violated, but the violations were really only administrative oversights."

As it became clear how many Blacks had been stopped from voting, about 500 students from historically Black Florida A&M University organized a sit-in at the state capitol in Tallahassee. "We should be concerned about every man and woman's freedom to cast a vote without intimidation or confusion," said R. Jai Howard, vice president of the student government. "We seek accountability from our state officials and request that they conduct an investigation into the discrepancies across the state."

For many activists, the sit-in was a natural outgrowth of protests they participated in earlier this year--against Jeb Bush's "One Florida" plan to ban affirmative action in state government and college admissions. The demonstrators camped out for 22 hours and demanded a meeting with either Secretary of State Katherine Harris or Attorney General Bob Butterworth. Neither showed.

In West Palm Beach, Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition joined with other organizations to protest Palm Beach County's now notorious "butterfly" ballot. The confusing ballot layout led thousands of Jewish seniors to cast their vote for Hitler enthusiast Pat Buchanan.

Chanting "Every vote counts" and "Revote," a crowd of several thousand--including Blacks, Jews, Haitians and the elderly--packed an outdoor amphitheater November 13. "We're here to put a face on farmworkers who speak Spanish but couldn't get assistance on Election Day, on Jewish Holocaust survivors who were deceived into a vote that was not their intent, to put a face on students across the state who had a voter registration card but their names were not at the poll," Jackson told the crowd.

A rabbi who spoke reminded demonstrators of how Blacks and Jews fought together during the civil rights movement--and recalled the story of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers who were murdered by racists in 1964.

Everyone at the rally had a story to tell. Ernest Duval, a member of Service Employees International Union Local 1115, made an error because the ballot was so confusing. Under Florida law, he had the right to request a new ballot. "But when I told the poll workers that I needed a new ballot, they said I couldn't have another one," Duval said. "So I went back to the booth and punched a second time. That's why I punched twice."

Even a worker in charge of a polling station expressed anger at the election system. "I was a clerk at precinct 58, called Singer Island, in Palm Beach County," said Nina Holland. "People had a hard time understanding the ballot. I kept calling to ask the election people, 'What should I do?' Nobody knew. They just said let them vote. I saw older people punching, punching, punching. A lot of people were upset, and I gave people that came to me another ballot. But some of them were too embarrassed to say they didn't know how to vote."

Jennifer Lowery-Bell, who is a nurse, came all the way from the Washington, D.C., area to demonstrate. "We drove down on Friday and got here Saturday because an injustice has taken place here in the state of Florida," she said. "All they have to do is let Palm Beach revote. What's the problem? But Bush is afraid."

In order to document widespread irregularities at the polls, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume came to Miami and held a daylong meeting during which thousands of people filled out affidavits detailing problems on Election Day.

But the Democrats kept their distance. While their high-priced lawyers packed into courtrooms to debate pregnant, pimpled and dimpled chads, Democratic politicians didn't want to touch the far more glaring injustices of Florida's election.

They may well pay a price for their timidity. "I think the Democrats should push it to the end, because if they don't and let the people down, a lot of people will turn against the Democratic Party," said Marie Fredric, a Haitian resident of Miami.

Right to vote taken from former prisoners

IF AL Gore loses the Florida vote, he can help himself to a share of the blame. Florida is one of 32 states that deny convicted felons the right to vote for some length of time after they leave prison.

In Florida, felons lose their voting rights for life--leaving more than 525,000 to sit out this election. An incredible one in three Black men--roughly 139,000--were disenfranchised. That outweighs all the other disputed votes in Florida's election. With African Americans nationwide voting by close to 90 percent for Gore, you can do the math.

And Gore bears part of the responsibility. He and President Clinton have overseen a massive expansion of the prison-industrial complex--with the number of people behind bars rising from 1.3 million to 2 million during their eight years in office.

"If you've done the crime, and you've served the time, then your rights should be restored," Ethel Duncan told Socialist Worker. "Supposedly, it's about rehabilitation once you've gone through the system. And then you come out, and you can't get a job because you're a felon. You can't vote because you're a felon. So what happened to the rehabilitation? It doesn't make any sense."

Playing tricks with absentee ballots

AT LEAST six Florida elections in the last decade have been tainted by fraud.

Monkeying with absentee ballots has been the preferred strategy. And no wonder. It's easier for corpses to send in ballots than show up at the polls. And mail-in ballots can also help "enthusiastic" voters make their choice a couple of times.

In Election 2000, Republicans came up with a new twist on circumventing absentee ballot regulations. A company hired by the Republican Party to mail out pre-prepared absentee ballot requests to registered Republicans failed to include voter registration numbers on thousands of applications.

In Seminole County, GOP campaign aides camped out in the offices of election officials for 10 days to correct thousands of the requests. The result? Bush held a 10,006 to 5,209 lead in the absentee ballot count in Seminole County.

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