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Democracy Was 'Under Attack' in Florida

29 November 2001

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush declared, ''Freedom and democracy are under attack.'' A nation that is serious about its pledge of allegiance would examine the asphyxiated canaries of the 2000 presidential election to find out just how much democracy was under attack, long before Osama bin Laden.

Two weeks ago, a consortium of news organizations released its analysis of the virtual tie in the presidential voting in Florida. It found that George W. Bush still would have defeated Al Gore if the Supreme Court had allowed the four-county recount requested by Gore. However, Gore likely would have won in a full, statewide recount.

The consortium's report died a quick death in public discourse, as bin Laden has replaced butterfly ballots. Americans find it easier to hate the Taliban than to tally up the truth about America's own failings.

No one could be happier about this than Bush. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the consortium's report ''no news.'' Fleischer said, ''The voters settled this election last fall and the nation moved on a long time ago.''

Moved on, yes, over the bodies of the canaries.

The consortium made news by confirming what civil rights activists said on Election Day. Voters in predominantly black districts were three times more likely to have their ballots disqualified than voters in predominantly white districts.

A year ago, some Republican strategists tried to discount disqualifications in black districts by attributing them to lack of voter education, a fancy way of saying black folks are dumb.

One such strategist told The Washington Post that the get-out-the-vote effort ''got out people who couldn't follow instructions.''

The consortium found that black votes were rejected at higher rates even when considering education, income, and ballot design.

In predominantly black neighborhoods with high percentages of people who quit school before completing the ninth grade, 10.4 percent of ballots were thrown out. In predominantly white neighborhoods with similarly low levels of education, 5.3 percent of ballots were rejected.

In predominantly black neighborhoods where 30 to 40 percent of voters have a college degree, 3.7 percent of ballots were thrown out, compared with 1.9 percent of ballots that were rejected in similarly educated white districts.

In counties that used the most confusing ballots, 18.2 percent of ballots in predominantly black precincts were rejected, compared with 6.4 of the ballots from predominantly white precincts.

The Washington Post found that 136 of every 1,000 ballots in black disctricts were rejected in Florida, compared with 45 of every 1,000 ballots that were thrown out in white districts.

The New York Times put the disparity differently. The Times said that 9 to 10 percent of ballots were rejected from precincts with large percentages of black voters, compared with 2 percent from white precincts. According to the Associated Press, the 20 precincts with the highest percentage of rejected ballots, in precincts where at least 500 people voted, were all at least 80 percent black.

The media largely ignored the disqualifying of black votes a year ago. Gore himself played a part by not aggressivly demanding a statewide recount. Now, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and with his popularity soaring behind his ''war on terrorism,'' President Bush can effortlessly promote the notion that the nation has ''moved on.''

It is not likely in such a rarefied atmosphere of patriotism that the canaries will be heard now. But the next time the president asks Americans to ''reaffirm their devotion to the aspirations of all people for freedom and democracy,'' someone has to remind him that ''all people'' is not an abstract notion.

It is difficult for the canaries of the 2000 election to be heard in the current crescendo of patriotism. Until they are, Bush is disingenuous when he asks Americans to ''reaffirm their devotion to the aspirations of all people for freedom and democracy.'' The methane surrounding Bush's election asphyxiated the aspirations of too many black voters. It should not be lost to history that Bush is going after the Taliban in the name of democracy when he worked so hard a year ago to ban the tally.

Derrick Z. Jackson.
Published in the Boston Globe.
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

Index page on Response to attacks in US


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