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Florida's Lessons For Black Leaders


Everyone, and we mean everyone, White or Black, should take their hat off or bow in respect for what the NAACP and Black opinion leaders did in Florida. The Black voter turnout in that state was simply unbelievable and without question is the only reason that Al Gore is as close as he is to winning the presidency. Black Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) efforts deserve a tremendous amount of credit for this impressive show.

Black voter turn-out rose a whopping 65% in Florida this year. In 1996, Black Floridians cast 527,000 votes and in this election not counting the tens of thousand of votes that were not counted, 952,000 Blacks voted and overwhelmingly Democratic.

However, accounts of voter confusion, intimidation and voting rights violations do indicate that Black GOTV-efforts may have focused too much on the ends (high turnout) rather than the means (removing impediments to accurate voting). There is compelling evidence that more than the necessary amount of votes needed to put Al Gore over the top in his presidential race were lost due to the previously-mentioned reasons: ballot confusion, intimidation and voting rights violations.

And of course, as we have indicated before, the Black incarceration rate, which shot through the roof during the 8 years of Clinton-Gore and which in Florida makes one out of every three Black men ineligible, is a crisis that by itself may have cost Gore the election. Interestingly, we heard several reports out of Florida and New York that Blacks were mistakenly or erroneously informed that they could not vote because of felony convictions.

Because the amount of first-time voters was so high among the Black electorate in Florida and because of the high rates of illiteracy, more attention should have been given to voter education and proper voting techniques.

Hopefully, next time around, Black GOTV efforts will spend a considerably greater amount of time on voter education as opposed to simple voter mobilization. Then there are indications that Black elected officials and opinion leaders did not focus properly and quick enough in the face of voting problems and were possibly misled by local officials about voting results.

In Duval County, Florida, confusion and a slowed response surrounded the disqualification of some 27,000 votes - 42% of which were reported to be in Black precincts. Some Black leaders are alleging that a Republican election supervisor provided misinformation regarding the votes in question. Black leaders who were initially unaware of what happened were unable to respond to the problem before Nov. 10 when the 72-hour deadline to file protests had already passed.

Certainly, as a result of incidents like these, Black leaders should learn that it is as important to watch what happens to votes immediately after they are cast, as it is in getting them cast in the first place. In addition we can only hope that Black politicians and opinion leaders will realize that winning elections for Democratic candidates and protecting Black voting rights are not always the same thing.

What has been striking about the Florida vote dispute is how the color lines have been drawn, within the Democratic Party, in terms of how to dispute the vote count in the presidential race. While Black Democrats are very clear about wanting to assert and document that Black voting rights were violated, White Democrats are placing the focus on voting machine malfunctions and have even implied that the Black voting rights violations argument would hurt the Democrats in the court of public appeal among White swing voters and southern Democrats.

In the days immediately following the election, Black leaders were vocal and adamant about wanting Black voter intimidation and voting rights violations to be at the center of Gore's contest of the vote totals in Florida. The NAACP held urgent public hearings and sought Justice Department help and the CBC wrote letters to President Clinton as well as Janet Reno asking for their help in addressing instances of suspected violations. Neither the Clinton administration or the Justice Department have done anything significant to address the problem.

Only today, three weeks after Black leaders voiced their concerns and asked for intervention, is the Justice Department willing to look at the complaints. But few have high hopes for the success of the effort and for several reasons.

First, even if the Justice Department were to find voting rights violations, the Justice Department, in and of itself, has no power to change the outcome of the election. Second, the argument is really Gore's to make. And the Gore campaign has downplayed Black voting rights violations in its court challenges and public relations efforts. And third, many believe that Janet Reno has no desire to stir up tensions in Florida, particularly in the Miami community where it is believed she hopes to retire. Her decision to send Justice Department investigators into Florida is mainly seen as symbolic.

To compound matters White Congressional Democrats, particularly conservatives known as "Blue Dogs", have been virtually silent about what is alleged to have happened to Black voters in the south, hoping to not alienate their white constituents. Interestingly, it is these same Blue Dog Democrats who benefited from the high voter turn-out in the South even though many of them specifically rejected Black GOTV-efforts, believing that such a campaign strategy would turn off white voters in their districts.

But without a doubt, the most striking aspect of the debate over Black voting rights violations is that they have not shaped the Gore legal challenges to the election results.

One member of the Black Caucus told us that they are extremely disappointed with the manner in which the Gore campaign and legal team have decided to contest the election believing that Gore has placed the strongest arguments against the election results aside in favor of a more moderate approach.

And the belief that Gore has deliberately downplayed the alleged Black offenses is widespread among Caucus members. Even outgoing Black Caucus chairman James Clyburn has publicly indicated his skepticsm at Gore's commitment to fight for the voting rights of Black voters in his efforts to win the presidency through court challenges.

Several Caucus members have indicated that they are tired of the lack of a quid pro quo in their relationship with the Democratic Party, believing that they have gotten little in return, in terms of an agenda, or increased influence inside of the Party in return for their unflinching support of President Clinton in 1998. Many fear the same trend beginning to develop in reference to Al Gore.

Blacks have shown that they are the most loyal group of voters in the American electorate. And they have proven that their support only gets stronger under the most difficult of circumstances. Now the question remains, what will Black leaders do to protect the sanctity of the Black vote? After all, voting rights violations have occurred where Blacks are concerned, in every election since the late 1800s.

Are Black leaders willing to place the long-term interests of Black voters over the short-term interests of the Democratic Party and Al Gore?

Only time will tell.


Cedric Muhammad

Monday, December 4, 2000

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