Joan Brunwasser, Voting Integrity Editor, OpEdNews April 10, 2007
American Blackout is a sort of real-live Groundhog Day – the 1993 movie in which Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over again – as it documents the sadly cyclical themes that punctuate the history of blacks in America. The end of slavery in this country almost 150 years ago did not bring this issue to a close, and we have been grappling ever since with integrating our darker-skinned fellow citizens with mixed success. One of the most basic and critical areas where this struggle has been manifest is the right to vote.
In The Right to Count, a documentary by Richard Van Slyke that I recently reviewed http://www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_joan_bru_070330__22the_right_to_count_3a.htm journalist and Ohio attorney Bob Fitrakis says that the Constitution was a document that effectively enfranchised some, while simultaneously disenfranchising others. Although not mentioned in American Blackout, I would like to remind you of the historic Supreme Court decision of Dredd Scott v. Sanford in 1857. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that "It is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration..." He is referring here to none other than the Declaration of Independence, which asserted that "all men are created equal." While the outcome of the Civil War less than a decade later clearly disputed Taney's allegation, his bigoted statement still resonates within our contemporary society.
Watching footage from the Civil Rights era – with the specter of helmeted State Troopers and fierce policemen mounted on horses and wielding fire hoses and nightsticks – reminded me of the pogroms suffered by Jews for hundreds of years throughout Europe, Russia, and even 'civilized' England. For those of you who are unfamiliar, pogroms were organized attacks on Jews, often either instigated or sanctioned by the government, which resulted in large-scale rape, murder, and pillaging. The ferocity and unpredictability of these attacks were an impetus for massive Jewish emigration to America during the late 19th and early 20th century. This is mirrored by the huge post-slavery migration of blacks from the South to the North to escape lynching and unceasing harassment and discrimination.
The move to keep blacks un- or disenfranchised is devilish in its implications. Our vote is our voice. By keeping the black community out, we render them mute and therefore invisible. Letting them register and then creating roadblocks (literally and figuratively) to keep them from actually voting sets them up for discouragement, humiliation, and anger. This traumatic ordeal often leads to their understandable decision to bow out of the voting process altogether. I have a very strong feeling that this is not an unintended result.
Bernie Sanders, the feisty Independent Senator from Vermont, states that "they" don't want "you" to participate. "They" refers to Big Business and Big Government, who would actually prefer a low voter turnout thereby restricting the vote to the well-off, who are more likely to rubber-stamp their policies. The wide swath of black disenfranchisement needs to be understood within this larger context.
There are numerous themes that recur throughout American Blackout. One is the juxtaposition of the Civil Rights era and the present fight to count black votes, most notably in Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004. The film includes black and white footage of blacks marching peaceably into likely harm from government officials pledged to uphold the law. I doubt if I would have had the courage to walk into such danger. Their faces, filled with purposeful resolve, are echoed in modern footage of black Ohioans standing for hours in the pouring rain in order to vote. They attempted to vote in precincts that were plagued by long waits due, in part, to far too few machines. In precinct 25B of one Ohio inner-city, there were 1,523 voters and 3 machines.
The opposition to black voting and black voters has been increasingly fine-tuned over the years. Where black voters once confronted fire hoses, arrest, and injury, they now face impediments that involve the elusive machinations of government bureaucracy and computerized voting. Former Ohio Secretary of State Blackwell secured Bush's victory in 2004 in part by his various maneuvers to confound or erase black votes. Posting incorrect polling place information on the state website was just one of his ingenious ruses. Voters finding themselves inexplicably purged from the voting lists of precincts where they had been voting for decades ended up with provisional ballots that Blackwell then disqualified - in direct contravention of HAVA. All that time and effort for nothing!
The film includes a clip of Blackwell standing before a cheering, white audience and smirking: "Earth to Barbara Boxer: George W. Bush has been freely and fairly elected President of the United States." I don't know about anyone else, but I had a strong urge to punch his lights out. The fact that he is black just adds insult to injury.
Greg Palast, noted investigative journalist and author, says, "Florida (2000) was an apartheid election, a Jim Crow election." This is a very strong statement that should not go unexamined. Let's look at some of the evidence. DBT, a data-gathering company later bought by Choicepoint, was hired by the state of Florida to develop a central voter file of purported felons to be purged from its voting rolls. In later testimony, the company spokesmen admitted that over 90,000 voters were incorrectly identified as felons and stricken from the voting lists. The fact that, according to their sworn testimony, a "significant number of people who were not convicted felons would be on the list" was not seen as a problem. DBT duly notified the state officials about this large discrepancy, but their $4 million fee included no provision to verify the list.
Several things stand out here. Palast, who gained access to the original lists used for the purging, saw that the names were clearly identified by race, making it easier to single out black voters. Also, because the list was based on a list of Texas residents guilty of misdemeanors or felonies, many on the list were not convicted felons at all. Those purged in Florida just had the misfortune of sharing the same race and a similar name, not even the exact same name or social security number, as residents in another state entirely.
As someone pointed out in the film, the motivation for massive black disenfranchisement is not necessarily racist in origin. The salient fact is that blacks are targeted because they overwhelmingly vote for Democrats at a rate of 90 percent. So, if an election is going to be "fixed," going after black voters – by removing them from the lists, throwing out their provisional ballots after giving them incorrect information so that they vote in the wrong precinct, long lines, allocating insufficient machines in inner city precincts, votes flipping from the chosen candidate to another, or just showing these potential voters that they are unimportant to the process – all lead to the same result. Should a black voter feel better knowing that it is not his race but his racial voting record that is being targeted? I wouldn't think so.
The film includes Bush's visit to the National Urban League prior to the 2004 election; (he pointedly continued to ignore the more "radical" NAACP). He asks "Does the Democratic Party take African-American voters for granted?" While many in the audience sit on their hands, W uses his "aw shucks" persona to laugh at himself and reel them in. With great chutzpah, he asks for their votes and then follows it up with a "I know that we [the Republicans] have a lot of work to do." Raising the issue of the traditional strong tie between blacks and the Democrats could be a valid in-house question for blacks to ponder, but to be asked by the head of a party that has worked overtime to keep blacks down and out strikes me as incredibly bad taste.
Greg Palast points to the "ugly, little echo of 2000" in Ohio 2004. Both Secretaries of State Ken Blackwell and Katherine Harris were state chairs of the Bush/Cheney campaign. Both used their positions to forward the interests of their candidate at the expense of the voters they supposedly served. A man in the film is shown parading around with a sign that reads, "Katherine Blackwell stealing black votes," pithily combining the old and the new.
After the hotly contested presidential race in 2000, there was a dramatic lack of meaningful press coverage and a distinct absence of Congressional interest. The former focused on punch-card ballots and hanging chads while ignoring the many, many stories of people of color being disenfranchised. The latter used 2000 to pass HAVA (the Help America Vote Act of 2002) to purportedly clean up the elections and make voting easier. Instead, it led to a 4 billion dollar boondoggle that has made elections less transparent, less secure, and led to even less voter confidence.
John Lewis, a prominent figure in the Civil Rights era, is now a congressman from Georgia. He intones at the beginning of the film that were it not for the strategic disenfranchisement of black voters we would not have Bush in office, war in Iraq, or the current make-up of the Supreme Court. This single statement encapsulates the sheer importance of the election, and the black vote specifically. It cannot be overstated that a false purge list removed 90,000 legal voters in Florida, a state where the margin of victory was slightly over 500 votes. If you add Ohio to the picture, the pattern becomes clear: identify swing states; create roadblocks for black voters there; and tip the election your way. Election as farce.
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