If you think your vote is safe and secure in the world’s oldest democracy, think again. The long shadow of the scandalous 2000 election in the state of Florida still hangs over the nation. The outcome in Florida, which elected George W. Bush, was not decided by hanging chads, recounts, a flawed felon list, or intervention by the Supreme Court. It was decided by a far worse scandal that remains largely unknown but stands as a dire warning that our votes may not be fully and fairly counted in the upcoming election.
I know what really happened in Florida because I was commissioned to study the election in 2001 by the United States Commission on Civil Rights. What I found profoundly surprised and shocked me. Florida officials had rejected as invalid more than one out of every ten ballots cast by African-Americans, compared to fewer one out of every fifty ballots cast by whites. In some counties, nearly 25 percent of ballots cast by blacks were set aside as invalid.
Most of the rejected ballots cast by African-Americans were not under-voted ballots on which no vote could allegedly be discerned, but over-voted ballots that allegedly included marks for more than one candidate. Ballots were also rejected as over-votes if voters wrote in the same candidate they marked on the ballot. Over-votes were not included in Florida’s recount process.
If black ballots had been rejected at the same minimal rate as white ballots, more than 50,000 additional black votes would have been counted in Florida's presidential election. Given that more than 90 percent of blacks favored Gore over Bush, Gore would have won Florida by at least 40,000 votes, prevailed in the Electoral College, and become President of the United States on January 20, 2001.
It was not statistically difficult to determine the racial composition of rejected ballots. Given that voters register by race in Florida we know the racial composition of the vote at every precinct, which are highly segregated by race. See, for example, the enclosed graph for Duvall County precincts from my Civil Rights Commission Report. Racial disparities in ballot rejection also persisted when controlling for a vast array of other factors such as ballot design, education, literacy, income, age, party control of counties, and first-time voting.
My Civil Rights Commission report called for a thorough investigation to uncover the reasons behind the racial disparities in ballot rejection in Florida and to make sure that ballots would be fully and fairly counted in all states in the future.
No one, however, responded to this call. I did not expect conservatives to look into the election of their favored candidate. But liberals were no more responsive. Why was there no mobilization of protest from the NAACP? The Urban League. The ACLU. The Democratic Party.
So we never discovered what lay behind the scandal in Florida or learned the lessons that could prevent future irregularities in voting, which could take many different forms. Indeed, no one has as yet satisfactorily explained the disturbing disparities between exit polls and voting results in the 2004 presidential election. Eternal vigilance at every voting precinct must be the watchword this year for everyone who cares about our democracy.