I was living in Dallas, Texas, during the Bush-Gore 2000 election where voter suppression took place. Talking politics made for spicy conversations. Male friends I spoke to were for Bush while the women mostly supported Gore in Dallas. After the election, I read about the hanging chads issue. But I don’t recall reading about a voter purge in Florida. As I now understand, if the purge came from the state of Florida, it was hard to prove and the media wouldn’t cover it. This changed after voters denied their vote sued the government.
The Bush-Gore 2000 election was like no other before it. Prior to the election, there was a coordinated effort to suppress the votes of people of color through voter suppression, specifically Blacks and Latinos. After the election, it was complete chaos for 36 days with recounts and legal challenges in Florida.
This article is about how certain voters were systematically targetted to disenfranchise their vote by Republicans that led George W. Bush to win the presidency.
I never got my voter registration card for the election voter suppression happened
Like so many, Ibram X Kendi, believes the 2020 election is possibly one of the most important presidential elections in American history. He was a freshman at Florida A&M University during the 2000 Bush-Gore election. In his book, How to Be an Antiracist, he was angry after he realized voter suppression took place for the November 2000 election:
“Rookie voters, we were watching the election results unfold, hoping that our votes would help keep the brother of Florida’s governor out of the White House.
The election was coming down to the winner of Florida. The polls closed, and before long we saw Al Gore’s winning face flash on the screen. Game over. We rejoiced. ... The next morning, I awoke to learn that George W. Bush somehow held a narrow lead in Florida of 1,784 votes. Too close to call, and Jeb Bush’s appointees were overseeing the recount.
The unfairness of it all crashed on me that November. My anti-Black racist ideas were no consolation. I walked out of my dorm room that morning into a world of anguish. In the weeks that followed, I heard and overheard, read and reread, angry, tearful, first and secondhand stories of FAMU students and their families back home not being able to vote. Complaints from Black citizens who’d registered but never received their registration cards”
In the end, the Florida Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, declared George W. Bush winner of Florida, by a margin of 537 votes over Al Gore. Bush won the presidency and one of the reasons was due to voter suppression.
How does systematic disenfranchisement happen?
In his 2002 book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, investigative reporter, Greg Palast, describes what he found after obtaining a copy of two CD-ROM disks from the computers of the Florida Secretary of State. In the months leading up to the 2000 election, Harris, the Florida Secretary of State, in coordination with Governor Jeb Bush, ordered local elections supervisors in Florida's 67 counties to purge 57,700 names from the voter registries. The reason given was because they are "felons who have no right to vote in Florida". Of the 57,700 Florida citizens, Palast found:
"Most were Democrats and 54% were Black and Hispanic. 90.2 percent of those on this “scrub” list, targeted to lose their civil rights, are innocent”.
Ion Sancho, an election official in Leon County, was skeptical that his list of nearly 700 suspected criminals to purge was legitimate. He noticed most of the names didn't match in an interview with the New Yorker:
“We were being told to purge a voter named Johnston, even though the felon’s name was Johnson”. Fewer than forty turned out to be felons.
After the election, some Florida citizens sued Harris and the state because they may have experienced voter suppression. According to David Klausner, a computer-forensics expert acting for the plaintiffs, he said that Database Technologies, the company hired by the state of Florida, admitted that at least twenty thousand voters had been improperly flagged. Klausner said:
They used almost inconceivably sloppy methods, flagging voters with different Social Security numbers, and even genders, from the felons they were being matched with. The roster had been expanded by using the names of felons from ten other states. ... Klausner calculated that about forty percent of the people identified as potential felons were Black. “The project was explicitly racial—as Jim Crow as you can get”.
Convicted of crimes in the future
One of the criminals on the list that Palast found was Thomas Cooper. According to the list from Harris, the Florida Secretary of State says Cooper was convicted of a crime on January 30, 2007 (a date that was more than 7 years too early). Palast wanted to know if it was a one-off mistake. He reviewed email exchanges between employees at the Florida Department of Elections, a division of the secretary of state's office. The clerks noticed 325 names like Thomas Cooper appeared on the purge list who were convicted of crimes in the future. The clerks were alarmed and notified officials. They were told:
"To blank out the wacky conviction dates. That way, the county elections supervisors, already wary of the list, would be none the wise. The Florida purge lists have over 4,000 blank conviction dates.”
Felons who received clemency with the right to vote experienced voter suppression
Palast discovered that real felons who served time and obtained clemency had the right to vote and not be suffer from voter suppression under Florida law. But before the election:
"The office of the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, illegally ordered the removal of the names of felons from voter rolls. As a result, another 40,000 legal voters (in addition to the 57,700 on the purge list), almost all of them Democrats, could not vote.”
In his book, The Strange Death of Liberal America, Ralph Brauer describes how the US Civil Rights Commission interviewed hundreds of witnesses who were denied their vote because of voter suppression after the 2000 election. It concluded that:
"Wide-ranging errors and inadequate and unequal resources in the election process denied countless Floridians the right to vote. The disenfranchisement of Florida’s voters fell most harshly on the shoulders of African Americans. Statewide, based upon county-level statistical estimates, African American voters were nearly ten times more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected in Florida."
The Commission also criticized Florida Secretary of State, Katherine Harris and Governor Jeb Bush for voter suppression:
The State’s highest officials responsible for assuring effective uniformity, coordination and application of the election were grossly derelict in fulfilling their responsibilities and unwilling to accept accountability.... [The Secretary of State’s] claims of no responsibility in the operations of the elections are in sharp contrast to her actions in the aftermath of Election Day. While she described her role in the policies and decisions affecting the actual voting operations as limited, she asserted ultimate authority in determining the outcome of the vote count.
Edward Hailes, who was the Commission’s general counsel at the time, is quoted in the New Yorker,
“As far as I’m concerned, that purge swung the Presidential election".
The decline of US election integrity since 2012
A 2019 report was published by the Electoral Integrity Project, an independent project affiliated with Harvard University that found:
"U.S. elections from July 2012 through December 2018 rated lower than any other long-established democracies and affluent societies."
Denmark, Finland, and Norway respectively ranked the highest. Canada ranked #18, while the US, Mexico and Panama all ranked at #61.
Shortly after the 2000 election, E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote an article called "George W.: A Divider, Not a Uniter". His comments about America's hypocrisy sound like they were written in 2020:
We Americans regularly advise emerging democracies to be as open and transparent as possible in the way they reach an election result. Are we to be the only democracy in the world that refuses to follow our own advice?
After the 2000 election, Florida legislators did enact reforms to make voting and counting more efficient. However, in 2013 after the supreme court 5-4 decision in the Shelby County v Holder case struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. The 1965 Voting Rights Act required that certain states with a history of discrimination against minority voters have any changes be approved by the federal government before taking effect. In 2013, after this section of the VRA was killed, Republican legislators in Texas and North Carolina immediately enacted new voter ID laws and other restrictions.
In a highly polarized and divisive country, the upcoming US Presidential election does not bode well for young voters and people of color voters. Expect American democracy to possibly be tested even more so than in 2000 if the results are close.
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