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Denying Voting Rights to People of Color.

For five hours on November 11, 2000, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People conducted public hearings on the Florida vote. These hearings were televised and retelevised on C-SPAN but mostly ignored by the U.S. media. What became eminently clear to me--and hopefully to most viewers--is that there was a systematic and calculated effort on election day to disenfrancise as many African Americans as possible.

The hearing, presided over by NAACP President (and former congressional Black Caucus chair) Kweisi Mfume and structured similarly to a congressional hearing, featured several panels of witnesses. Composed of two to four people, the panels included voters who had been denied their right to vote, NAACP activists who worked the get-out-the-vote effort, NAACP phone-stand volunteers who fielded complaints on election day, poll workers, and news journalists.

Extensive testimony demonstrated how people of color were repeatedly discriminated against on election day (and, given the statistics, dramatically lessened the Gore vote). The witnesses were all credible and impressive, their information detailed and documented. The complaint most often testified to by voters, and family members and others in their presence, was that they were denied their right to vote because they "were not on the rolls"--even though some had with them their voter registration cards and identification showing their names and addresses. This denial violates Florida law.

In many cases, poll workers who refused to allow voters to cast their ballot declined to make any effort to verify their registration status, telling them instead to "come back later." Some poll workers attempted to get approval for the voters to cast their ballots but were denied by "headquarters."

Two poll workers testified that they had been instructed to apply "qualification" procedures very strictly and, if there was any doubt, to deny the person the chance to vote. Poll workers were also told to refrain from issuing any written verification of the refusal, including affidavits. This is patently illegal as the law requires that any citizen whose attempt to vote is challenged be given an official affidavit of that challenge. In fact, many of the denied voters did request an affidavit or something in writing to prove they had attempted to vote, but all such requests were refused.

Some witnessses testified that they and other African American voters--unlike white voters--were required to provide both photo I.D and a current voter registration card. Many of those who couldn't produce both were denied their right to vote, even though the law doesn't require that the voter present both.

One news journalist who spent election day visiting various polling places reported that she personally witnessed these discriminatory denials. The reporter (who happens to be both white and a former police officer) accompanied one black voter to six different polling places because the voter was turned away time after time--despite having her voter card and photo I.D. she was told each time, "This is not your polling place. Finally, she returned to her original polling place and was allowed to vote.

The reporter also testified that at a polling place in Hillsborough County there were numerous police stopping African American voters and asking for I.D. and demanding, "What are you doing here?" She saw them stop one elderly man after he left the polls and order him to "assume the position." Asked what he was doing, he tried to explain he had just voted (he was, in fact, wearing a button that said "I voted"). When the reporter tried to intervene, she was told to move on or she would be arrested. When she left, out of fear for her safety, she was followed for several miles by a police car. In retelling her tale, she broke town in tears, ashamed that site had left the scene.

The reporter further testified that an election official "leaked" to her a list of over 1,000 absentee voters whose ballots were disqualified because the voters were supposedly felons. They weren't informed of their ballot rejection and were therefore denied their right to challenge it. The Republican commissioner who leaked the list told the reporter that election workers had been instructed not to notify the rejected absentee voters of their disqualification.

By chance, the reporter knew one of the people on the list and knew that person has never been convicted of a crime, let alone a felony. Many other panel witnesses testified that African Americans who attempted to vote were required to answer a litany of questions (including whether they had been convicted of a felony since they last voted), even though they were on the rolls and had I.D.

One police lieutenant testified that, as of the hearing, a box of ballots was still sitting in the police station's evidence room because no one had come to pick it up, despite attempts to notify the election commission. And a minister testified that a box of ballots at his church, a polling place for his precinct, had yet to be collected. (These ballot boxes have since been picked up by election officials but the NAACP has been unable to find out what has been done with them.)

The president of Haitian Women of Miami testified she was threatened with arrest for attempting to enter the polling booth to help first-time Haitian voters who needed translation assistance. Although she presented a copy of the statute permitting her assistance, she was told she would be arrested if she didn't leave, and the police were actually called. Witnesses also testified that none of the Creole speakers who asked for Creole ballots (printed for the first time this election) were given them and, although there were Creole-speaking volunteers present to assist those voters, they were denied the right to do so.

Witnesses also charged that, although handicapped people were able to get into some polling places, the polling booths weren't acceptable to them and their requests for special ballots or other assistance was denied in African American precincts

As the subsequent NAACP news-conference on November 29 concluded, thousands of voters--particularly people of color--were disenfranchised this election in violation of the Voting Rights Act and to the detriment of democracy. The racial profiling of the Florida vote was the true constitutional crisis of 2000--not the delay in crowning King George.

Susan Guberman-Garcia is a practicing attorney-at-law. For more information on this hearing, check out the website www.cspan.org and type in "NAACP"
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Author:Guberman-Garcia, Susan
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Words:1070
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