Printer Friendly

Presidential election of 2000.

On November 7, 2000, American citizens went to the polls to cast their votes for President of the United States. Not everyone's vote, however, was counted. Some charge that election irregularities and minority vote dilution involving African Americans, ethnic groups such as Hispanics and Haitians, as well as white Americans that occurred in jurisdictions in a number of states, effectively disfranchised thousands of citizens. Although other states have been accused of having voting irregularities, the state of Florida has come under particular scrutiny. A number of investigations into the election procedures and experiences of voters have been conducted by civil rights groups, the state of Florida, the federal government, and the media.

NAACP Hearing

Because of the kind and extent of alleged voting irregularities that were reported to elected officials and civil rights organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held a hearing in Florida on November 11, 2000. It promised to hold hearings on the election experiences of voters in Michigan, California, Massachusetts, Missouri and, perhaps, Maryland. Based on testimony provided by some Floridians of their experiences on election night, national civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the Advancement Project, People for the American Way, and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, alleged that provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, were violated. Problems broadly identified included the registration process, election procedures, election equipment, training of election staff, and discriminatory practices at polling precincts. Specifically, Florida election officials were accused of:

* Failing to provide bilingual ballots;

* Purging of names, disproportionately of black individuals, from county voting lists;

* Eliminating, in error, thousands of individuals from registration lists on the grounds that they were felons;

* Training poll workers inadequately;

* Denying Haitian-Americans access to translators and language assistance;

* Intimidating African Americans on their way to the polls by using an unauthorized traffic checkpoint near a voting precinct;

* Failing to pick up some ballot boxes in African-American neighborhoods;

* Refusing, when asked, to provide new ballots to voters who made errors;

* Telling individuals that they had voted when they had not voted;

* Changing designated polling places without advance notice or without adequate notice to the community;

* Sending individuals from one precinct to another only for the individuals to find that they were not on the registration lists or that it was too late to vote;

* Asking some minority voters for photo identification while not asking the same of white voters;

* Denying some voters the right to vote because of minor discrepancies between their names as they appeared on registration lists and on the photo-ID they presented, such as the absence of a middle initial;

* Failing to process registration applications and to provide voting cards in a timely manner, resulting in some voters' names not appearing on the voting list;

* Failing to send requested absentee ballots to individuals and then refusing to let these same individuals vote when they appeared at the precinct to vote; and

* Using antiquated and error prone equipment in minority precincts, which resulted in a disproportionate number of African-American votes not being counted. (138)

Florida Task Force

In response to the close presidential election of November 2000 and concerns expressed regarding election procedures, standards, and technology used in counties in Florida, Governor Jeb Bush, on December 14, 2000, through Executive Order Number 00-349, created the Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology (hereafter, Task Force on Election Procedures). By March 1, 2001, the Task Force on Election Procedures was to have studied and have written policy recommendations and/or proposed legislation to improve the election procedures, standards, and technology used in Florida counties. Governor Bush stated that the U.S. Department of Justice was the appropriate body to address complaints of residents that some polls were closed even though individuals were still in line to vote, that election officials used lists that they knew were inaccurate to remove individuals from voting rolls, and that on election night law enforcement officers conducted traffic stops near some black precincts. Given the tight schedule within which it had to operate, the Governor advised the Task Force on Election Procedures to limit its scope and come up with a series of recommendations for the Florida legislature." (139)

At its first meeting on January 2001, several members of the Task Force on Election Procedures made recommendations, among which were to:

* offer provisional ballots to persons whose voting registration was questioned;

* end state runoff elections to extend the time between primary and general elections;

* replace antiquated voting systems that used punch cards, paper ballots, or lever-operated voting machines with optical scanners; and

* create a statewide database that allowed instant verification of a voter's registration in the state.

Estimates of the cost of providing election equipment that would minimize the difficulty individuals had in casting their votes included a total of $45 million to provide an optical scanning ballot system in each of the 4,555 precincts in Florida and $200 million for a statewide database that would verify instantly the registration status of a voter in the state. (140)

Final Report of Florida Task Force. In March 2001, the Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology submitted its final report to Governor Jeb Bush. Its major recommendations addressed upgrading the voting system technology, recount and vote certification issues, voter registration and absentee voting. The Task Force recommended: a certified voting system based on a minimum standard of precinct-tabulation optical scan technology; a state grant or loan program for counties to lease or purchase precinct-tabulation optical scan technology; decertification of punch card, mechanical lever, and manual paper ballots and central-tabulation optical scan voting systems for the 2002 election; and continuing review of new voting systems, such as touch-screen technology for use in future elections.

For recount and vote certification issues, the recommendation was to pass legislation which provides that a machine count of votes is presumed correct unless it can be shown clearly that there is a machine tabulation error; only ballots not counted by otherwise properly functioning machines would be subject to manual recounts; manual recounts would apply to all counties involved in multi-county district, statewide, and federal elections; a clear threshold for invoking a manual recount process that is distinct from a need to determine the outcome of an election be statutorily established; manual recounts would apply to an entire county rather than selected precincts; and statutorily clarifies the basis upon which results of an election may be contested.

For voter registration the Task Force recommended that $3 million be provided to design a statewide centralized voter registration database.

The Task Force would repeal the statutory restrictions for voting an absentee ballot; statutorily clarify that errors in absentee ballots should not automatically be thrown out; and continue the absentee voting via the Internet for eligible voters who are overseas.

While commending the report, Commissioner Chairperson Mary Frances Berry said the election involved more than just poor technology but that voter disenfranchisement appeared to be at the heart of the issue. "It is not a question of a recount or even an accurate count, but more pointedly the issue is those whose exclusion from the right to vote amounted to a 'No Count.'" (141)

Florida Election Law. On May 9, 2001, Governor Jeb Bush signed into law the Florida Election Reform Act of 2001. The legislation for the most part included many of the recommendations of the Task Force on the Election. The law's provisions: require the use of precinct-based voting technology with touch screen systems permitted which allow a voter to correct mistakes made while voting; prohibit punch card and other antiquated voting systems; provide funding for modernizing voting equipment, educating voters, training poll-workers, and to develop a statewide centralized voter registration database by June 2002; allow a provisional ballot to be counted; clarify and provide standards for recounting votes; and require the posting of a Voter's Bill of Rights and Responsibilities in each polling place in the state.

Federal Action

Both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (CCR) provided a federal presence in Florida. DOJ reviewed a number of allegations of voting irregularities in the state. At a press conference on March 7, 2001, Attorney General Ashcroft revealed his voting rights initiative. He recommended the appointment of a senior counsel who would examine the 2000 elections for good practices to share with states and local governments in their voting reform efforts. He also offered to share DOJ's 35 years of experience on voting issues with states and local governments. In coordination with local governments, he supported increasing DOJ's assistance in monitoring and observing elections. In addition, the Attorney General increased the number of attorneys in the Voting Section of DOJ from 36 to 44. In response to the thousands of complaints of citizens and organizations of voter irregularities, he stated that DOJ would investigate and prosecute if provisions of the Voting Rights Act or the National Voter Registration Act were violated. When asked if in DOJ's review of voting irregularities it found fraud, the Attorney General declined comment. (142)

On January 11 and 12, 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in trying to determine if any violations of the Voting Rights Act occurred during the November 2000 elections, held hearings in Tallahassee, Florida. The Commission questioned Governor Jeb Bush, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, State Attorney General Robert Butterworth, Director of Florida Division of Elections Clayton Roberts, and some county election supervisors on election procedures in the state, including interacting with election supervisors, training staff, educating voters, handling complaints of fraud, and recounting ballots. Some citizens testified that they had problems trying to vote at different stages of the process. Attorney General Butterworth's office received 2,500 complaints from voters on use of the butterfly ballot, an unauthorized traffic checkpoint that was near a voting precinct, and poll workers' refusal to provide on request second ballots to voters.

Governor Bush testified that the Florida Secretary of State, not his office, was responsible for carrying out elections. Secretary of State Harris said that her office was responsible for candidates' qualification for state and federal offices and for district elections that involved more than one county, for campaign finance reports, and for maintaining a central voter file. She directed questions to the elections director, Clayton Roberts, who implemented state election codes and handled daily operations. Mr. Roberts, on the other hand, stated that control of local elections was the responsibility of county elections supervisors. (143)

Some election supervisors complained that Secretary Harris's office did not provide financial assistance for non-partisan voter education projects or pay for mailing sample ballots as requested. Mr. Roberts testified that the state spent about $7,000 for voter education efforts and several hundred thousand dollars for a voter fraud hot line. According to Ion Sancho, Leon County election supervisor, this compared to $30 million that Florida spent some years on educating people on how to play Lotto. (144) When questioned about difficulties citizens encountered in trying to vote, including vote recounts, and the role of the Secretary of State, Roberts replied that while Secretary Harris had statutory responsibility to set standards for conducting elections and any recounts, she lacked the legal authority to set those standards, so she didn't set any. (145)

Commission Chairperson Mary Frances Berry stated that intent as a motive was not necessary to rule that violations of the Voting Rights Act occurred; rather, a pattern of neglect and/or incompetence would suffice. Although CCR cannot apply specific remedies, it can recommend civil and/or criminal penalties for persons responsible for civil rights violations. (146)

Final Report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Commission on Civil Rights released its report on June 8, 2001. The report was endorsed by eight of the 10 commissioners. The findings of the report were based on three days of hearings, interviews with over 100 witnesses and the review of over 118,000 documents. While not finding "conclusive evidence" that Florida officials conspired to disenfranchise voters, the Commission charged Governor Jeb Bush and his secretary of state, Katherine Harris, with "gross dereliction" of duty for ignoring the problem despite "mounting evidence" of it. Harris' rejection of a budget proposal to spend $100,000 for voter education is cited. The report found the extraordinary feature in the Florida election to be widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest. The report concluded that Florida's electoral system was unjust, inept, and inefficient, which resulted in the disenfranchisement of thousands of black residents. The Commission found that black voters were disproportionately the victims of faulty voting equipment, erroneous purging of voter lists, switching of polling places at the last minute, and potential intimidation by the presence of police at heavily black voting precincts. Blacks, who were 11% of voters statewide, comprised 54% of votes rejected during the Florida election. Further, it found that some Hispanic and Haitians voters were denied access to ballots in their native tongue or bilingual assistance by poll workers. (147) Some specific findings of the report were:

* black voters were nearly 10 times as likely as whites to have their ballots rejected;

* there were no clear guidelines to protect eligible voters from being erroneously purged from the state list of felons, people with dual registrations and the deceased;

* election supervisors in counties with the worst problems failed to prepare adequately for the election or to demand adequate resources; and

* the Florida Division of elections failed to educate voters on how to vote. (148)

Commission Chairperson Mary Frances Berry stated that she hoped the report findings would encourage both the state of Florida and Congress to initiate reforms. Berry wanted the Justice Department to probe further and determine whether the obstacles minority voters encountered while trying to vote constituted a violation of the Voting Rights Act. In addition, she wanted DOJ to get Florida officials to act, either by taking them to court or by getting a voluntary agreement from them not to let this be repeated. The office of the Attorney General of Florida said that it was investigating allegations of civil rights violations and would give "due consideration" to the Commission's report. A spokesman for the Department of Justice said that thousands of complaints from citizens were investigated and by early January, all but 12 of them had been closed. Those complaints still under review involved possible violations of the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department was trying to determine if a lack of bilingual ballots and an insufficient number of Spanish-speaking poll workers prevented some Spanish-speaking voters from casting a ballot. In Osceola County, with an Hispanic population of 29%, the election supervisor refused to print ballots in Spanish. (149)

Two dissenting members of the Commission charged it with using "inflammatory language" and stated that its findings were not supported by facts. They cited blacks' lower education levels, the high volume of voters, and in particular, the high volume of first-time voters, who they claimed always made more mistakes. Another criticism offered by others was that the report claimed that blacks suffered from inferior voting equipment; a charge that was refuted in a study by Stephen Knack and Martha Kropf. The Washington Post conducted a computer analysis of the election which revealed that the more black and Democratic a precinct, the more likely it was to suffer high rates of invalidated votes." (150) Spokespersons for some civil rights organizations found the Commission's report consistent with their findings. Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyers Committee of Civil Rights Under Law said that the action of state authorities was "a violation of the fundamental trust that we all give to state-elected officials to protect our right to vote." Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP commented that the report "underscores officially what most of us have known all along." (151)

Media Review

One estimate of the number of votes undercounted (ballots where no vote for president was recorded) in Florida was between 40,000 and 60,000. The Miami Herald and its parent company, Knight Ridder, hired BDO Seidman, a national accounting firm, to conduct an in-depth review of ballots in all of Florida's 67 counties. The Palm Beach Post contributed to the cost of reviewing ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties and conducted an independent review of ballots in Martin and St. Lucie counties. The Assistant Managing Editor of the Herald, Mark Seibel, said the purpose of the effort was "to provide an answer to people who are wondering what would have happened if the U.S. Supreme Court had not stepped into the Florida election." The Herald permitted reporters to observe the count in all counties. Only the results of BDO Seidman's observations were reported. While there was no deadline for completing its project, the paper hoped to finish before the Florida legislature met in March 2001.

A group of news organizations and Florida newspapers contracted with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), a University of Chicago survey research organization, to conduct an "inventory" of Florida's 180,000 uncounted ballots "to better understand what went wrong" and "document history." These ballots included both undervotes and overvotes, that is, two or more votes for president. (152) This consortium was composed of the Associated Press, Tribune Publishing newspapers including the Sun-Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, CNN, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Palm Beach Post. The estimated cost of this study was at least $500,000. (153)

As a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, initially, the consortium of print and television media postponed the scheduled analysis of disputed ballots from the presidential election because it was believed that the disclosure might cause political partisanship at a time of national crisis. (154) As reported in The New York Times on November 12, 2001, the findings of the consortium study, which examined many hypothetical ways of recounting Florida ballots, differed depending on the method employed. Two examples of methods used follow. If the recount of disputed ballots were carried out as the Florida Supreme Court ordered, which the U.S. Supreme Court halted, then Mr. Bush would have won by 493 votes. An examination of undervotes and overvotes that voting machines rejected revealed that 24,619 ballots could have been interpreted as legal votes. Had a statewide-recount been conducted (which Mr. Gore rejected as impractical), then Mr. Gore would have been declared the victor. The consortium study, in providing a comprehensive review of uncounted ballots in Florida, hoped to contribute to the creation of more accurate and reliable voting systems.

Lawsuits

Lawsuits were filed by various civil rights groups in state and federal courts challenging voting policies and practices in some states' electoral processes. On January 10, 2001, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations filed a class action lawsuit (NAACP v. Katherine Harris, et al), in the U.S. District Court Southern District, (Miami) against Katherine Harris, Clayton Roberts, elections supervisors from seven counties, and Choicepoint, Inc. (155) Plaintiffs maintained that electoral practices in Florida violated the l4th Amendment and both federal and state voting rights statutes. They contended that in predominantly black precincts names were wrongfully purged from registration lists, voter registrations were improperly processed, foreign-language assistance was not provided for voters who requested it, and antiquated voting equipment was used. According to NAACP, all of these practices violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended. Plaintiffs were not seeking to overturn the election results; rather, they said that they wanted to restore integrity to the electoral process in the state. Improvements in the electoral process that they wanted included eliminating unreliable voting equipment and replacing it with reliable and uniformly administered voting systems and procedures, maintaining a list of inactive voters at polling places, providing an alternative method for individuals whose names do not appear on the registration list, informing individuals at polling places of their rights to assistance, and appointing federal examiners (pursuant to provisions of the Voting Rights Act) in each of the defendant counties for the next 10 years. (156)

Lawsuits filed in Illinois (157) and Georgia (158) by the American Civil Liberties Union and others charged that both the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act were violated during the recent election. The suits focused on the quality of counting devices used in elections in the states and the high rate of disqualification of ballots that occurred in precincts with large black populations. (159)

The Douglass Institute of Government (DIG), however, challenged the constitutionality of Florida's presidential electors. According to DIG, the disparate impact on African American voters in not having their votes counted in the presidential election violated their due process rights and the right to equal protection under the law--rights that Sections 1 and 2 of the 14th Amendment protect. DIG asserted that redress is provided in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment. That is, the slate of Florida's presidential electors should have been reduced in proportion to the protected class of disfranchised voters' population of the state.

On December 29, 2000, As a Gordon and Lawrence D. Jamison, members of DIG and residents of the District of Columbia, filed suit (Gordon v. Albert Gore, Jr.,-President of the U.S. Senate (l:00CV03112) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to enjoin Albert Gore, Jr., President of the Senate, from counting the full slate of Florida's presidential electoral votes in Congress on January 6, 2001. DIG claimed that to allow Florida's full slate of presidential electors to be counted would have diluted and diminished the rights of presidential electors from states that conformed with the 14th Amendment. On January 4, 2001, Judge Royce C. Lamberth, the presiding judge, ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing to maintain the action and therefore were unlikely to have success based on the merits of the case. Further, he questioned whether the ultimate relief that plaintiffs sought was a political question because Congress would have to provide the relief.

Policy Questions

Have provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended been violated? Several groups investigated the presidential election process in Florida and came to different conclusions on what had transpired. Some civil rights organizations held hearings in Florida and concluded that provisions of VRA had been violated. Their investigations of Florida's election process found flaws in the registration process and in election procedures and equipment, inadequate training for election staff, and discriminatory practices at polling precincts. In examining the presidential election process, the Florida Task Force recommended changes to correct weaknesses in the voting system technology, and registration and absentee voting procedures. While the CCR did not find "conclusive evidence" that Florida officials conspired to disenfranchise voters, it identified the major feature of the presidential election in that state as the disenfranchisement of thousands of black voters. According to the Department of Justice, after reviewing allegations of voting irregularities in the presidential election of 2000, it has authorized five lawsuits including three in Florida. It has closed 10 investigations in Florida.

Was the response to allegations of voting irregularities and minority vote dilution timely? Some critics of the federal response to allegations of minorities being discriminated against by election personnel charged that too much time elapsed before the Department of Justice initiated its review. Some suggested that there should be time frames within which DOJ must begin its investigation of voting irregularities and respond to allegations of violations of VRA. Another proposal was that DOJ should be required to intervene when the U.S. Attorney General receives a designated number of written complaints from residents of a voting jurisdiction who believe that they were denied the right to vote.

Are additional penalties needed to discourage future violations of VRA? It was argued that present penalties for violations of the act are insufficient to prevent future incidents as alleged to have occurred in the presidential election of 2000. Proponents of this argument believed measures were needed to reduce or prevent the likelihood of such incidents recurring. They suggested that Section 2 of the 14th amendment be made a federal statute. That is, a state's slate of presidential electors would be reduced in proportion to the protected class of disfranchised voters' population of the state. Opponents of this action stated that the VRA worked during the election. They claimed that problems with voting were not because of fraud directed specifically at minority voters covered by provisions of VRA; rather, mechanical problems, lack of funding, and insufficient training of personnel caused the voting irregularities. They pointed out that many states had established commissions, had considered proposals, and, in some cases, had passed legislation to address voting difficulties that were experienced during the presidential election of 2000. Therefore, they concluded that federal intervention of this kind was unnecessary.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports and Issue Briefs
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:The Voting Rights Act of 1965, As Amended: Its History and Current Issues
Author:Laney, Garrine P.
Publication:Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports and Issue Briefs
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:4150
Previous Article:Current major provisions of the act.
Next Article:107th Congress.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters