Democracy in Chains

Slavery’s Legacy Shackled the Black Vote—And Cost Gore Thousands of Ballots

They meant to vote for Al Gore. Many came from the black, poor, education-deprived neighborhoods of Jacksonville, and had never cast a ballot before. But they got on the buses in Duval County, Florida, and they went to the polls. They did just what the Democratic organizers instructed: Punch a hole on every page.

And because the list of presidential contenders spilled over two pages, thousands and thousands of them—an estimated one-third of the voters in some precincts—punched the hole for Gore, then invalidated their choice by stamping a minor-party candidate on the following leaf. In all, 27,000 Duval ballots had to be thrown out.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Aurora

Black people had backed Gore by ratios as high as 10 to one, but when they needed his help, he fled.

If Al Gore winds up losing this election by the skin of few hundred votes, he can chalk up his defeat not to the avowed support of Floridians for George W. Bush, not to badly designed ballots, but to a centuries-old national system of labor, education, and politics designed to keep African Americans from rising above the legacy of chattel slavery. Gore and his lawyers can hunt until doomsday for enough votes to prove he won, but they'll never rescue the botched ballots of the barely literate nor find a way to count the votes of minorities kept from the polls.

Duval County is only the starting point. Down to their foreshortened life expectancy, the black citizens there are the picture of a people held back. As recently as 1993, 47 percent of the county's residents were judged to be functionally illiterate, meaning they could read at a level no higher than ninth grade. Even well-educated citizens are often confused by the instructions in a voting booth, but those who can't make sense of an average newspaper have been disenfranchised long before Election Day. For this, some of Duval's black voters in particular were made to feel not merely unlearned, but dumb. "I kept looking around, pleading for help," a first-time voter told The New York Times. "But they just kept saying, 'Read it, read it.' "

Duval's African Americans were fortunate, in that at least they reached the polls. Hundreds of registered voters would tell the NAACP they were wrongly turned away from precincts across the state, because election clerks refused to accept their IDs, or polls in black districts closed early, or police set up roadblocks outside the halls. Despite their testimony, the U.S. Justice Department said no reason existed for the feds to intervene. After all, plenty of African Americans managed to vote, enough that they constituted 15 percent of Florida's turnout this year, up from 10 percent in 1996. With no help in sight, several black voters angrily filed suit.

And where were the big white guys as this scene played out? Republican Bush retreated to his ranch in Texas, where he plotted to bar recounts and began shaping his cabinet. That self-proclaimed people's champion, Ralph Nader, pontificated about plans to run Greens for Congress, but said little about the problems of people in Florida. Gore scrambled for Washington, D.C., where he could keep his eye on the slave-built White House while turning a deaf ear to the pleas of African Americans for justice.

Black people had backed Gore by ratios as high as 10 to one, but when they needed his help, he fled. After a year spent fulminating about education, Gore could have marched to Duval County and demanded to know why the schools there had failed so terribly that almost half the adults can't read a magazine. After building a campaign on pledges of better health care, he could have walked through the hospitals and cemeteries and asked why black babies die at a rate twice that of white ones. After riding the support of black citizens to a nationwide lead in the popular vote, he could have gone to the places where they lived, sat in their kitchens, and cried with them over the thousands of lost votes, the thousands of lost lives. Instead, Gore remained distant, aloof, mute, content to wave for the cameras as he passed out Thanksgiving meals—just like the other politicians.

Behind the wall of white silence, you could almost hear the ghost of slavery, rattling its bones.

In the first hundred years after the Civil War, newly enfranchised African Americans had little real access to the polls. Finally, Congress took its most important step toward enfranchising black citizens since Reconstruction, by enacting the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act banned any practice that denies or abridges the right to cast a ballot, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and the requirement that an applicant to vote get a character "voucher" from an already-registered voter. It also afforded protection to minorities who speak different languages, by ordering interpreters and translated ballots at the polls.

The effect of this act has been substantial. The statute has led to better registration rates for blacks, which are now comparable to those of whites, and to the election of black officials. Now, in each state of the old Confederacy, African Americans hold at least one congressional seat and a large number of state legislative seats. In fact, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights notes, "the proportion of legislative seats held by blacks is approximately equal to their share of the population in several Southern states."

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