Democracy in Chains

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

The white Republican governor of Arkansas complained on national radio that Democrats were bringing in black voters on buses "as if they were cattle in a truck."

Andrew Lichtenstein/Aurora

African American success at the ballot box has turned up the heat on the simmering resentment white conservatives carry toward minority voters, who often support candidates in a powerful bloc. That anger spills all across the country, but it is expressed most explicitly in the South. A day before the election, The Economist reported, the white Republican governor of Arkansas complained on national radio that Democrats were bringing in black voters on buses "as if they were cattle in a truck."

The will to discourage such heavy black turnout is great—which is why the Voting Rights Act exists. But the law depends on federal oversight, an element of enforcement that appears to have been dropped altogether in this election. Discrimination at the polls continues under one subterfuge or another, and in Florida has led to the filing of several suits in this election. Black voters in that state allege their votes weren't counted, and cite various gimmicks to keep people of color from voting, such as shunting them from one polling place to another until the polls closed.

Minority voters who were registered and had voted for years were told they didn't appear on voter lists; voters without Florida IDs were turned away, though the law says they can cast "affidavit ballots." In some counties, minority voters say they were asked for a photo ID while white voters were not, or turned away even when they showed up with a voter card and photo ID. People who lacked a photo ID or weren't on the voting list were put into a "problem line," where they were told voting officials were trying to call headquarters to find out what to do. But the lines were jammed and they just couldn't get through. Discouraged, voters gave up and went home. The Leadership Conference writes, "Poll workers reportedly were instructed by their supervisors to be particularly 'strict' in challenging voter qualifications because of aggressive voter registration and turnout efforts that had been made in their communities in connection with the November 7 election."

In a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Congresswoman Corrine Brown, who represents the Duval area, called for a federal investigation. "Clearly, we've got a major problem," wrote Brown, who said she has documented numerous cases of voters denied assistance. "Victims of and witnesses to Election Day irregularities and discriminatory practices at voting precincts have come forward in unprecedented numbers."

Even as Reno persisted in saying the federal government had little role in state elections—the same way presidents of old tiptoed around the issue of Southern segregation—civil rights leaders from reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to Kweisi Mfume gathered testimony from black voters who'd been harassed. Even as liberal news outlets like Salon argued the allegations should be ignored in favor of a swift end to the election deadlock, African Americans prepared lawsuits for violations of the Voting Rights Act. Even as Gore and Bush wrangled over hanging chads, African Americans reckoned with a world in which they still don't count. "It is apparent to us that we, as Black people, do not matter in Florida," The Amsterdam News editorialized on November 22. "We all have been ignored by both the Democratic and Republican parties, for they simply saw no need to call upon us, except to mount a picket line or to go to jail, singing and acting ugly."

In part, the electoral disaster in Duval County can be seen as a simple snafu. Election officials there have said they won't list candidates over two pages again, a design that led to the disqualification of thousands of ballots.

But the situation in Duval, where 27 percent of the residents are black, also stems from the lingering damages of slavery. Since the era when only the landed gentry were enfranchised, richer and better-educated people have been more likely to vote than the underprivileged. Today black kids across America funnel through underfunded schools, too often destined for curtailed job opportunities, dilapidated housing, and third-world health care—hardly the kinds of conditions that augur a high turnout of informed voters.

Duval should be a center of affluence. It's home to Jacksonville (population 600,000), a naval air station, several large state offices, and an expanding financial hub. Scratch the surface, though, and you'll find nearly a quarter of the children living in poverty. Of Florida's 67 counties, Duval has the sixth-highest dropout rate. Statewide, Florida has not only an embarrassingly spiked rate of mortality among black babies, but its black adults have a much shorter life expectancy. Black women can expect to die about seven years younger than their white peers, as can black men, whose average age of death is 68.2 years. To find a similar average for white men, you'd have to look all the way back to 1959.

The creation of majority-black districts for local and state races has given African Americans a steady, if small, presence on town councils, in state assemblies, and on Capitol Hill. By gaining these measures of self-determination, African Americans have in part fulfilled the prediction of Marcus Garvey, who argued the only way for black people truly to be free was to found a nation-state of their own.

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