Democracy in Chains
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 theman estimated one-third of the voters in some precinctspunched 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.
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 mealsjust 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."
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 greatwhich 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 electionsthe same way presidents of old tiptoed around the issue of Southern segregationcivil 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 carehardly 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.
Garvey's idea may sound revolutionary, but the courts have consistently ruled that without predominantly black districts, African Americans lack a fair chance at representation. When necessary, judges have redrawn electoral maps or scuttled at-large systems to ensure minorities have at least one seat.
Yet when it comes to electing a president, the Constitution mandates statewide contests and makes no provision for minority voteswhether from third-party backers or African Americans. As a result, white voters can easily overwhelm black ones, making places like Mississippi and Alabama near locks for Republican candidates, who then have little reason to consider minority concerns.
Given the roots of the electoral college, this comes as no surprise. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, none other than James Madison of Virginia objected to the direct election of presidents, on the grounds that it would put Southern stateswith their large population of slavesat an insurmountable disadvantage. Madison advocated a system in which states would receive a number of electors based on the size of the general population, franchised or not. That tilted the table in favor of white Southerners, whose votes carried more weight.
Today the electoral college, however inadvertently, continues to hold back African Americans, who even in relatively black states like Florida form only 15 percent of the population. Though black people in the South were nearly unanimous in support for Gore, their votes were scattered across state lines and thus submerged through the electoral college as completely as if they'd never been cast.
Plenty of African Americans get no protection from the Voting Rights Act at all. About 4 million U.S. citizens, most of them minorities, are denied the right to vote because their states disenfranchise convicted felons. A report by the Sentencing Project two years ago predicts that one quarter of all black men in seven states will soon be disenfranchised. In 13 states, this disenfranchisement is permanent, applying alike to those in jail, on parole, or free. According to the NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, which has sued to overturn the felon statutes, such bans are a direct outgrowth of the antebellum South. "When Alabama adopted such a law in 1901," the Center said in a report, "John Knox, the politician presiding over the Constitutional Convention, stated that the aim of such provisions was to help preserve white supremacy without directly challenging the Constitution of the United States."
Today many prisoners of color are in jail because of the war on drugs, which has led to a quadrupling of the prison population since 1980, to nearly 2 million. Laws passed during this government assault have hammered away at black and Latino communities, calling for stiffer sentences for substances like crack cocaine, preferred by minorities, while remaining lenient on the powder preferred by whites. And though lots of these felons fit the demographics that vote Democratic, it was the Democratic Clinton administration that put its weight behind the effort to build more prisons to house more drug offenders.
In addition to routing former felons from the polling place, the laws can be used to intimidate and harass minority communities. A few months ago, nearly 12,000 Floridians were informed by the state Division of Elections that they had lost their voting rights because of felony convictions in other states, according to a report in Mother Jones. But the company hired by the state to compile that list of names made a massive mistake and misidentified thousands of people. When the error was fixed, 8000 people were once again made eligible, but not before they'd been made to fear the loss of federally guaranteed voting rights.
About the time of the Civil War, the New York Herald Tribune referred to Florida as the "smallest tadpole in the dirty pool of secession." Which in no way made it any less a part of the Deep South. Like all the other Southern states, Florida killed itself after the war trying to substitute a somewhat more subtle form of slavery for the real thing. Black Codes, aimed at maintaining white supremacy through segregation, prevented whites and blacks from riding in the same railroad cars. Schools were segregated, with Florida outdoing all the other former members of the Confederacy by not only making sure white and black pupils used different sets of books, but ensuring that the books were stored separately. Poll taxes and the introduction of divisive primaries decimated the black vote.
With the toppling of segregation in the 1950s, white citizen councils sprang up to do openly what the robed Ku Klux Klan had done at night. The memory of the 1923 massacre at Rosewood was still fresh when Florida governor Leroy Collins in 1956 declared, "We are just as determined as any Southern state to maintain segregation."
Since World War II, "Florida's role as a shaper of what may or may not be the Deep South's last stand against creative federalism has been strangely underrated and usually ignored," Robert Sherrill writes in Gothic Politics in the Deep South. "One reason perhaps being that most of the country does not think of Florida as Deep South, forgetting that those Tallahassee legislators are operating about 20 miles from the Georgia border and about the same distance from Alabama. This is cracker country, moonshine country, stiff with the old social myths and political myopia."
Throughout the mid 1900s, Florida political deal makers viewed race as a legitimate topic. "The embers are always there," one mover and shaker told Sherrill. "You can fan it into flame or leave it smolder." When the Congress of Industrial Organizations tried to register black voters in Florida, George Smathers, the rising young political star who would become a senator, called the drive "the most dangerous invasion of carpetbaggers" since the Civil War. Today, the state is home to several of the most powerful white supremacists in the country, including Stormfront, an Internet-based hate group headquartered in West Palm Beach.
Though legally dead for more than a century, the chattel system re-emerged in Florida as late as 1991, when six sugar companies failed to pay migrant Caribbean workers promised wages, a practice labor groups likened to virtual slavery.
The aftereffects of slavery extend even to minorities newly arrived in this country.
The large community of Haitian Americans centered around Miami is a case in point. As Papa Doc Duvalier instituted a reign of terror against his opponents in Haiti during the 1960s, Haitians fled their homeland in a steady stream. Working in the States, they sent much of their money home and waited patiently for things to improve, so they could return. They eagerly awaited the return to power of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but after the American troops landed and Aristide came back, things only got worse. In the last few years, Haitians here have abandoned their dream of going home and begun to seek U.S. citizenship. Across the Haitian communities, organizers patiently prepared people to become citizens, setting up community-based literacy programs and teaching people how to take the necessary tests and fill out government papers.
These immigrants came from a nation with its own legacy of black slavery. Seventy years before Lincoln emancipated American slaves, the slaves of Haiti overthrew their white masters in a violent revolution, then created the first independent black state since Europeans colonized Africa. Wary of a similar uprising by freemen in this country, Thomas Jefferson recommended they be sent to live in Haiti. By the time Haitians began immigrating to the States in great numbers, they brought with them a rich tradition of self-determination, balanced by the fear of tyranny.
It all came to a head with this election, when for the very first time, new Haitian American citizens, putting aside memories of election-day violence in their home countries, screwed up their nerve and went to the polls. What they encountered was a wall of resistance. "Several things happened," Marleine Bastien, a Haitian American organizer in Dade County, says. "They were told they couldn't vote because they didn't have a voter registration card. Some were threatened with deportation and intimidated in other ways. There were groups of people giving out information saying that voting Democratic is like voting for the devil and the Ku Klux Klan.
"Some ballots had Gore-Lieberman next to a punch line that really was for Bush-Cheney," Bastien continues. "People in line were prevented from voting because of polling deadlines, even if they were in line before 7 p.m., the cutoff time. Many of these people are in the service industry and use public transportation. Some precincts were closed as early as 4:30 in the afternoon. They were denied help even though there were Creole speakers available. Election officials ordered the Creole translators not to speak."
One union observer working out of West Palm Beach says most votes of 2000 Haitian union members were disallowed. "There was no Creole translation, but plenty of Spanish translators and a ridiculous ballot no one can understand," the observer says. "A lot of them just walked away. They didn't know what the fuck to do."
What happened to the Haitians is what has always happened to the Haitians: vicious intimidation and discrimination by public officials who consider them less than human. In this and countless other ways, they have become the new inheritors of slavery's legacy, adding another link in its chains.
Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.