MIAMI -- As Florida's deadline for sending overseas absentee ballots approached in mid-September, most election observers were waiting with baited breath for the outcome of a Supreme Court decision regarding Ralph Nader's eligibility for the ballot. But Glenda Hood, Jeb Bush's handpicked secretary of state, was busy urging counties to print ballots including Nader's name anyway.
Hood's strategy seems to mirror that of the Florida Republicans under her predecessor, Katherine Harris: throw any semblance of neutrality aside and use the powers of her office to aid the Republican campaign. And it does not stop with assisting Nader's efforts to appear on the ballot.
Hood had prepared a felons list similar to the notoriously erroneous 2000 list which disenfranchised thousands of legitimate black voters (and very few Hispanics). But this year, the secretary of state's office was forced to scrap the list under legal pressure. According to Reggie Mitchell, legal director for the Florida chapter of the watchdog coalition Election Protection, it was the press that led to the downfall of this year's highly suspect list. CNN filed suit for access to the list along with Senator Bill Nelson and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In early July, Circuit Court Judge Nikki Clark ordered that the list be made public. Local newspapers in the Tampa Bay area followed up with a series of articles discrediting the list's methodology, which required matching names from law-enforcement records with racial data from the voter rolls before inclusion on the list. Hispanics are listed as such in Florida election databases, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement classifies Hispanics as white. Because the lists didn't match, the resulting database included 22,000 black felons and only 61 Hispanics. This time, Hood didn't get away with what Harris managed in 2000, and the (Jeb) Bush administration was forced to scrap the statewide list entirely (though counties may still exclude felons based on their own lists).
Party interests trumped voting rights again during the August 31 Florida primary. Many voters reported that pollworkers demanded photo identification, when in fact Florida law allows them to sign an affidavit and vote without ID. The problem was not confined to poor minority precincts; it occurred all over the state. Even Jorge Mursuli, the national director of the Center for Immigrant Democracy and the Florida director of the People for the American Way Foundation, confronted the problem at his neighborhood polling place. “The woman insisted on my ID. I said, ‘Ma'am, I'll give you my ID but you shouldn't be telling people they have to have ID,'” recalls Mursuli. The pollworker then told him “if you don't have ID you don't get to vote,” a directive that was confirmed by a supervisor. With thousands of voters less knowledgeable and less patient than Mursuli, the result is unnecessary suppression of voter turnout. “Had it been somebody else, somebody who's in a hurry or somebody who doesn't know the law or has to take their kids to school, they don't vote,” said Mursuli. And the confusion and misinterpretation of the law was not simply the fault of misinformed, volunteer pollworkers. Rather, it was reinforced from the top by messages from Hood's office in Tallahassee which tacitly approved of misleading county instructions.
The most worrisome story is that of voter intimidation in the Orlando area. Earlier this year, armed law-enforcement officers arrived at the homes of elderly black voters
to investigate alleged fraud during the mayoral election. A series of columns by Bob Herbert and some editorials in The New York Times focused national attention on the problem. The Department of Justice has begun an investigation. But according to Election Protection legal director Mitchell, the effect has been chilling nonetheless because it is “so similar to what was going on in the '50s and '60s in the South.” While Mitchell hasn't heard of such blatant intimidation elsewhere in the state, he is working to ensure that there aren't elevated police presences at polling places, speed traps on highways, or other manifestations of law enforcement that tend to scare and discourage voters. “They need to vote, not to stay home because they perceive that someone is trying to take the vote away,” says Mitchell.
Election Protection has intervened to ensure that the accurate voting laws reach local pollworkers, but Mursuli warns that “it's a massive undertaking.” Election Protection has already distributed a voters' bill of rights through canvassers; on Election Day they will be focusing on securing same-day relief through a network of poll observers, a toll-free legal-help hotline, and roaming attorneys who will try to provide immediate remedies in more complicated situations.
But even with an army of volunteers and lawyers to back them up, Mitchell, Mursuli, and others still worry about the reliability of a vote tallied by computers with no parallel count on paper. “If electronically the data is lost, there has to be a paper trail … we know machines can be manipulated,” insists Mitchell. The ACLU filed suit to overturn a law barring manual recounts of computerized votes. On August 27, administrative law judge Susan Kirkland ruled in the ACLU's favor, but the Florida Division of Elections can still appeal to a district appeals court and all the way up to the state supreme court, an option Hood is expected to pursue.
Mursuli finds the partisan nature of the debate ironic. “Everyone should be concerned about it. It's unfortunate that the winning party isn't as concerned about it as the losing party,” he says, given that both parties are working hard to turn out their base on November 2 and machine malfunctions (which have occurred on a small scale throughout the country) could cut either way.
Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a Prospect senior correspondent.