The Florida myth

Friday, October 1, 2004

From The Wall Street Journal

In case you were lucky enough to miss it, here's a recent fund-raising letter from New Jersey Democratic Senator Jon Corzine: "Voter suppression and intimidation . . . in Florida again!? The GOP used voter intimidation and outright fraud to hand Florida to George W. Bush in 2000, and if we don't stop them, they'll do it again."

Yes, the political urban legend that black voters in Florida were harassed and intimidated on Election Day four years ago is making a comeback. Only yesterday Jimmy Carter, fresh from blessing Hugo Chavez's dubious victory in Venezuela, moaned that in 2000 "several thousand ballots of African Americans were thrown out on technicalities" in Florida, and that this year more black than (Republican) Hispanic felons are being disqualified to vote - as if all felons weren't supposed to be barred, regardless of race.

As the Corzine letter and the "Jim Crow" pamphlet nearby suggest, this is all election-year demagoguery.

Democrats and their acolytes are raising this myth from the dead to scare up black turnout and lay the groundwork for challenges in court if John Kerry loses.

So, before Dan Rather concludes this is another scoop, let's all remember the fraud that didn't happen in 2000.

In June 2001, following a six-month investigation that included subpoenas of Florida state officials from Governor Jeb Bush on down, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report that found no evidence of voter intimidation, no evidence of voter harassment, and no evidence of intentional or systematic disenfranchisement of black voters.

Headed by a fiercely partisan Democrat, Mary Frances Berry, the Commission was very critical of Florida election officials (many of whom were Democrats). For example, "Potential voters confronted inexperienced poll workers, antiquated machinery, inaccessible polling locations, and other barriers to being able to exercise their right to vote." But the report found no basis for the contention that officials conspired to disenfranchise voters. "Moreover," it said, "even if it was foreseeable that certain actions by officials led to voter disenfranchisement, this alone does not mean that intentional discrimination occurred," let alone racial discrimination.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division conducted a separate investigation of these charges and also came up empty. In a May 2002 letter to Democratic Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont, who at the time headed the Judiciary Committee, Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd wrote, "The Civil Rights Division found no credible evidence in our investigations that Floridians were intentionally denied their right to vote during the November 2000 election."

Peter Kirsanow, a Republican member of the Civil Rights Commission, told us in an interview that "the press has tried to spin what happened in Florida into something sinister. But there's a disconnect between what was actually found [in these various investigations] and how it's been portrayed."

Senator Corzine's letter references the New York Times, where heavy-breathing columnists are trying to link a routine investigation of voter fraud in an Orlando mayoral election with a statewide effort by Governor Jeb Bush to intimidate blacks into staying home in November. Elsewhere, the NAACP and People for the American Way have issued a report claiming that "intimidation" led to racially motivated voter disenfranchisement in Florida. These and other left-wing groups are planning to dispatch 5,000 lawyers nationwide on Election Day in the name of "voter protection," presumably to prevent a "repeat" of something that didn't happen the first time.

Another prong of the attack on the legitimacy of the Florida outcome, at least as it pertains to the notion the black voters were intentionally disenfranchised, is the number of black voters whose ballots were spoiled. The Civil Rights Commission concluded that blacks were more likely to spoil their votes than whites by a factor of 10 to 1. Other investigations put that ratio closer to 3 to 1. In any case, the numbers are educated guesses extrapolated from sample precincts because ballots don't record the race of the voter.

But the idea that racial animus rather than all-around incompetence produced higher spoilage rates for blacks, or accounted for their misplacement on the infamously inaccurate "felon purge list," is fanciful at best. In Florida, as in many other states, the manner in which elections are conducted, including all of the essentials of the voting process, is determined at the county level.

Which leaves the "stolen election" crowd with these inconvenient facts: In 24 of the 25 Florida counties with the highest ballot spoilage rate, the county supervisor was a Democrat. In the 25th county, the supervisor was an Independent. And as for the "felon purge list," the Miami Herald found that whites were twice as likely to be incorrectly placed on the list as blacks.

The real spectacle here is that some Democrats are only too willing to exploit the painful history of black voter disenfranchisement for some short-term partisan advantage. And it just might backfire. Democrats played up the Florida fiasco in the 2002 midterm elections, repeatedly telling blacks that their votes hadn't been counted in 2000. Rather than being riled up, many black voters believed what they were told and stayed home.

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