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Racial profiling at the polls

Wednesday, December 06, 2000

We will never know who got the most votes for president in Florida. We will only know who won the legal battles surrounding them. Not the same thing, but close enough for guv'ment work.

Oh sure, the impounded ballots from the disputed counties will be hand counted eventually for the sake of history. But even then, there won't be agreement on how the hand count was conducted.

If the tally includes only those ballots that strictly adhere to the "clean punch" standards, Democrats will say it's a massive disenfranchisement. If it includes dimpled, pregnant or hanging chads, Republicans will say it's a fraud.

But there's something more important to any historical reckoning than the votes that were cast.

Namely, the votes that were not.

Stories have emerged from all over Florida about would-be voters who were blocked at the polls by a disturbing number of obstacles. The vast majority of those stopped were African-Americans living in poorer, heavily Democratic districts.

Seeing as how those black Floridians who did manage to vote went overwhelmingly for Vice President Al Gore, historians will have no problem concluding how the outcome was affected.

There have been many regretful explanations as to how the system broke down. Some of them are plausible. But put them all together and the picture takes on the profile of, well, racial profiling at the ballot box. Not to mention a violation of the U.S. Constitution, amendments No.14 (rights of citizenship may not be abridged) and 15 (race is no bar to voting rights).

Such widespread occurrences of "voter cleansing" must never be permitted to happen again, in Florida or elsewhere. And the next president must lead the campaign to make sure they don't-- even if he turns out to be the one who benefited from them. Especially then.

A partial list of the barriers:

Many citizens who'd registered for the first time in a massive get-out-the-vote campaign were not listed on the rolls.

Phone calls to election headquarters to verify their status were met by incessant busy signals.

Laptop computers, which could have provided direct access to the voter rolls, were not distributed in predominantly black districts. They were, however, distributed in districts that were largely white and/or Hispanic -- and where the residents tend to vote Republican.

African-American men were actually asked by poll workers to state whether they were convicted felons.

Thousands of people who were NOT convicted felons were misidentified as such and purged from the rolls, based on an error-ridden "scrub list." The list of 173,000 names was provided by ChoicePoint, a private company in Georgia with ties to the Republican Party and hired by the Florida secretary of state's office. The firm specializes in the sale of personal information gleaned from its database of billions of public and private records. This is the same company whose contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation was terminated in January, after state officials found that the driving records of millions of state residents were being sold over the Internet. (See Salon.com for the full story on ChoicePoint's scrub list.)

Add to this list the fact that the Florida voting equipment in the worst condition was most likely to be in use in poorer districts with larger black populations, and it's a pretty damning record.

Some will sense a vast Bush-wing conspiracy at work here, orchestrated by Florida Gov. Jeb in support of his older brother, George W. Others will prefer the explanation that these unfortunate things can happen in any election.

Well, they sure happened in this one. My guess is that it's part of the nation's growing willingness to accept all kinds of inequities at the lower end of the socioeconomic order, whether they result from acts of commission or omission, as long as they don't hurt the NASDAQ. If the rising tide that's supposed to lift all boats also floods the shanty towns, that's an act of God, isn't it?

Well, some combination of forces stopped an awful lot of African-American citizens from exercising their right to vote in Florida last month. Attribute it to anything you like, from innocent mistakes to political dirty tricks. Either way, God didn't have a thing to do with it.

Sally Kalson's e-mail is: skalson@post-gazette.com

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