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Honest voting mistakes do not disenfranchise

June 12, 2001

Dishonest commentary often uses the passive voice. If nobody pays a lot of attention to your group or lobby, it’s been “marginalized.” People no longer drink too much. They are “afflicted with alcoholism and alcohol-related diseases.” Passive, blame-shifting language is all around us now, a verbal smog.A current example is last week’s majority report on the Florida presidential vote by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Once respected, the commission long ago degenerated into a hard-left hit group that specializes in trashing Republicans — Rudy Giuliani, Jeb Bush, George W. Bush. Its erratic and sarcastic chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, friend of Hillary and donor to the Gore campaign, is devoted to the idea that the Republicans worked to suppress the black vote in Florida. But since her commission found no evidence of this — journalists haven’t either — it settled for slippery passive language that implies what couldn’t be proved.

In Florida, the commission charged, blacks were more likely than whites to “have their votes spoiled” and were therefore “disenfranchised.” Spoiled by whom? The voters themselves. Over 890,000 Florida blacks went to the polls in November, up 65 percent over 1996. This unexpectedly huge turnout brought a large number of inexperienced voters to the polls. Many voters mismarked their ballots, thus “disenfranchising” themselves.

This sort of language comes up again and again, implying bias or conspiracy. Blacks were far more likely than others “to have their ballots rejected.” “Protected groups may have had less of an opportunity to have their votes counted.” Buried deep in the report is the acknowledgement that no conspiracy or evidence of intentional unfairness was found.

But Berry took the opportunity to call for a Justice Department investigation of whether minorities had been denied their voting rights. A nice touch. Berry investigates for six months, comes up with nothing, then calls for another investigation because something may yet be wrong.

The net effect of the report is to keep alive the legend of the suppressed black vote in Florida. Like the hoax about black church-burnings, this story is becoming an unshakable myth. It may have the staying power to poison race relations for a long time to come. One example of how this can play out: Last week an L.A. Times columnist wrote that “the power of the vote (was stolen) from one in five African-Americans, as certainly as if their ballots had been boxed up and trucked off to the Everglades.” Zero evidence of disenfranchisement, but the vote was stolen anyway.

“Disenfranchised” is a particularly toxic word to use. It traditionally refers to literacy tests, poll taxes and other obstacles deliberately placed before blacks to prevent them from voting. To use the word to cover mistakes made by voters carries slippery language to the point of propaganda. In fact, the commission report argues that under the Voting Rights Act, disenfranchisement can occur without discriminatory actions or intent — it can be judged by impact alone. This would mean that a racial or ethnic group can decisively produce illegal discrimination against itself simply by voting more sloppily than other groups.

The commission revives the argument that poorer and blacker districts got the worst voting equipment. This is yet another myth promoted by the news media and signed onto by prominent Democrats, including Al Gore and Jesse Jackson. The Washington Post, for example, said, “It is mainly affluent counties that have switched” to electronic voting equipment. Not so. According to the commission’s own figures, four of the seven counties with the highest percentage of black voters used optical balloting, while all five of the huge, overwhelmingly white counties (Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward, Hillsborough and Pinellas) used punch cards.

Stephen Knack, an economist who studies voting issues, says that Florida is a good example of a national pattern: The largest and richest counties tend to use punch-card equipment. Nationally, he said, 31.9 percent of whites and 31.4 percent of blacks live in punch-card counties. With Professor Martha Kropf of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Knack analyzed demographic and Florida election data, finding “little support for the view that resource constraints caused poorer counties with large minority populations to retain antiquated or inferior voting equipment.”

Testifying before Congress, Knack cited a CalTech-MIT voting study which found that punch-card systems result in about the same number of invalid ballots as touch-screen electronic systems. As The Miami Herald reported last week, experts do not believe that differing voting systems were the source of the difficulty; they think that “the underlying problem was the surge in first-time minority voters who did not know how to cast a ballot correctly — regardless of the voting technology.”

It’s folly to “define disenfranchisement downward” by including honest voting mistakes. Most of what went wrong in Florida’s balloting was the result of voter error, well-intentioned mistakes (layout of the butterfly ballot) and stress on the system — so many people showed up that officials had little time to advise confused voters. Trying to depict this as a conspiracy or a massive civil rights violation is a sad and dishonest business.

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