We must both modernize the machinery of voting and improve procedures for the administration of elections. Both of these issues deserve significant attention and funding at the federal level. —Wade Henderson, Executive Director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
Previously, in writing about voting rights in Florida, I also talked about a broader state of emergency that exists throughout the US. I pointed to how the systems set into place by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) were not currently adequate to address the existing problems before this November's elections. I cited the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) April 2004 study that showed how the funding for HAVA initiatives has not been disbursed to the states and how the necessary federal oversight has not been provided. I focused on the two systemic problems in Florida that have led to mass disenfranchisement of African American voters: purged voter rolls and spoiled ballots. Regarding the latter problem, where ballots are cast but not counted, I noted that the USCCR found that "Statewide, [in Florida,] based upon county-level statistical estimates, black voters were nearly 10 times more likely than nonblack voters to have their ballots rejected." I alluded to but did not get into other problems, such as the ones detailed in first hand accounts in Chapter 2 of the 2001 USCCR report:[T]he State spends $30 million annually to instruct people on how to buy lottery tickets but allocates nothing for statewide voter education programs. —A member of Governor Jeb Bush’s task force on election reform in Florida
•Voters not on the rolls and unable to appeal
•Polling places closed early or moved without notice
•Voters who registered through motor voter programs did not appear on the voting rolls
•Numerous problems with absentee ballots
•Possible intimidation of African American voters by Florida Highway Patrol officers
Though these problems, reported by many individual citizens, were not unique to Florida, it is hard to say exactly how pervasive they were. When it comes to spoiled ballots, however, we know the statistics in Florida hold widely in the US. The following graph [pdf] is from Democracy Spoiled, a study released in July, 2002 by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project.
This graph is "based on data collected from Election Data Services, Secretaries of State, and local county election officials" everywhere it was available in the United States. The researchers found that ballot spoilage increases proportionally with the size of the black population in a given county. The more blacks, the more spoiled ballots. I have some more to say about this, but first I want to tell you about a book that I've been reading.
For a while now, I've been reading around in James Forman's The Making of Black Revolutionaries via its index. Recently, I started reading the book from the beginning. I already knew that it is a valuable book, but now, a little more than 100 pages in, wow. This is another one of those books about an African American born early in the 20th century who managed to have first hand experience of many of the cultural and historical currents of African American life in the first half of the 20th Century. I'm thinking of books like Ellison's Invisible Man, and also Lawrence Jackson's excellent biography of Ellison, and Barbara Ransby's important biography of Ella Baker.
Forman's book is also fabulous writing. Forman makes no literary pretensions, but his book is a deeply literary one. In addition to being a fine memoirist and historian, Forman is a master of voices—his interior emotional and philosophical voce, his documentarian voice, the voices of regular folks, the voices of eloquent orators like MLK and Bayard Rustin—he can write them all. The book is written in what are usually short, always well-paced episodes, often ordered in forceful juxtapositions while they also reproduce chronology.
Forman was part of the Southern black migration to northern cities: he lived his early childhood with his grandmother in rural Mississippi. At age 6, he joined his parents in Chicago, still spending many summers in Mississippi. Foreman served in the Air Force for three years between WWII and the Korean War and was one of the black soldiers who was used as a test case in the desegregation of our armed forces. By the time he was 16, in 1944, Foreman had already become radicalized on the subject of race:
I was aware of my blackness and my inability to take any shit of any white man. And I was reading Richard Wright. I did not accept, but I understood fairly well the society's conception of my role and status: I was a nigger, a Negro. At the same time I would rather die like a man than take insults off crackers. Not me. (35)In the 50s in college and graduate school, Forman developed a sophisticated revolutionary ideology, inspired by thinkers like Fanon, Sartre, Richard Wright, DuBois and Frederick Douglas, by African liberation movements abroad, and by developments at home like the Montgomery bus boycott and the Brown vs. Board of Education legal victory against segregated schools.
At around this time, in the mid to late 50s, there was an increasing number of Americans, black and white, who all started to coming to conclusions like James Forman did:
We cannot fight racism and exploitation once we are dead. Action is necessary and me must carry it out now, for death always faces us—it is the only certainty in life. When people overcome the fear of death, then and only then are they willing to lay down their lives for humanity. We as black people must develop the love for humanity which will make us act in the name of justice and die for the future of blacks and all humanity, for we are an indivisible part of mankind. (108)By 1961, Forman had become the Executive Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC), but before that, starting in the mid 1950s, he took an individual interest in events and struggles relevant to the lives of African Americans. While he was still living in Chicago and attending Roosevelt University, he attended the 1956 Democratic National Convention and watched the newly formed Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, headed by Roy Wilkins, fail in its attempt to add a civil rights plank to the Democratic platform.
[photo: Arkansas National Guardsmen keep
black students out of school (Will Counts)]
In September of 1958, Forman traveled from Boston, where he was attending graduate school, to Little Rock, Arkansas to involve himself in the struggle to integrate Little Rock's Central High School.
In The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Forman has an insight about Southerners' resistance to integration in the 1950s.
I learned that the Southerners believed integration meant the total acceptance of the American Negro in the American way of life. Desegregation meant the removal of the legal barriers that prevented Negroes from having access to the American way of life.In Little Rock, Forman wrote news stories for the Chicago Defender. He interviewed one of the students who was supposed to enter Central High, who noted a similar distinction, put in personal, socio-economic terms.
I became convinced that Southerners deliberately fostered this distinction between integration and desegregation as a rationale for evading the 1954 Supreme Court decision. For instance, the Supreme Court decision of 1954 said that Southern schools should be desegregated. That is a legal question, a legal right which is indisputable. However, when you twist the removal of legal barriers to mean that one must accept (how gracious) us totally into the American way of life, then the justification for hostility increases. (91-92)
She had been writing on a pad before I came into the room and left it on a chair. I glanced at it later and saw that she had written, "Is it dignity to be able to go into a five-and-ten-cent store and buy a coffee pot, but not be able to buy a cup of coffee?" (113)
Georgia, Illinois and Texas all had more spoiled ballots than Florida. Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wyoming all had higher rates of ballot spoilage than Florida. (Chart from Democracy Spoiled: AL-MT, NC-WY). And there were significant rates of ballot spoilage in many other states. You can follow the links to the chart and see the rest of the numbers, but consider this warning from the authors of the study:"Why, in the county where my friend lives, the Negras are nine to one and his father is the sheriff of that county. Do you think if the Negras had the right to vote that they would elect his father as sheriff? We got the power and we intend to keep it." (Forman, 92)
This “where the missing ballots are” approach is useful in considering where improvements in election system performance will contribute most to assuring the greatest possible number of citizens that their votes will be counted. On the other hand, this is a very different agenda from ensuring that each state is as successful as they should be at treating all voters equally, or that voters in different states are treated equally. (2)Let's look at that graph from the Civil Rights Project again. The more blacks, the more spoiled ballots. But also notice that as the percent of blacks increases, the variance among counties also increases. When you get to counties where the spoilage rate is upwards of 14%, you also have counties in the same state with almost no votes lost. States like Florida that have among the worst rates of spoilage also have counties with with excellent, near zero spoilage rates. To be clear, the Harvard study finds that "as the white voting age population in a county increases, the spoiled ballot rate correspondingly decreases."
Examining the 100 counties with the worst (highest) spoilage rates nationwide, our analysis also found that 67 of these have black populations above 12%. Of the top 100 counties with the best performance (lowest spoilage), the reverse is true – only 10 had sizeable black populations, while the population of 70 of the counties was over 75% white. (8)Thus you can have states like Virginia. Virginia's state-wide spoilage rate is 1.91%, just slightly below the national average of 1.94%. That's a lot better than Florida, whose state-wide average is 2.95%. But these state averages are virtually meaningless. In Florida there are predominantly white counties with rates as low as .27% and predominantly black counties with rates as high as 12%. Though Florida is above average and Virginia is "below average," the disparities in Virginia are similar to those in Florida.
And the problem does not abate merely by taking income, education and other factors into consideration. In Florida, racial disparities in ballot spoilage across counties persisted even when comparing counties with identical income, education, and other factors. Taken together, these statistics reveal the persisting vote dilution of blacks on a county, state, and national level. (8)
If you follow blogs like Election Law, Votelaw and Florida Politics, you can get a pretty steady flow of alarming stories about touch screen voting machines, punch card ballots, and shady election practices. And one should be alarmed. Very alarmed. We can be thankful that there is some very good legal work and organizing being done by groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American Civil Liberties Union and Black Box Voting.John Lewis, the SNCC leader from Nashville via Troy, Alabama . . . debarked with Birmingham's Katherine Burke onto the loading dock. As they talked into the NBC cameras, a hundred white men and women surged around the bus, swinging metal pipes, bats, and pocketbooks. . . . Some of the twenty-one students still on board suggested exiting through the back door to placate the mob, but Jim Zwerg, a white dentist's son from Wisconsin in his junior year at Fisk, led the way out the front.
"Filthy Communists, nigger lovers, you're not going to integrate Montgomery," someone shouted as Zwerg took the first blows. . . .
The only law enforcement presence was a stone-faced FBI agent, writing his description of the flying bodies on a bureau notepad. (Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home, 228)
Even if these important organizations are as successful as we need them to be, we will still face problems in making sure that African American votes get counted.
[T]echnological improvements in the voting machinery alone do not solve the problem of ballot spoilage, and often are not even the most important improvement. Studies by researchers at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin both found that ballot spoilage rates and disparities are still significant, even when controlling for voting technology. Evidence from the study by the Government Reform Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives supports these findings, noting that while improved voting technology reduces the percentage of discarded ballots across the board, these improvements still do not fully address the disparities between voting precincts, particularly between high-minority and low-minority districts. (Democracy Spoiled, 9, emphasis in original)African American ballots spoil within a broader framework of strategies to keep African Americans and other minorities from voting. Spoiled ballots are the end result of a broader set of problems that range from unequal distribution of resources to African American communities to a range of seedy tactics to hinder African American voting. Ballot spoilage and voter roll purges are important issues partly because they allow us to quantify the effects of racism on voting. There is no way to measure the number of votes lost to intimidation and trickery.
•In Louisiana, flyers were distributed in African American communities stating, "Vote!!! Bad Weather? No problem!!! If the weather is uncomfortable on election day [Saturday, December 7th], remember you can wait and cast your ballot on Tuesday, December 10th."This is the short list from 2002. There were many more examples [pdf] of these kinds of occurrences across the country, North and South. They are not recent developments. People for the American Way and the NAACP just released a special report, The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today (via Prometheus 6), showing that the examples above are part of a persistent trend that began with the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
•In Texas, two poll watchers representing U.S. Senate candidate (and now Senator) John Cornyn were removed from their polling places because they were engaged in acts of voter intimidation, including making racist remarks.
•In Arkansas, five Republican poll watchers, including two staff members of Senator Tim Hutchinson's office, were present at the courthouse in Pine Bluff – a heavily Democratic area – for the first day of early voting. They allegedly focused exclusively on African Americans, asking them for identification and taking photographs. They claimed to be "targeting anybody who does not have an ID to prove who they are." Trey Ashcraft, chairperson of the Jefferson County Democratic Party and the Jefferson County Election Commission said the tactics caused some frustrated black voters to not vote. "They are trying to intimidate African American voters into not voting." Guy Cecil, a Democrat coordinating national efforts with Arkansas' campaigns, said, "They were literally going up to them and saying, 'Before you vote, I want to see your identification.'" Cecil said that under Arkansas law poll watchers could not confront voters. Local law enforcement officials escorted the poll watchers out, but they later returned.
•In Maryland, an unsigned flier circulated in African American neighborhoods in Baltimore spread false information aimed at suppressing voter turnout. The flier read "URGENT NOTICE. Come out to vote on November 6th. Before you come to vote make sure you pay your parking tickets, motor vehicle tickets, overdue rent and most important any warrants.
Though many of the oppressive methods of segregation were successfully eradicated, new ways to curtail minority political power evolved. The Voting Rights Act and federal enforcement methods provided newly empowered voting rights activists with powerful tools to combat these efforts, but they persisted nonetheless. Strong organizing and a commitment to change patterns of social injustice were needed, but so was continued federal presence and more legislation and litigation. (16)We have an ongoing problem with racism and elections that has been amplified by recent technological developments. Presuming we remove the technological impediments to fair elections, I don't foresee substantive improvement in African American access to voting without a broad based administrative response to racist machinations at the polls. We will establish more laws and improve technology to support the intent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the basic racist framework will remain intact.
Desegregation without integration.
Allow the legal principle but resist the social reality by every means possible, whether it be bureaucratic obstructionism, underhanded schemes of disenfranchisement, or overt hostility and intimidation.
In the Fall of 1960, James Forman went to Fayette County, Tennessee because
a group of black farmers . . . were fighting desperately against the White Citizens Council. Because they dared to register and to vote in the United States in 1959-60, seven hundred sharecropping families in Fayette and Haywood counties found themselves evicted from lands where they had lived and farmed for decades. Black farmers found themselves unable to purchase groceries, medical supplies, and gasoline (vital to those who had tractors) or to obtain crop loans to buy seed and fertilizers for anticipated harvests. Local clinics refused to give medical treatment. Anyone on the council's blacklist (let's change that word to whitelist) was subjected to a total boycott by the white people who ran the banks and owned most of the stores. (Forman, 126)The evicted sharecroppers moved into tents on donated land—what became known as Tent City. One of the sharecroppers was Georgia Mae Turner. On Christmas night, 1960 Forman tape recorded Ms. Turner talking with him in her tent.
They say if you register, you going to have a hard time. Well I had a a hard time before I registered. Hard times, you could have named me Georgia Mae Hard Times. The reason I registered, because I want to be a citizen. Mr. Ferdie Franklin told me I had as much right to register and vote as anybody else. This here is a free country, that's what he told me. I registered so that my children could get their freedom. I don't figure it would do me no good. (126)Georgia Mae Turner didn't bear up against the elements in her tent and against gunshots so we could congratulate ourselves over our progress. She did it so her children could get their freedom. Those private citizens and those in our government who resist, either through inaction or through clear deeds, the full inclusion of African Americans in our democracy are spreading the message that African Americans can have their freedom, but not the kind of freedom Ms. Turner had in mind: they can go on buying their coffee pots in the company store but they damned well better not ask to stay there and drink a cup of coffee with the rest of us.
You don't need lots of education to hear this message. It's coming through loud and clear.
America's Election Snafus: 2001-2002 (People for the American Way)
Defending the Vote: NAACP Voter Empowerment 2001-02 Election Reform Report [pdf 3.5 MB]
Income and Racial Disparities in the Undercount in the 2000 Presidential Election (Minority Staff Special Investigations Division Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives) [pdf]
Voting Technologies in the United States: Overview and Issues for Congress (Congressional Research Service) [pdf 140 KB]