June 14, 2012

By George E. Curry

NNPA Columnist

When it comes to national elections, no state makes a bigger fool of itself than Florida. The Sunshine state was at the center of an 1876 controversy over the presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel L. Tilden. By throwing out many votes cast by Blacks, Florida was able to give Hayes a one-vote margin in the Electoral College although Tilden had won the state’s popular vote by 260,000 votes.

The case reached the Supreme Court where Florida’s chicanery was also upheld by a one-vote margin. A book on the election by Roy Morris Jr. was titled, Florida’s Voting Scandal in 1876: The Fraud of the Century.

The 2000 presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush was the fraud of another century, featuring a governor, Jeb Bush, who was brother of the Republican nominee for president, and Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris, with the responsibility of supervising state election procedures, serving as George W. Bush’s state co-chairman.

There was widespread confusion leading up to Election Day. More than 54,000 people were purged from voting rolls supposedly because they were felons; 54 percent of the group was made up of African Americans. However, it was later determined that many of those denied access to the ballot were not convicted felons.

A lack of uniformed ballots also caused major problems and introduced unfamiliar terms such as “hanging chads” and “butterfly ballots.” The ballots were so confusing that in the Jacksonville area, home to significant numbers of African Americans, 27,000 ballots were thrown out because they showed votes had been cast for two presidential candidates. In Palm Beach, another hotbed of controversy, the presidential choices were spread over two pages, with voters being instructed to “vote on every page.”

Instead of shedding light on the confusion, the news media added to it. All of the major networks made the mistake of announcing the polls in Florida closed at 7 p.m., EST. That was true in the eastern section of the state. However, polls in the more conservative western counties were open for another hour because they operated on the central time zone. This confusion caused the networks to project at 7:48 p.m., EST, that Al Gore had carried the state.

When the final numbers were tallied, however, Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes. Under Florida law, a statewide recount was automatic. And that set off another round of confusion, with Democrats trying to make sure their votes were counted in Democratic strongholds and Republicans guarding their favored territory. During the process, lawyers for Bush appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and on December 4, with George W. Bush leading by 154 votes, the court halted the recount process on a 5-4 vote, effectively awarding the state to George W. Bush.

Although Gore won a plurality of the popular votes, Bush was awarded the state’s 25 electoral votes, enough to win the national election.

This year, Florida officials are not waiting until the November elections to disenfranchise voters likely to vote for President Obama and other Democrats.

Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order that, in effect, permanently disenfranchises ex-offenders. In addition, the state eliminated early voting on the Sunday before elections, a move to disrupt “Soul to the Polls” voting campaigns organized by churches. In 2008, 32.2 percent of those who voted early on that last Sunday were Black and 23.6 percent were Latino.

To make it more difficult to organize voter registration drives, Scott signed a law requiring groups registering voters to pre-register with the state and turn in voter registration forms without 48 hours of collection.

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle ruled on a suit that challenged those provisions by the League of Women Voters of Florida, Rock the Vote and Florida Public Interest Research Group Educational Fund.

The groups said such requirements infringed on their constitutional rights of free speech and association.

Judge Hinkle dismissed the state’s assertion that no constitutional rights were being violated.

‘’The assertion that the challenged provisions implicate no constitutional rights is plainly wrong,’’ he wrote in his decision. ‘’The plaintiffs wish to speak, encouraging others to register to votes, and some of the challenged provisions – for example, the requirement to disclose in advance the identity of an employee or volunteer who will do nothing more than speak –   regulate pure speech. This is core First Amendment activity.

‘’Further, the plaintiff’s wish to speak and act collectively with others, implicating the First Amendment right to association. More importantly, the plaintiffs wish to assist others with the process of registering and thus, in due course, voting. Voting is a right protected by several constitutional provisions; state election codes thus are subject to constitutional scrutiny.’’

The U.S. Justice Department has also objected to Florida making it more difficult for citizens to vote.

Not surprisingly, Florida officials are appealing the court ruling and the Justice Department’s intervention.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA) and editorial director of Heart & Soul magazine. He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

Category: Opinion