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Democracy's Shame

By Robert Parry
June 6, 2001

Many Americans see the United States as virtually synonymous with democracy. To them, this is a special land that despite its faults has been a beacon for the revolutionary principle that a just government must derive its powers from the consent of the governed.

On a more personal level, democracy is part of how many Americans define themselves, as individuals and as a people who have worked and who have sacrificed to make these high-minded principles real. Democracy is at the heart of the national spirit.

That love for democracy is why so many Americans were deeply disturbed and even depressed by the way the Florida election was conducted and the recount battle waged.

It’s also why, for large numbers of these citizens, George W. Bush has carved out a special place of infamy for himself. To them, he will always be remembered as a politician who valued more the power of government than the process of election.

Bush behaved as if his membership in an elite political family gave him the right to rule, even if that meant overriding the popular will of his countrymen.

By doing all he could to block a full and fair recount in Florida – trusting instead the pull of his brother’s allies in state government and the clout of five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court – Bush has brought down historical disgrace on himself and his family, these Americans believe.

Civil Rights Judgment

History's judgment of Bush may have darkened more this week with a report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The commission's inquiry concluded that the Florida election was marred by “injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency,” a combination of factors that depressed the votes of minorities, especially African-Americans, and enabled Bush to squeak out his narrow 537-vote victory.

The report found that 54 percent of the rejected ballots in Florida were cast by African-Americans. That meant that an African-American was 10 times more likely to have a vote thrown out than was a white. As a group, African-Americans favored Al Gore by 9-to-1.

Many of these African-American ballots were disqualified because outdated voting machines were disproportionately assigned to black-majority precincts, the commission found. Other black voters were unjustly purged from voting rolls because they were falsely identified as felons who had lost their civil rights.

“Despite the closeness of the election, it was widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest, that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election,” the report said. “The disenfranchisement was not isolated or episodic. … State officials failed to fulfill their duties in a manner that would prevent this disenfranchisement.”

The report singled out Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris for blame. Still, the commission said it found no “conclusive evidence” that officials “conspired” to deny voting rights to minority voters, though the report urged investigations into this possibility by the U.S. Justice Department and the Florida attorney general’s office. [Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2001]

Felon List

The commission may not have uncovered “conclusive evidence” of a conspiracy, but the actions and the words of key Republican officials in Florida make clear that they knew an aggressive drive to purge alleged felons from the state voting rolls would strip many African-Americans of their right to vote.

The commission found that the “felon list” had a 14.1 percent error rate. Much of that resulted from overt decisions by Jeb Bush's subordinates to include "false positives," that is, people with names, addresses or other data similar to felons.

Given the nature of the Florida legal system and U.S. economic disparities, blacks are disproportionately convicted of felonies. So, it would be obvious to Republican officials in Florida that lumping in non-felons with similar names and addresses would disqualify in more African-Americans.

"Obviously, we want to capture more names that possibly aren't matches and let the (county election) supervisors make a final determination rather than exclude certain matches altogether," wrote state official Emmett "Bucky" Mitchell in an e-mail to the contractor preparing the felon list.

Those loose standards led to confused county boards adopting a variety of approaches, including requiring some voters to prove they weren't felons or simply surprising voters with the news of their purge when they arrived on Election Day to vote.

In an interview with The Nation magazine, Mitchell justified the state's actions. "Just as some people might have been removed from the list who shouldn't have been, some voted who shouldn't have," Mitchell said. [The Nation, April 30, 2001]

So, in the view of Jeb Bush's subordinate responsible for the felon list, the errors balanced out. But the suggestion embedded in Mitchell's rationale is that the group of citizens that he perceived to be represented in the felon list is the same group that was having its votes improperly denied.

A reasonable interpretation of Mitchell's statement is that some black felons might have slipped through the process but the state was able to purge other blacks who weren't felons to equal the numbers out.

Bush's Actions

The racial bias implicit in the Florida felon purge and the assignment of outmoded voting machines disproportionately to minority precincts presented a challenge to George W. Bush.

At several points in the Florida election saga, Bush could have joined Gore in seeking recounts in Florida that at least would have salvaged some of the lost votes and reduced somewhat the disenfranchisement of minority voters. Instead, Bush’s allies did all they could to thwart the recounts.

Bush’s campaign even flew in conservative activists, who stormed a planned recount of the Miami-Dade canvassing board on Nov. 22. As the activists pounded on the door and roughed up Democrats outside, the canvassing board reversed its decision and called off the recount.

On Dec. 8, when the Florida Supreme Court ordered a last-minute effort to conduct a statewide recount with some uniformity of standards, Bush sent his lawyers to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, five Republican justices took the unprecedented step of halting the counting of votes cast by American citizens.

With his hardball strategies in Florida and his legal maneuvering in Washington, Bush made his tiny 537-vote margin – out of six million votes cast – stand up. Bush got the White House though he lost the national popular vote by more than a half-million ballots and was clearly not the choice of Florida voters either.

In January, Bush and his supporters celebrated his ascension to the White House. In the months that followed, the national news media afforded the new president kid-gloves treatment as if to avoid shattering his fragile legitimacy. Many Americans also looked at the situation practically, realizing that Bush was in the White House and there wasn’t much use in contesting his authority.

But for millions of Americans, the Bush seizure of power changed how they saw their country and themselves.

They felt less free, less proud. Some were angry and remain so to this day. Others grew depressed at the recognition that a popular-vote loser, with powerful connections, could manipulate the democratic process to achieve an undemocratic result.

Somehow political power had won out over the democratic process – and for these many Americans, that had changed everything.

In the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek.

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