October 1, 2004
Every Vote Counts But Will Every Vote Be Counted?
Determined not to have a repeat of the 2000 presidential election, civil rights groups, elected officials, and independent legal teams are poised to challenge any hindrances to African Americans voting in 2004.
The Congressional Black Caucus, the National Urban League, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation are part of the Unity 04 campaign, a coalition of more than 130 organizations planning to safeguard voters in the wake of the worst election scandal in history.
“We know that in 2000, the votes of 1 million African Americans were not counted,” said Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and one of the lead organizers of Unity 04. “We want to make sure that they know what their rights are and know how to protect themselves.”
In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The act aims to “replace outdated voting systems” and create “standards for states to follow.” HAVA requires that by the 2004 election, each state must use computerized voter lists as Florida had in 2000, and it empowers each state’s secretary of state to purge “suspect” voters from these lists. Prior to the 2000 election, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered local election supervisors to purge names from the registries that supposedly belonged to ex-cons. They were not allowed to vote. During the recount, Britain’s Observer newspaper published an investigation of ChoicePoint, the company that generated Florida’s computerized voter lists. The report found that 91,000 names were flagged as questionable (deemed “potential felons” by Gov. Jeb Bush), and 57,700 of those were purged and never counted. The investigation revealed one example where an African American named Willie Steen was purged because his last name was confused with an O’Steen, who was an ex-convict. The NAACP sued the state and the state admitted Steen’s innocence, but 90% of those purged were found to be non-felons or ex-felons by the investigation, and 54% of that whole group was black or Hispanic.
In July 2004, Florida officials again attempted to purge names of ex-offenders from current voting lists even though they were free and had served their time. “These were 2,100 ex-offenders who had their voting rights restored by the state [but] found themselves being disenfranchised again,” said NAACP President and CEO Kwesi Mfume. “We filed a law suit in seven counties and they dropped the challenge.” It was learned that most of the people on the list were African Americans and not felons.
In July, presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry spoke at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia where he told delegates, “On Election Day in your cities, my campaign will provide teams of election observers and lawyers to monitor elections, and we will enforce the law.” For its own contingency plan, the Kerry campaign has set up its own legal network rather than depend on the lawyers from each state’s Democratic Party. The Bush campaign is sticking to the Republican National Lawyers Association, already associated with