December 15, 2000
JIM LEHRER: Kwame Holman has the Florida voting story.
KWAME HOLMAN: Vice President Gore's concession hasn't stopped some African Americans from continuing to protest the way the election in Florida was conducted. They say many of the ballots never counted by hand came from predominantly black precincts. But they have another complaint, that a large number of minorities deliberately may have been prevented from voting at all. NAACP Chairman Kweisi Mfume held a rally in Miami earlier this week.
KWEISI MFUME: People weren't allowed to vote. People were told they were felons and couldn't vote when they were not, people were turned away at the times the polls closed, bilingual translators were not allowed in polling places for our Haitian brothers and sisters and our Latino brothers and sisters. Police checkpoints were set up in and around polling places to intimidate black men. It was all part of some grand conspiracy that said we don't care what you do, NAACP, we're not going to get you to the polls! Now let me tell you something. Now let me tell you something. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. But I do believe that Humpty Dumpty was pushed. That he didn't just fall on his own. (Applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: Spurred in part by massive registration and get- out-the-vote efforts, record numbers of black and other minority voters turned out in Florida on November 7. Nine out of ten African American voters in Florida supported Al Gore. Now those communities are rife with stories of people who tried to vote but for various reasons could not. At this point, nearly a half dozen investigations are under way, all focused on whether African Americans in particular were discriminated against regarding the right to vote. And Florida is one of a handful of states where such acts easily could constitute a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. Miami-based voting rights attorney Thomasina Williams says that would be true of violations that occurred in any of six Florida counties known to have discriminated against minority voters in the past.
THOMASINA WILLIAMS: What you have to show under Section 2 is that there was a disparate impact on voters in the African American community or the Hispanic community or a particular group, not necessarily that there was intent, but the impact of that was to disenfranchise or to dilute the vote of this particular group.
KWAME HOLMAN: The NAACP's Mfume says on election day, his organization began hearing about problems shortly after the polls opened.
KWEISI MFUME: It was so bad again in Florida that by 2:00 in the afternoon we deployed 200 additional volunteers here. By 3:00, I was on the phone with the Justice Department asking for help. No one knew on Election Day that Florida would be and have the kind of consequence that it has now. So these people who are here are here in a very serious way to petition for the redress of our grievances that we have to say as a nation that every vote must be protected and that people must be allowed the right to vote.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sedra Jackson, a naturalized citizen and a long- time Election Day clerk in Miami, was dismayed by what she saw this year.
SEDRA JACKSON: It was the frustration in trying to reach central elections office, just to verify whether or not an individual could vote-- just sheer frustration and not being able to get through. The lines were exceptionally busy.
KWAME HOLMAN: Jackson says at least 50, mostly minority voters were turned away from her precinct because their voter registration could not be verified. We spoke to four such would-be voters from South Florida. Lorna Reid says she got no notice that the polling place where she voted for years was closed and no signs told her where she should vote.
LORNA REID: So for the entire day, you know, I ran around from polling stations to polling stations and still was unable to vote.
KWAME HOLMAN: Donisse Desouza says poll workers couldn't find her name on the rolls and then told her it was too late to vote.
DONISSE DESOUZA: I've been disenfranchised, and my vote has been robbed from me.
KWAME HOLMAN: Admatha Israel says the poll clerk at his precinct refused even to try to verify that he was registered.
ADMATHA ISRAEL: I did everything I could from getting off work early to go vote, to getting my teacher to take me to the polls, you know, and motivating my friends, trying to get my brothers and sisters to go do that, you know. So for persons such as myself, who went to all this trouble to try to vote and got turned away, you know, it makes you not want to go do it anymore.
KWAME HOLMAN: Jacques Eyssallenne says he wasn't notified his change of address would mean he couldn't vote.
JACQUES EYSSALLENNE: I'm a Haitian-American, and most of us take that very seriously, cause I don't get to do that in my homeland. That's my first time... Second time voting for a President in this country. And I wasn't allowed to do that, and that really bugs me.
KWAME HOLMAN: Miami-Dade County's deputy supervisor of elections is Gisela Salas. She oversaw training of poll workers and ran a voter hotline on Election Day. She says her county's election procedures did not discriminate.
GISELA SALAS: So if you walk into a precinct, they don't have you in the precinct register, the clerk would have to call our department to ensure that you're a registered voter. And generally when it's closing time at the precincts, or it's like quarter of 7:00, it's probably when we get the majority of calls from people who are concerned that they are not being allowed to vote. And frankly, at quarter of 7:00 or 7:00 at night when the precinct is already closing, it becomes really difficult to assist people to make sure that they get to the proper precinct, to make sure that their problem is taken care of.
KWAME HOLMAN: Salas says Election Day snafus are inevitable.
GISELA SALAS: We have almost 900,000 registered voters, well over 890,000. So, you know, when you're dealing with those type of numbers and also a high voter turnout, you're bound to get some problems with some people who just weren't on the books or were given the wrong answer by personnel.
KWAME HOLMAN: Attorney Williams is helping the NAACP Investigate the various charges and says minorities were disproportionately prevented from voting by elections officials' inability to confirm registrations.
THOMASINA WILLIAMS: They never heard from people because they simply couldn't get through on the telephone lines. I mean, I don't see that they really have an appreciation for what was going on in the field. I think if you talk to people who were poll workers in addition to people themselves who were trying to vote, you get a very different story in a number of predominantly, very heavy black precincts.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sunday is cultural program night above the Mah-Pooh Bookstore in Miami's little Haiti.
MAN: I am a strong human being, African Haitian Cuban American.
KWAME HOLMAN: For south Florida's burgeoning Haitian American population, voting in their new country is nearly a sacred responsibility. Under a new election law, the county must provide Creole- speaking translators to assist voters. But that was not always the case on November 7.
SPOKESPERSON: There was another Haitian lady next to us who had to bring her son to translate for her, so there were no other Creole- speaking people to help.
KWAME HOLMAN: However many these voters were not ready to blame the system
SPOKESPERSON: My biggest question goes to the local Haitian leaders. What are we doing with our people to educate them, to empower them to make our voice heard?
KWAME HOLMAN: The Miami-Dade election supervisor says the country provided Creole-language ballots in 60 precincts as required by law. Nonetheless, Williams says voters reported the ballots were not available in heavily Haitian precincts.
THOMASINA WILLIAMS: We've talked to a number of activists in the Haitian American community. No one has seen those Creole ballots. The supervisor of elections says they were there. We're just not sure where they were, because they were not in the precincts where they were needed the most.
KWAME HOLMAN: One of the most substantial charges regarding the Florida vote involved a purge of voter rolls undertaken by Gisela Salas and other election officials across the state shortly before Election Day.
SPOKESPERSON: Unfortunately, the information's coming out now that there were literally thousands of people whose names were purged from the voter registration roles who had no felony convictions, who had never moved, just faulty information coming from that contractor.
KWAME HOLMAN: Alison Bethel is director of civil rights for the Florida attorney general's office. She acknowledges the voting list purge may have deleted valid voter names from the rolls.
ALISON BETHEL: Well, we have received reports from people claiming that they were incorrectly advised, that they were a convicted felon. Some received letters prior to the election, others did not learn that they were so incorrectly listed until they showed up at the polls to vote. And apparently the company that provided the information to the state officials of who was and who was not a convicted felon, that information was flawed and that's what led to the problem. It's wrong and yes, it impacted the minority community in a disproportionate way.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Bethel also says one widely believed allegation that the Florida highway patrol set up road blocks in Tallahassee to impede or intimidate blacks on their way to the polls apparently is unfounded.
ALISON BETHEL: Although the road block appears not to have followed normal channels within FHP for its authorization procedures, at least as far as the information we have now, there were not a disproportionate number of black or other minority voters stopped. There were not a large number of citations issued.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, civil rights leaders say suspicion about anything that may diminish the black vote is natural given African Americans' long struggle to win the right to vote.
SPOKESMAN: What you're really doing is trying to intimidate these people and by making them stand in the rain, keep them from registering to vote.
SPOKESMAN: They used to put eight boxes on the table and if you were black you came up and then they'd say vote, but pick out the right box cause if you don't it's not going to count.
KWAME HOLMAN: Mary Frances Berry is a veteran of the civil rights movement and now chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
MARY FRANCES BERRY: What happened in Florida suggests to me that either there's gross inefficiency somewhere in the system or that someone in the system was totally insensitive to the need to take care of these voters, these African Americans, and people of color, poor people, who are coming to the polls.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Wednesday, the Civil Rights Commission announced public hearings in Tallahassee next month, aimed at determining whether minorities in Florida were denied the right to vote.
SPOKESPERSON: When we subpoena witnesses, if the witnesses do not come or resist, the Justice Department will have to help us enforce the subpoenas.
KWAME HOLMAN: The commission recently voted unanimously to investigate reports of election day irregularities involving minorities not only in Florida, but scattered across the country.
SPOKESMAN: We'd like very much to get started.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, the NAACP Continues to hold hearings in counties throughout Florida, as well as in South Carolina, Massachusetts and Missouri.
SPOKESMAN: This is America!
KWAME HOLMAN: The various investigations of what happened on Election Day are unlikely to produce concrete answers for several months.
JIM LEHRER: President-elect Bush spoke by telephone yesterday with Reverend Jesse Jackson, one of the leaders of the voting rights protests. Jackson said afterward they agreed to meet to discuss election reforms, among other things.