Race and Class: The Stolen Vote

Against the Current, No. 90, January/ February 2001

Malik Miah

GEORGE W. BUSH became the 43rd president of the United States by a five-to-four vote of the U.S. Supreme Court.  But the die was cast long before the November 7 election.

One of the dirty aspects of the 2000 presidential elections was the role of racism in its outcome.  The major media, Democraty Party bigwigs and many others allowed this to take place even when civil rights figures such as Jesse Jackson, local Florida elected officials and NAACP leaders tried to help get Vice President Al Gore the votes he needed to win Florida and the presidency.

Jackson, in fact, was urged by the Democratic leadership to cool it and leave town soon after the November 7 vote when he helped organized protests over the exclusion and confusion of many Blacks and Haitian-Americans who tried to vote but were denied.

It took nearly three weeks before major newspapers such as The New York Times and Washington Post gave the issue prominence.  The November 29 Times finally wrote: “Technology that could have helped handle the overflow was not available in Black precincts.  In other places, registration lists were flawed.

“Elsewhere in Florida, unrelated events—a sudden police presence in Black neighborhoods in Tampa and late delivery of voter cards to Black students at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach—have left some Black leaders suspicious that their voters were disproportionately harmed.”

Vote Cleansing

The Times added that in Miami-Dade County, the largest in the state, predominantly Black precincts saw their votes thrown out at twice the rate as Hispanic precincts and nearly four times the rate of white precincts.  “In all,” the Times reported, “1 out of 11 ballots in predominantly Black precincts were rejected, a total of 9,904.”

A Washington Post story on December 3 reported that one out of three Black voters in the state’s most populated city, Jacksonville, were thrown out—four times the rate of whites.

The disfranchising of Blacks in Florida was no accident caused simply by poor technology or “confused” first-time African American voters.  According to Gregory Palast, a reporter with the online magazine Salon, the company ChoicePoint and its subsidiary, Database Technology, Inc. came up with a “scrub list” of 173,000 who could possibly be “cleansed” from the state’s voter registration list before the election.

ChoicePoint has close ties with the Republican Party.  In addition, Republican operatives targeted 58,000 “possible felons” to be removed from the rolls since felons aren’t allowed to vote.

No proof was ever provided on who was or was not a felon.  The aim was to get local officials to use their own judgment to carry out the cleansing operation.

Gore received more than ninety percent of the state’s Black vote, losing the certified vote count by some 500 votes out of six million.

A System Exposed

While the major news media at first attempted to downplay the role of race in the Florida fiasco, the drawn-out legal battles exposed to all Americans—and to the world—the archaic nature of U.S. democracy.

The issue of “state rights” is at the heart of the electoral system—where states decide presidential elections by picking electors, not by one person, one vote nationally.  That’s why Gore can win the popular vote by a few hundred thousand votes, and lose the election.

The U.S. Constitution is a late 18th century document written at the time when the country was divided between slaveholding states and those based primarily on farming and wage exploitation of working people.

The original thirteen colonies/states had their own national guards and laws. They formed a federal republic, not a democracy, where state rights ruled.  White men who owned land and slaves were the main powers in the new country.

The federal government over time, and definitely by the 20th century (with the development of a massive national industrial economy and the emergence of America as a world imperial force), became the center of power.

African Americans, first as slaves then as second-class subjects, were political outsiders.  Blacks had no illusions about what the writers of the Constitution (the “Founding Fathers”) meant by “state rights.” It wasn’t “freedom” and “equality,” but racial oppression.  It meant the U.S. Constitution protected and defended slaveholders.

It meant, after the 1861-65 Civil War, the return of all property and power to whites who systematically took steps to deny Blacks newly won legal rights, including the right to vote. State rights was the basis of the Jim Crow segregation laws in the South, which became the model used by the apartheid rulers of South Africa to deny Black South Africans rights of citizenship.

From Dixiecrats to Republicans

Florida, a former slave state, was not a model of racial equality—and never has been. It was not surprising that Blacks in that state, and nationally, saw their vote for Gore as a vote against racism.  The Republicans in Florida had ended affirmative action and were seen by most Blacks as representing the interests of the most bigoted whites.

Up until the 1960s that infamous “honor” belonged to the Dixiecrat Democrats.  They controlled the South through enforcement of segregation laws that disenfranchised Blacks.  The Republican Party basically didn’t exist as a viable party in the South.

The change from Dixiecrats to Republicans occurred when the Northern Democratic Party began to open its doors to African Americans under the impact of the civil rights movement and the implementation of new voting rights laws. The Republican Party nationally saw an opportunity to become a national party of all whites, especially white workers who (wrongly) felt victimized by the gains won by Blacks under affirmative action programs.

The process began with Republican President Richard Nixon—what he and other Republican officials called the “Southern Strategy.” This strategy was to portray the long dormant Republican party as the party now best able to protect the “rights” of whites who were being discriminated by the “special rights” won in the 1960s by Blacks, women and other historically discriminated groups.

The new code words for the modern bigots became: stop “reverse discrimination.”

Ironically it wasn’t Southern Republicans or Dixiecrats who fought the new civil rights laws hardest.  It was the leadership of the Republican Party in the North.

“The major opponents to the [1965 voting rights] bill weren’t rabidly racist Southern Democrats, but Northern Republicans,” wrote Earl Ofari Hutchinson in an Op Ed piece in the November 11 San Francisco Chronicle.

House Republicans, then led by minority leader Gerald Ford [later president after Nixon resigned], proposed four horrible provisions aimed at gutting the bill. The provisions failed to outlaw the poll tax and literacy tests; they authorized the attorney general to bring suit only after receiving a set number of complaints of voting violations; and they eliminated a provision requiring laws passed by recalcitrant Southern states.  Congress did the right and sensible thing and promptly dumped the Republican provisions, passing the bill with full-enforcement provisions intact.

That defeat for the Republicans marked the beginning of its revival in the South.  The Dixiecrats began to quit the Democratic Party in droves and became Republicans.

African Americans are still heavily concentrated in Southern states and urban areas.  The racist laws may be gone but institutional racism is still strong.  It remains in the living memory of many Southern Blacks, which is why Blacks voted 10 to 1 for Democrats to express their anger (and fear) at the rightward shift in Southern and national politics.

The fact that the Democratic Clinton-Gore administration gutted many of the civil rights gains was presented by Black leaders as holding the line to prevent worse setbacks if the Republicans were in office.  They offered no proof.

The truth is that previous Republican governments had been limited in what they could do in the face of legal and direct action resistance.  Unfortunately, no fight was ever organized against the Democrats when they carried out similar anti-Black policies.

Living History

What happened in Florida on election day 2000 thus is based on a long history of racial oppression and exclusion.  Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, said it best when he declared the results in Florida was a systemic campaign to disenfranchise Blacks: “African American voters were substantially targeted.”

The NAACP, the largest civil rights group, announced plans after the election to file several lawsuits over irregularities involving Black voters.  It has filed formal allegations with the Justice Department.  So far, the Clinton Justice Department says its investigators have not found enough evidence to launch a full-pledged investigation.

On December 6, the United States Commission on Civil Rights voted unanimously to begin a “systematic investigation” into complaints about voting irregularities in Florida.  “The enormity of the number of inequities is astounding,” said Mary Frances Berry, chairperson of the commission.

Understanding this racist history of how Blacks have suffered disfranchising by Dixiecrats, and now Republicans, is important when evaluating why few Blacks decided to vote for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

While Nader only received one percent of the African American vote nationally, his strong program against racism and in support of affirmative action and other proposals to achieve full equality was well received.

Of the presidential candidates who spoke at the NAACP convention before the election, including Bush and Gore, Nader received the most enthusiastic applause as he critiqued big business and outlined an antiracist agenda.

At a meeting in Harlem organized by community leaders who were mainly Gore supporters, Nader won high praise by those present.

None of this support or praise, however, translated into many votes.  Since neither major party has ever come through for Blacks except when facing extra-parliamentary pressures, Black voters tend to be pragmatic and hold fewer illusions about what to expect whoever wins a presidential election.

Future Possibilities

Since Nader could not win, the African American vote was based on: Which candidate’s party will be the least racist and least harmful to our health and safety?  Which candidate will stand up most for full equality and protect our civil and human rights?

While the aims of the Green Party and Nader are laudable, this calculation produced a massive turnout against the racist Republican Party.  (The African American vote in Florida in 2000 compared to 1996 increased by sixty-five percent.)

The fact that a few prominent Blacks, and more Black students, spoke highly of or even backed Nader, was a positive development.  It indicated that if the Green Party becomes a genuine alternative to the two major parties, it can win significant support among African Americans.

Malik Miah, a Bay Area trade unionist, is a member Solidarity and an editor of IndonesiaAlert!  His column, “Race and Politics,” appears regularly in Against the Current.

ATC 90, January-April 2001