Racial Discrimination in Florida: Election 2000

Staff

Vol. 22, No. 4, 2000 pp. 15-16

Testimony about racial discrimination in the Florida elections was received at a hearing sponsord by the NAACP on November 11. Following is one personal story from the NAACP hearing and an excerpt of a report by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Advancement Project, and The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights documenting charges of racial discrimination on November 7, 2000, as minority voters exercised their right to vote in Florida. For more information, visit www.lawyerscomm.org.

Donisse DeSouza testified she has been registered to vote in Florida since 1982 and has voted in all major elections. She has lived in the same majority-black precinct for the past six years.

On Election Day, DeSouza, an African-American resident of Miami, went to the polling place listed on her new Voter ID Card. She had waited until late in the day so she could take her five-year old son to teach him the importance of voting. She arrived in the vicinity of the polls at 6:30 p.m., but a police officer was keeping voters' cars in a long line waiting for parking spaces. A small lot provided the only place to park. After waiting for twenty minutes, DeSouza entered the polling place and presented her driver's license and voter registration card to a white poll worker who explained that DeSouza was not listed on the registration rolls and instructed her to move to another line to address the issue. DeSouza stood in the other line with approximately fifteen others. At 7 p.m. they were informed that the polls were closed. They were not offered an affidavit ballot or other assistance; they were told that nothing could be done if their names were not on the registration rolls. These citizens were refused the right to vote.

After the election, DeSouza went to the Board of Elections and found that her name did appear on the voter register. She was also told that all voters inside the polling place at 7 p.m. should have been permitted to vote and


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that the Board of Elections continued to take calls and clear up irregularities after the polls closed.

Since November 7, there have also been substantial, credible allegations, like DeSouza's, of disfranchisement of minority voters in several Florida counties.

There are compelling reasons to address these complaints of disfranchisement immediately, and with the utmost gravity:

  • Florida has a long, well-documented history of discrimination against African-American voters. Because of their history of discrimination, five Florida counties are "covered" jurisdictions under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
  • There have been reports of hundreds of African Americans, Haitian Americans, and Puerto Ricans who may have been denied their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote in the November 7 election in Florida.

Civil rights organizations associated with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) received complaints of widespread denial of the right to vote, predominantly affecting minority voters and heavily-minority precincts.

Alleged Abuses

The information gathered by civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, details allegations of several forms of denial of the right to vote, intimidation, and barriers that prevented or discouraged voting. All of the following types of disfranchisement-alleging serious violations of the U.S. Constitution, the Federal Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act, as well as Florida Election Law and Florida Civil Rights Laws-have been described in complaints to LCCR organizations.

Longstanding minority voters reportedly were told that they did not appear on the voting lists. Some said they were turned away because they did not have photo identification, even though Florida law provides that registered voters without photo IDs may cast "affidavit ballots." In some counties there were reports that minority voters were asked for a photo ID while white voters were not. Some minority voters were turned away even when they appeared at the polling place with both their voter card and a photo ID.

Voters who did not appear on the voting list or have a photo ID were shunted into a "problem" line, where they waited for long periods of time after being told that election officials were trying to telephone headquarters. Because phone lines were jammed and many of these calls never went through, many voters said they became discouraged and left without voting.

Voters reported being sent from polling place to polling place, with no real effort to determine where they were supposed to vote. Some claimed to have been turned away from not just one, but three or four polling places.

Other voters reported being denied the right to vote because of minor, immaterial discrepancies in their names as they appeared on registration lists and in their proof of identification-such as their use of middle initials.

Poll workers reportedly were instructed to be particularly "strict" in challenging voter qualifications because of aggressive voter registration and turnout efforts.

Large numbers of minority voters who claimed they registered before the October 10 deadline, did not receive their voting cards before November 7. When they appeared at the polls, they were told they were not on the voting list and were not permitted to vote.

Witnesses also reported that one, and possibly more, polling places were moved without notice to the voters and without the placement of a sign at the site, as required by Florida law. Minority voters served by this polling place had to locate their new polling place on their own.

Intimidation and Irregularities

Witnesses reported police checkpoints or stops of voters near several polling places in African-American neighborhoods.

Some voters who requested absentee ballots alleged that they did not receive them and were not allowed to vote when they went to the precinct in person on election day. In addition, a witness has reported that, in one county, hundreds of absentee ballots of registered voters were rejected by the Supervisor of Elections and not counted.

Miami-Dade County passed an ordinance in 1998 requiring that ballots in Creole be provided at forty-seven majority-Haitian precincts in the county. Complaints allege that these ballots were not available at some of these precincts.

Many Haitian-American voters also requested the assistance of a volunteer Creole/English speaker willing to translate the ballot for those with limited English proficiency, but were denied such assistance, despite provisions of Florida election-law.

Voters also reported being denied a second ballot to correct an error in the first one.

Democracy Denied

The allegations of exclusion and intimidation that civil rights investigations have uncovered show a possible pattern of disfranchisement of large numbers of minority voters in several counties. African-American, Haitian-American, and Hispanic voters who tried to vote, and who made heroic efforts to overcome barriers and refusals, must not be left voiceless in our democracy.