Voting rights rescinded

Dec 20, 2000 at 12:00 am
About a week ago, I was playing a gig in a small club downtown. The weather wasn't that great, and there weren't that many folks, but it still went all right.

In the beginning, when we were all busy setting up the stage to get ready for the show, the topic of conversation was still the election. A lot has been reported about how tired folks are of all this, and I suspect there's some truth to that, but I also suspect that not many folks are having an easy time erasing Election 2000 from their memories. There's still a need among some to talk about it, and that need is particularly strong among African-American voters, more than 90 percent of whom voted for Vice President Al Gore.

In short, blacks feel like they got robbed — again. This is not to say that white supporters of Gore aren't extremely upset at what happened, but the level of anger and disillusionment among blacks at this point is smoldering.

"I'm never voting again, man. I swear to God I'm not," said the drummer, who still couldn't get over that there were votes that would never be counted and that the U.S. Supreme Court would let such a thing slide. "They make me feel like I don't even count. The government can do this?"

"Hey, man. The government can do whatever they want to do," said the bass player, a brother who voted for Gov. George Bush, but still had problems with those votes not being counted.

That feeling right there is what is causing African-Americans across the country to question whether the Voting Rights Act was ever really the law we thought it was. Was there some kind of built-in trick that we're just now finding out about? Have we been sucker punched again?

Black voter turnout in Florida alone rose by an incredible margin this year. In 1996, 527,000 black Floridians went to the polls. This year, 952,000 were counted; untold thousands were deemed not worthy to be counted. Within days after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision ended the election contest in Florida, which shut off any chance for a ballot recount and effectively handed the presidency to Bush, a poll conducted by Reuters and NBC News showed that 84 percent of African-Americans said their confidence in the voting process was shaken. That's almost twice the national average. Additionally, 84 percent of blacks thought Gore would have won Florida if the votes had been fairly counted, as was going on before the Republicans managed to shut the process down with a little help from the Supremes.

Just 2 percent of blacks polled said they "strongly agree" the right man became president. Some 50 percent of whites agree with that statement, That gives you an idea of how divided we still are in this country. Whites constituted almost 95 percent of Bush's vote total. About 63 percent of Latinos and 55 percent of Asians voted for Gore, whose popular vote majority across the country included 30 percent people of color. What's significant about this, aside from black folks in Florida or anywhere else not wanting any part of Bush, is that the records show large numbers of the voters who were disenfranchised by the Republican effort to suppress the recount in Florida were black Floridians, many of whom had never voted before.

There was a huge get-out-the-vote campaign this year designed to get black folks to participate. It's no secret that we're not always first in line at election time, if we're in line at all. But this time enough noise was being made in the pulpits and just about everywhere else that we felt like just maybe our vote was important. We began to see that not voting could have some seriously negative consequences for our lives and we believed we had the power to make our voices heard in an effective way.

Far too many people, black and white, gave their lives so that blacks would have the right to vote. If we didn't exercise that right this time around, then we truly would have lost our right to complain. So we did our duty and we exercised that right. Then, over the course of a month after the election was supposed to have been over, we sat, watched, and listened in disbelief as the rights we thought we had won were stolen in broad daylight by a thief who was granted legitimacy by the highest court in the land.

I'm just telling you the way it feels.

There have been numerous stories reported and confirmed of voter intimidation of blacks at the polls in Florida. There are stories of blacks who knew they had registered being told once they got to their polling places that their names just couldn't be found on the list of registered voters. Gee, sorry. It has already been established that the areas in Florida with the highest reported incidents of voting irregularities, areas where thousands of votes were either thrown out or will never be counted, are areas with large numbers of African-American voters.

And all of this leads me to wonder why we didn't hear more about this specific problem from the Gore campaign, which made the decision not to pursue the charges of voter irregularities and intimidation, despite evidence which they apparently didn't feel was compelling enough to warrant a thorough investigation. If they honestly didn't believe there was enough to go on then I guess they had their reasons for playing it down. Perhaps we should take comfort that Gore was including disenfranchised black voters along with everyone else when he said he wouldn't forget those voters who hadn't been heard, but I can't help but feel that so much more attention should have been focussed on this issue. I didn't exactly expect Bush to point it out, but I expected more than cautious silence from the man for whom we worked so hard to rally the troops.

In a column about Election 2000 more than a month ago ("Shock the powerful," MT, Nov. 1-7), I emphasized how much this extraordinary event proved that each and every vote counts. Not only do I still believe that, but I also believe that those who worked overtime to suppress the will of so many voters believe it just as strongly. I believe they fear the potency of full voter participation because full voter participation means the activation of true democracy. And true democracy, in an era when the historically disenfranchised are growing in number and are no longer legally barred from the voting booth, is a terrifying thing to those who have held the reins of power for so long.

But even more terrifying than that is giving up on the vote. We fought to get it. Now it's time to find and keep it. Keith A. Owens is a freelance writer and musician from Detroit. E-mail to [email protected]