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A Civil Wrong
The NAACP and other groups were spectacularly successful in getting black voters to the polls in Florida last year. Because two-thirds more blacks voted than in 1996, they accounted for 15% of the total vote in November even though they represented only 13% of eligible voters. But the liberal U.S. Civil Rights Commission insists on looking at the glass as 90% empty. It has just leaked a dubious draft report that urges a federal investigation of a pattern of "invidious discrimination" against minority voters in Florida.
Rarely has a document been so built on a tower of sand. Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who was also co-chair of the Gore campaign in Florida, received 2,600 election-related complaints. Most concerned Palm Beach's infamous "butterfly" ballot, and only three involved alleged racial discrimination. The Commission itself heard from dozens of witnesses, but not one testified to an incident in which they'd been barred from voting because of race. Nonetheless, the Commission has chosen to needlessly roil racial waters with yet another partisan attempt to delegitimize George W. Bush's victory in the state.
That the report is partisan is shown by its entry into the media food chain. Copies were leaked to major papers on Monday before Abigail Thernstrom and Russell Redenbaugh, the only two GOP-appointed commissioners, had even seen it (long, friendly accounts in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post oddly make no mention of the two dissenters, leaving the impression of a unified commission). Florida officials were to have 30 days to review the findings; they ended up with 10. In alleging procedural violations by government officials the report's preparation has itself become a compendium of egregious unfairness to those whom it criticizes. If the Civil Rights Commission were an election precinct it would let in the voters it liked and then promptly close down.
Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry notes that 83 of the 100 precincts of the state with the highest number of disqualified ballots were majority black. It implies that someone other than the voters spoiled them. But 40% of all blacks who voted in the state were first-time voters, who often make mistakes regardless of race. The county with the highest illiteracy rate had the highest number of spoiled ballots. Some groups told voters to punch the second hole to vote for Al Gore, when the actual ballot design counted that vote for another candidate. Many precincts that didn't anticipate a high turnout lacked enough workers to walk people through the ballot.
The report's most serious charge is that non-felons were removed from voter registration lists because an inaccurate list was used to purge the rolls. It appears that 1,104 people were barred from voting even though they weren't ineligible felons, 44% of whom were black. But many counties didn't purge and 5,600 people, including murderers and rapists, did vote illegally in the state. The report ignores that fact, and also neglects to note that the networks repeatedly declared Florida's polls closed when heavily GOP counties in the Central Time Zone still had an hour to vote.
Florida has just passed a sweeping revision of its election laws. The punch card ballot is going the way of the Dodo. More voter education will be offered, and will no doubt be supplemented by the NAACP and others. The state has done its job in drawing lessons from last November's failures and has acted responsibly. We wish we could say the same for the Civil Rights Commission's "report," which reads like a last-gasp legal brief from Al Gore's lawyers. Making sure all valid votes count is a task that's too important to allow propaganda like this report to influence it.
©2001 The Wall Street Journal
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