Powerless at the polls

Black voters complain about their treatment at Florida polls.

By Alicia Montgomery

Published November 12, 2000 12:06AM (EST)

For days after the presidential race, reports about Florida's alleged voting problems focused on the confusing butterfly ballot layout in Palm Beach County that may have resulted in the discard of thousands of votes. But on the margins, there were darker charges of missing ballot boxes and voter intimidation around the state.

In a surprise visit to an NAACP meeting convened here, Miami police officer Diego Ochoa confirmed that there was a ballot box discovered at a downtown Sheraton Hotel, which had been picked up only Friday. Detective Delrish Moss, acting as spokesman for the Miami police, went even further, saying that another untouched ballot box had been discovered at Miami's Good News Little River Baptist Church.

Moss said police would not open either box, and couldn't confirm the contents, but would turn them over to election authorities as soon as possible. Florida state and Miami-Dade County election officials have been hard to locate, Moss said, because of the Veterans Day weekend.

The confirmation of the orphan ballot box story, which just days ago seemed to be an urban legend, may lend credence to a raft of other complaints registered by several black Florida voters, including the concerns raised at the NAACP meeting. These are the same charges that led civil rights activist Jesse Jackson to hop on a plane from Nashville to Florida the day following the election.

Saturday afternoon, with NAACP president Kweisi Mfume presiding, about a dozen witnesses recounted tales of voting woe that ranged from incompetence to hostility to borderline illegality before a crowd of several hundred, mostly black, Floridians at a Miami community center.

One of the most compelling stories came from Stacy Powers, a news director at Tampa's WTMP, who discussed her Election Day experiences rallying voters for the radio sation. She told the audience that she drove around a predominantly black Tampa neighborhood in the station's van on Election Day and encountered voters who had been turned away from the polls because they lacked a photo I.D. After Powers challenged the poll manager to justify the decision to keep them from voting, "She told me not to get snippy with her." Powers said she was eventually kicked out of the polling place.

She also shared the story of an elderly black man whom she met at another polling precinct near Tampa. He had told Powers that it was his first time voting, and proudly pointed out the "I Voted" sticker on his collar. Just as Powers was about to leave, a police car approached the man. "They pulled up on the grass, two deputies stepped out and they started asking the man, 'What are you doing in this area? What exactly are you doing?'" Powers said. "He pointed to his collar and said, 'I just voted.' And they said, 'We want to see I.D. and we want to see it now!'" At this point in her testimony, Powers paused for a moment and started to cry. "Then [the police officer] turned to me and said, 'What are you sitting here for?'" She then sped off in fear, she said.

Lawyer Donnise DeSouza went to her normal polling place on Election Day only to be told by poll workers that she had to vote at another location. When she arrived at the new polling place at 6 p.m. EST, police were directing a traffic jam of voters into a tiny parking lot, only one hour before the polls closed. After a 30-minute wait for parking, and a 20-minute wait in line, DeSouza said, "They told me they didn't have my name." She was then ushered into a line with 15 others with the same problem. But when closing time arrived at 7 p.m., she said, poll workers told everyone in line that they wouldn't be able to vote. "They just said they couldn't do anything for us."

Other tales were less sensational. Two students from Florida A&M University said they were told that their voter registration applications didn't get processed. Another woman said she never received her absentee ballot, but badgered the polling place officials until they let her vote.

Fumiko Robinson, who had worked with the local "Arrive with Five" voting drive, said that several elderly Fort Lauderdale area voters, whom she had shuttled around to polling places, had similar problems. By Robinson's own estimate, 10 percent of the 100-plus people she personally shuttled to vote were turned away for not being on the proper list at the polling site. Poll workers asked a number of Robinson's elderly charges whether they'd moved or been convicted of a felony in the last year, both circumstances that would have affected their voting status. Robinson and her passengers were mortified. "I felt like I took them to the polls to be embarrassed," she said.

But things got worse for Robinson when her own mother, a Japanese-American woman, was refused access to the voting booth. Though Mitsu Robinson had been living in her neighborhood for decades, and had voted in the same location for many years, she was turned away from the polls because the middle initial on her registration card didn't match her driver's license. Only after Robinson's father got involved in a discussion did the poll workers budge and allow her to vote. "He was very ... outspoken," Robinson said.

And there were many other tales, all stories that when taken individually seemed like small incidents, but when taken together painted a picture of gross incompetence, borderline racism and blatant cultural insensitivity. A polling place demolished without notice. Creole speaking Haitian-Americans mocked for requesting help with their ballots. People standing in line at poll closing time who still weren't allowed to vote.

As for charges that the complaints have been motivated by morning-after angst about Al Gore's loss, Mfume and representatives of other voting rights organizations insist that they were fielding complaints long before the polls closed. On Election Day, the NAACP dispatched 200 extra volunteers to keep up with all the problems. It's Mfume's hope that the collective record will be enough to persuade America's top cop, Janet Reno, to send in the feds.

How the sacred vote was allowed to be tarnished by such incidents will surely be a question on the minds of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jewish leaders when they join forces with other demonstrators in Miami on Monday.

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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2000 Elections