In an announcement sure to rekindle smoldering embers from Election 2000, the Bush Justice Department announced Tuesday it will investigate claims that three Florida counties, as well as one municipality in Tennessee and one in Missouri, illegally kept voters away from the polls. A Justice Department official said the department's civil rights division has authorized filing suits against the five places (which he declined to name) where voters say they were unfairly kept from voting.
Justice is looking into charges that the counties and cities discriminated against minority voters and improperly purged names from the voter rolls, among other allegations. In December, 2000, Salon broke the story of how Florida contracted with a private firm to purge its voter rolls of felons and other people ineligible to vote, but in the process used faulty information to cast thousands of eligible registered voters off the rolls as well.
The voter purge hit minorities particularly hard in Florida, where 31 percent of all black men are denied the right to vote due to the ban on felons voting. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission picked up the Salon investigation in its own report on Florida's 2000 voting woes, which concluded that minority voters rights had been violated.
Florida, which George W. Bush carried by only 537 votes, was the center of a political firestorm: Lawsuits in the wake of the election dealing with the fairness of the vote count went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down a Florida Supreme Court ruling allowing a partial recount. The ruling, which effectively gave the presidency to Bush, was one of the most controversial rulings in the high court's history.
The Justice Department official said the DOJ will enter into negotiations with the five municipalities to try to correct problems from the last election, but if no remedy is reached, it is prepared to file suit. The negotiation is expected to last between 30 and 60 days.
Salon talked to some of the people involved in voting rights cases, including some involved in the Florida standoff, to get their reaction to Tuesday's announcement.
Donna Brazile, former Gore campaign manager and chair of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute:
My first reaction was just to say a quiet prayer. I placed a call to [then Deputy Attorney General] Eric Holder around 1:30 in the afternoon on Election Day. I had one of our lawyers in the room, and I said, "Eric, we have problems."
I just feel like there's justice finally. I don't know the long-term outcome, but clearly the Justice Department's decision today to pursue the tens of thousands of complaints is a vindication of what many of the civil rights leaders and the grass-roots community leaders were saying on Election Day: that a disproportionate number of minorities and others failed to cast their ballots.
It is bittersweet, but it just reminds me of the old line from Scripture: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." It reminds me that the struggle for civil rights and voting rights is an ongoing struggle. I'm proud to know that at least this party, the Democratic Party, is working very hard to protect and promote the rights of all Americans to vote, and to ensure this never happens again.
There's no question that they're going to find widespread voter disenfranchisement, voter intimidation, voter suppression, not only in Florida, but also in Tennessee. I was in Nashville, and people complained that they registered to vote, they did it the right way, and somehow or another between the motor vehicle office and the voter registration office no one turned in certain precincts to the right officials to make sure those names were on the rolls.
They're also going to investigate some of the allegations of purging that took place in other parts of the country. Look at the people who stood in line because they had malfunctioning, broken machines and poll workers who didn't know what to do, and yet they were turned away. This is a bittersweet victory, but nevertheless it's a victory and an important step to restoring voters' confidence in the electoral process.
I'm happy to know the Justice Department is finally on the case. It has dragged its feet for the last 16 months. I hope it stays the course, and that some of the career lawyers that have deep experience in handling these matters will be able to do their job so that justice, which so far has been denied, may be served.
Not only as chair of the Voting Rights Institute but in my own personal capacity, I'm going to continue to speak out until justice denied is finally justice served. I'm going to fight, and I'm going to urge the Democratic Party, the Democratic National Committee, and also some of my friends at the [Republican National Committee], who are interested in figuring out ways to prevent some of these things from happening in the future, to work with us to make sure no American ever again is denied the right to vote.
What prompted me to call the Justice Department on Election Day was people being stopped for unauthorized vehicle checks in Florida. Also, people standing in lines in Missouri at polling stations that had run out of ballots. In Shelby County and other places in Tennessee, we heard about people that knew they had registered to vote, had receipts from the motor vehicle office, and yet they were denied a provisional ballot. In Michigan there were several complaints about polling stations where people claimed that somehow or another their names had disappeared from the voting rolls.
My own sister in Seminole County had to produce three forms of ID. The interesting thing is that I didn't read about these stories, I heard about them on Election Day. We tried to act and we couldn't do anything for those people. We had monitors who were not familiar with the Voting Rights Act and civil rights law. And during the 36 days of the recount, we did not provide adequate protection to those voters.
I hope Al Gore reacts.
Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera:
"Like all Americans, Al Gore believes that voting is a fundamental right. Any effort to ensure that right is never again violated is a step in the right direction."
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.:
I will wait to see the nature and the substance of the lawsuits before commenting on them. However, there are two things that concern me. One, most Americans are unaware that they don't have an affirmative, fundamental right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. If they did, Florida 2000 could not have occurred. So the real solution to the voting problem in the United States is not a lawsuit (even though I'm not against the lawsuits), but a voting rights amendment to the Constitution. I have introduced such an amendment.
Secondly, in the meantime, the Justice Department and the White House could help to push meaningful national election legislation through the Congress where it is now stalled.
Pam Karlan, professor of voting rights at Stanford Law School:
It's good to see the Justice Department actually starting to do vigorous enforcement of things like the "motor voter" provision [which forces state agencies, such as departments of motor vehicles, to help people register]. Most of the concentration at the Justice Department is focused on redistricting, so it's good to see that they're doing cases on the more basic problem of who gets their ballots counted.
There's nothing deeply surprising about the timing but there's something interesting about the department's decision to go after Florida. There's already a lawsuit there on behalf of individuals, and it has to do with the outcome of the election; going after a couple of counties in a state where the election was decided is definitely a surprise. But the election is gone. This is an attempt to make sure something like this doesn't happen again. And it sounds as if they're going to negotiate a deal where the voting commissions will agree to comply with the law. This isn't the lawsuit that's designed to push the envelope. It's designed to make sure that laws are enforced.
[The lawsuits' conclusion] may contain specific provisions like, you need to have this kind of purge of the rolls or you need to put these people back on the rolls. It's not going to be just "we promise to do better." That's already happening. You need both [congressional action] and enforcement. If every jurisdiction complied with the law already on the books, a lot of the problems would go away. If poll workers understood what they were allowed to do and not allowed to; if elections supervisors knew how to keep up with the law, it would solve a lot of problems. The trouble is that the people at the polls are not well trained in the law, in part because it's hard to get poll workers. The polls are thinly staffed and the workers don't get much training, so many don't realize that, for example, if someone isn't on the rolls but a voter says he's registered, that person can file a challenge vote. A lot of people don't know that so they tell the person that they can't vote.
So a lot of it is a problem with training. But it's good to see that the Justice Department took the outcry seriously and launched an investigation.
Jesse Choper, Earl Warren professor of public law at Boalt School of Law at Berkeley:
It doesn't surprise me. Some may say that the lawsuits are surprising but I see no reason why the DOJ ought not to bring suits like this. If they have cause to believe there's a violation of the law, they're going to bring a lawsuit. If you went back into history, you'd find that in the last 40 years a great many of these suits have been filed by Republican administrations.
This kind of thing is not routine. Anytime you sue a state, it's a big deal. I'm sure the attorney general had to approve it. All I'm saying is that it's not done infrequently. And it's highly unlikely -- even if all the allegations are true -- that the suits would change the vote tallies in any way. It's possible in theory, but highly unrealistic in fact. That goes to the question of remedy. This question was asked at the time of the election, and the very likely answer then and now is that, if law violations occurred, people should be sanctioned. These are probably civil suits, so orders will be issued to stop it from happening again. That's the remedy. You don't overturn the election because of things like this.
Allan Lichtman, history professor at American University
My view has always been that the Florida election badly needs investigation. My own study for the Civil Rights Commission [which after conducting hearings issued a scathing report finding that disenfranchisement was widespread and affected blacks most heavily] in Florida showed an enormous disparity in the way that ballots cast by African-Americans were counted and rejected. I've been calling for an investigation for a year, so I'm quite pleased that the Department of Justice is looking into what was truly an American tragedy when it comes to the needless disenfranchisement of African-American voters.
It won't change the election, but it's important for American democracy to understand what happened. And it has a lot of political implications too, depending on what the cases find out. If there was outright discrimination, the effects could be enormous; if there wasn't outright discrimination and it was a matter of technology or incidental flaws, it would be quite different.
But it's an enormous victory for all of us who for a year now have been contending that when one of seven or eight African-Americans are disenfranchised, it's a major concern and something that the government should tackle. This is very similar to what's happened with racial profiling and other kinds of discrimination where the first reaction is denial. This [lawsuit] shows that we've moved beyond the denial phase to the phase in which we find out what happened, and learn to prevent it. I point no fingers at anyone, I'm not assigning blame. But it can only benefit our democracy to find out what really happened.