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June 28, 2004

Florida voting problems fit historical pattern, says voting rights expert

By Jennifer McNulty

As the nation gears up for the November election, voting rights specialist Paul Ortiz is bracing for a replay of the 2000 Florida debacle.

Photo of Paul Ortiz
Paul Ortiz's new book documents the bloodiest Election Day in modern American history.
Photo: Victor Schiffrin, UCSC Photo Services

Ortiz, an assistant professor of community studies, says the voting “irregularities” that disenfranchised thousands of African American voters in Florida were not an isolated phenomenon.

“The focus has been on Florida, but investigators have found irregularities across the nation,” said Ortiz, author of the forthcoming book, Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920, which will be published next year by the University of California Press.

Ortiz’s book documents the first statewide civil rights movement against Jim Crow and culminates with a description of the 1920 election when white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan violently--and with state sanction--prevented African Americans from voting. It was the bloodiest Election Day in modern U.S. history.

The legacy of legal segregation was evident in North Carolina in 2000, where more than 100,000 ballots were lost primarily in the state’s eastern “plantation counties,” said Ortiz, who was living in North Carolina in spring 2001 when calls began coming in from journalists.

“This really matters, because it affects the validity of the whole system,” said Ortiz. “If you can’t control the system of elections, you don’t have much of a democracy. If my vote might be counted out, where’s my representation?”

Blacks have gained and lost the right to vote several times throughout U.S. history, noted Ortiz. “There is a pattern of disenfranchising blacks, although the methods change,” he said. In 1920, the state sanctioned violence against Florida voters. Four years ago, the state’s election machinery was run by people who were “very committed to tightening the system of voting to exclude as many black people as possible without openly violating the law,” said Ortiz.

According to testimony before the Civil Rights Commission regarding the 2000 election in Florida, the posting of state troopers outside polling stations in predominantly black precincts intimidated many would-be voters. Others were put off by volunteers who asked questions about the criminal history of voters. In other parts of the country, including the western United States, failure to distribute sample ballots in Spanish or Chinese similarly restricts the rights of voters, added Ortiz.

A growing number of states have adopted computerized voting systems since Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, and Ortiz is bracing for their first big test: the November presidential election.

“One election doesn’t give us a trend, but if 2004 unfolds in a similar manner, it will pose the gravest danger to our democracy,” he said. “We’ve seen a steady decline in voter turnout, and the biggest risk is that even more people will get the message that their vote doesn’t count, and they’ll opt out of the system.”

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