George W. Bush is president today because the votes counted in Florida’s presidential election did not match the ballots cast by the state’s voters. But the outcome in Florida–which determined the presidency–was not decided by hanging chads, recounts, or intervention by the Supreme Court.
Al Gore lost Florida’s presidential vote because electoral officials tossed into the trashcan as invalid more than one out of every ten ballots cast by African-Americans throughout the state. In some counties, nearly 25 percent of ballots cast by blacks were set aside as invalid. In contrast, officials rejected only about one out of every fifty ballots cast by whites statewide.
This vast racial disparity in ballot rejection rates defeated Al Gore. If black ballots had been rejected at the same minimal rate as white ballots, more than 50,000 additional black votes would have been counted in Florida’s presidential election. Given that more than 90 percent of blacks favored Gore over Bush, Gore would have won Florida by at least 40,000 votes, prevailed in the Electoral College, and become President of the United States on January 20, 2001.
These were the results of a statistical study that I was commissioned to conduct for the United States Commission on Civil Rights and a subsequent analysis published in the Journal of Legal Studies (January 2003). Independent studies by Professors Phil Klinkner of Hamilton College and Anthony Salvanto of the University of California, Irvine have confirmed the finding of major racial disparities in ballot rejection rates as have studies by the New York Times and Washington Post.
My studies pointed no fingers of blame at any official involved in Florida’s 2000 presidential election. But the studies did call for a thorough investigation by federal authorities to find out why ballots cast by blacks were disqualified at such a higher rate than ballots cast by whites.
Two members of the Civil Rights Commission who filed a dissenting report did not substantively dispute the finding of wide racial disparities in ballot rejection rates in Florida. But they denied the need for investigation, placing blame squarely on black voters, who allegedly lacked the education and literacy to fill out their ballots properly.
Analysis showed, however, that blacks were much more likely to have their ballots set aside than whites even after controlling for ballot design, voting technology, education, income, poverty, literacy, and first-time voting–a finding that independent analysis likewise confirmed. According to a New York Times study, “even after these factors [education, income, ballot design] and others were accounted for the study showed a significantly higher rate of rejected ballots in precincts with a large proportion of black voters.”
The Right has desperately sought to suppress the truth about Florida’s presidential elections both to silence any questions about the legitimacy of Bush’s victory and to validate their assumption that race no longer matters in America today. Racial problems, they would have us believe, were solved long ago in the era of the civil rights movement. Never mind the wealth of studies documenting racial disparities not only in voting rights but in matters of everyday life including police stops, mortgage lending, heath care, hiring and promotion.
Imagine, however, if Democrats had controlled the government of Florida in 2000 and Al Gore had won the state and the presidency because more than one out of ten white voters had their ballots disqualified, compared to only one out of fifty black voters. This would have been the crime of the millennium for ideologues of the Right demanding investigation by every federal official that could be summoned to the state.
But slumbering liberals are no less to blame than militant conservatives for the lack of national attention to an extraordinary injustice to minorities that determined the outcome of a presidential election. Why no mobilization of protest from the NAACP? The Urban League. The ACLU. The Democratic Party.
Absent public outrage, the United States Department of Justice has never conducted the necessary investigation of Florida’s presidential election to discover the reasons behind racial disparities in ballot rejection rates. So we must wish away what really happened in Florida and never find out why African-Americans disproportionately lost their right to vote or how to make sure this doesn’t happen again–anywhere in America. Unfortunately, despite passage of a federal election reform bill, another Florida remains a tragic risk for 2004.
ALLAN J. LICHTMAN is Professor of History at American University in Washington, DC He conducted the study of ballot rejection rates in Florida for the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He has been an expert witness in more than 60 federal voting rights cases.
Copyright held by ALLAN J. LICHTMAN