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Black voters believe they were denied

While the truth might never be known, the perception that many were disenfranchised in November is a strongly held one.

By ADAM C. SMITH and JOUNICE NEALY

© Copyrighted, St. Petersburg Times, February 18, 2001


Special Report: A Poll of African-Americans in Florida

The Charts

On Race Relations

On Discrimination

On the Economy

On the State of the U.S. and Florida

On the 2000 Presidential Election


About the Poll

The St. Petersburg Times poll of African-American voters in Florida was conducted Feb. 3-5 by Schroth & Associates, a Washington polling firm that works primarily for corporate clients but also for both Democratic and Republican candidates. The telephone survey of 600 registered voters has a margin of error rate of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The margin of error rate for the responses in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties is plus or minus 8 percentage points. Totals may not add to 100% due to rounding.


Despite the pending civil rights lawsuits, official inquiries and hundreds of sworn statements gathered by the NAACP, no one might ever know whether African-Americans really faced widespread infringement of their voting rights in November.

But a Times poll of black voters shows just how firmly that belief has taken hold. More than eight in 10 black voters in Florida believe blacks' ballots were disproportionaly rejected or not counted during last year's election. One in three said they or someone they know personally was denied fair access to voting in November.

The deep suspicions come from people like 69-year-old Lillie Jackson of Miami who tried to vote for Al Gore. When she punched the pin through the punch-card ballot, it appeared the hole was in the wrong place, not by Gore's slot. A poll worker let her try once more, and the same thing happened. She still suspects her vote for Gore was never counted in the machine tally.

Then there's Lori Pitts, 37, of Jacksonville, who before Election Day had called the elections office to verify she was registered. She went to the precinct where she had always voted and was told she needed to vote elsewhere because she had recently moved.

They sent her to another precinct, where no one could find her name on the voter list. She headed to the downtown elections office to straighten out the problem, but the polls closed by the time she arrived.

"I went around the world in a day and still got nothing," said Pitts, who never filed a complaint.

Robert Little, a 38-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident, had no problem until he tried to vote. The punch-card ballots, he said, were very tough to punch through. He had difficulty with them, and so did a number of elderly voters he saw.

"I think they did it on purpose, so the Republicans can get back in office," said Little, who voted for Gore.

Leighwynn Howell, an associate pastor in his church and a Pinellas County correctional officer, has little doubt what decided the presidential election: "It was Jeb Bush and his cronies."

"It was predicted a month before the election that everything hinged on Florida. Isn't it amazing that so many blacks went to the polls, and then it turned out so many of their votes weren't counted?"

In follow-up telephone interviews, many of the people participating in the poll offered anecdotes of voting problems that could just as easily be explained as random confusion amid massive voter turnout, rather than intentional obstacles placed in front of voters. Some recounted difficulties they had heard happened to friends of friends or heard through the media.

"The wings of the media may be flying this story, but that really doesn't matter," said Rob Schroth, the Washington D.C.-based pollster who conducted the poll for the Times. "A large percentage of African-American registered voters believe it to be true, which in the world of politics has always been more important than fact. In this case, it's a perception very strongly held."

The complaints about voting rights infringement began streaming into civil rights groups well before polls closed Nov. 7. There were reports of intimidating law enforcement officers near predominantly black polling places, about people being turned away from the polls, being refused assistance with their ballots, or being incorrectly pegged as felons ineligible to vote.

Various election analyses have helped fuel the suspicions about systematic disenfranchisement of minority voters.

Large urban counties with big black populations tended to have problematic punch-card ballot systems; majority white precincts were more likely to have extra equipment available to help straighten out questions about voters left off of voter lists; thousands of voters, many of them black, were wrongly removed from voting lists because of a faulty program aimed at purging convicted felons from voter rolls.

Ballots rejected for not showing a presidential vote or showing too many disproportionately fell in predominantly black precincts. In Duval County, for instance, an estimated 50 percent to 60 percent of the 26,000 discarded ballots came from black neighborhoods.

"In Duval County, the votes that weren't counted were mostly black voters. That's fact," said Mary Graham of Jacksonville. "I grew up in segregation, and I know what the right to vote means. People died for it. Something happened in Florida that's not right."

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