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Disbelief, hard feelings

Three months after the presidential election, black voters in Florida don't accept the result and blame the state for rejecting their votes.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001

With extraordinary anger and bitterness, Florida's black voters are firmly convinced that thousands of their votes were unfairly rejected in November's election, enabling the wrong man to move into the White House.

Ninety-one percent of the state's black voters believe Al Gore was the rightful winner in Florida and should be serving instead of President Bush, a St. Petersburg Times poll shows.

"Bush isn't the real president," said Leroy Jones, a 66-year-old Democrat and retired fruit picker from Oak Hill, near Daytona Beach. "He stole it from Gore."

The new statewide survey taken earlier this month is the first of its kind in Florida, which was ground zero for the historic presidential election. It reveals the depth and intensity of the distrust and anger about the election among black voters, who turned out in record numbers in November and overwhelmingly supported Gore.

The Times poll shows:

84 percent of black voters in Florida believe a greater proportion of votes by African-Americans were rejected or not counted than votes by Floridians of other races.

Among those voters, 40 percent cited "a coordinated effort by state government to make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote" as the reason, surpassing the portion of voters who blamed faulty voting machines or voter error.

More than one-third said they were denied fair access to voting in the election or someone they know personally experienced the same problem.

36 percent cited Bush's younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, as the most important factor in Bush's victory in the post-election battle. The governor was cited more often than any other person or institution, including Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nationally, other opinion polls also show most black voters believe Gore won more votes in Florida than Bush and should be the president. But pollster Rob Schroth said the results of the Times' poll of African-American voters in Florida is stunning.

"It is so rare in public opinion polling to get a 90 percent result for any question," said Schroth, who conducted the poll for the Times. "Whether urban or rural, male or female, college educated or not, if you are an African-American you believe Al Gore is the legitimate victor in Florida and the legitimate president of the United States."

Gov. Jeb Bush said the perception among black voters about the election is different from reality. For example, he said in an interview, "the reality is that state government doesn't run elections. The perception is one thing and the reality is something else."

But time and again, black voters expressed their outrage in dozens of follow-up interviews.

"The election was fixed," said Idella Bowman, a 70-year-old Tampa Democrat, "and I think Jeb Bush had everything to do with his brother getting in the White House."

Marie Cadell of Miami was just as direct.

"As far as I'm concerned, he's not my president. All the votes weren't counted," the 62-year-old Democrat said of President Bush. "I don't know what exactly happened, but something's not right here."

The post-election drama lasted 36 days. Gore conceded in December after the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recounts in a 5-4 opinion and handed Florida and the presidency to Bush.

The official results show Bush won Florida by just 537 votes out of nearly 6-million that were cast. But if even a modest portion of the votes of black residents that were rejected had been counted, Gore would have won. Nearly 85 percent of Florida's black voters are Democrats.

While the U.S. Supreme Court stopped those recounts, the single factor cited more often than any other for Bush's ultimate victory is his brother.

Gov. Bush contended throughout the post-election fight that he kept his distance from it. But a detailed account of that period by the Washington Post suggests that the governor was more active behind the scenes and that he or his staff participated in key decisions by the Bush camp -- including the decision not to ask for recounts in some Florida counties.

"He's going to help his brother with favors, support, something," said Duane Bradley, a 29-year-old grocery worker in St. Petersburg and a Democrat. "They are going to talk away from the camera."

But Bush repeated Friday that he had no influence over what happened after Election Day.

"The reality," he said, "is that I recused myself and I didn't preside over the interpretation of the law, which was ultimately done by the U.S. Supreme Court."

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 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 poll indicates that black voters in Florida are more pessimistic about the direction of the country and the state than the overall population. More than two-thirds of them also say race relations in the state are not good, but most don't consider the racial climate to be any worse than in the rest of the country.

The level of dislike of the Bush brothers, though, is extraordinary.

The personal approval ratings for the president and the governor are rock-bottom. Just 15 percent of the state's African-American voters have a favorable opinion of President Bush, while 76 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Gov. Bush's numbers are similar, with a 13 percent personal approval rating and a 79 percent disapproval rating.

Those numbers underscore the dramatic split between African Americans in Florida and the overall electorate. President Bush and Gov. Bush have job approval ratings of more than 60 percent among all voters in national and state polls, respectively. A national Gallup poll taken earlier this month found 65 percent of all voters approve of President Bush as a person.

Black Floridians don't see it that way.

"I think what they are trying to do is put us back 40 years in this country," Cher Wilcox of Tampa, a 47-year-old business consultant and Democrat, said of the Bush brothers. "It is a total regression."

The disputed election is helping fuel much of the anger directed toward the Bush brothers.

Turnout among African-Americans surged in Florida just as it did in other key states. Exit polls indicate black voters represented 15 percent of the overall turnout in November, an increase of 50 percent over 1996.

The overall turnout in Florida was 70 percent. But more than 80 percent of Florida's 934,000 black voters turned out to vote -- and 93 percent of them voted for Gore.

While a national poll conducted last month by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research found Americans were divided over whether Bush or Gore got more votes in Florida, an overwhelming majority of black voters here believe Gore won.

Published reports indicate that complaints about discounted ballots, faulty voting machines and unprepared poll workers were most commonly heard in predominantly low-income, minority neighborhoods throughout the state.

Those perceptions are reinforced by the poll results, which show 84 percent of black voters believe their votes were discounted at a greater rate than those cast by other voters.

Of that group, 40 percent blamed a coordinated effort by state government, 17 percent said it was because voting machines in minority communities didn't work properly, 15 percent cited confusion among voters and 14 percent held poll workers responsible.

Investigations by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and media outlets have not turned up firm evidence that the state government intentionally tried to stop black voters from voting. But the perception remains strong, the poll shows, even though responsibility for some of the problems on Election Day rests elsewhere.

Some voters, for example, held the state responsible for decisions made by county elections supervisors, such as the appearance of the ballot and the location and operation of polling places.

"It was a plan all the way around," said Annette Ford, a 39-year-old clerk from West Palm Beach and a Democrat, "from the design of the ballot to the polling places. I think there was a plan to hit it several ways from all sides."

Among those most likely to blame state government are long-time residents such as Charles Fountain, a 59-year-old St. Petersburg Democrat. He and other black voters alluded to the long struggle by black citizens to eliminate poll taxes, literacy tests and other impediments that were aimed at denying their right to vote.

With those voting rights federally protected and black voters going to the polls in record numbers in Florida, Fountain and others believe new roadblocks were erected in the presidential election that prevented their voices from being fully heard.

"I've lived in Florida many, many years," said Fountain, a retired teacher who is skeptical of state government. "Based on some of the things that have happened, I could easily believe it was deliberately done, because it was believed more African-Americans were going to vote for Gore."

Wilcox, the Tampa business consultant, recalled how her parents took part in civil rights demonstrations and sit-ins in the 1960s. Now, she said, those rights her parents fought for have been threatened by the election controversy.

"We find it pretty heart-breaking, but we are going to continue the fight," Wilcox said. "We're headed in the wrong direction."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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