Pinellas: a question of race
A disproportionate number of ballots in black districts got tossed out. Why? The question defies an answer.
|[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Pinellas elections operations manager Richard Walker moves among the rows of ballot transfer cases in September. An analysis of ballots found that black Pinellas voters ballots were disallowed in higher proportions than others.
By LISA GREENE
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 12, 2001
CLEARWATER -- Nursing assistant Robin Green hadn't voted for years, but she was excited as she went to cast her ballot at the recreation center in the North Greenwood neighborhood where she grew up.
She knew the 2000 election would be close. She didn't like Gov. Jeb Bush's policy to end affirmative action. And she wanted to vote against his brother.
At first, arriving at her polling place seemed like a celebration.
"I saw people I hadn't seen in 20 years," the 38-year-old Green recalled. "It was like a Christmas party, and everybody's invited."
She didn't know then that she and her neighbors would share in a dubious distinction. Their precinct, No. 526, had more ballots for president thrown out than any other precinct in Pinellas County.
Green is sure that her ballot was one of them.
In her North Greenwood precinct alone, 98 ballots for president didn't count. Of those, 70 voters marked too many candidates and 28 didn't clearly mark any candidate.
Countywide, there were 8,487 ballots -- 6,913 in polling places and 1,574 absentees -- where the presidential votes didn't count.
What's more disturbing is this: Those ballots weren't scattered evenly across Pinellas. Precincts where the most votes didn't count had one other thing in common. Most of the voters were black.
Only 28 of Pinellas' 345 regular precincts are at least 40 percent black. Those precincts account for 5.2 percent of votes from those who went to the polls. But they had disproportionate problems: 15.2 percent of the presidential votes that didn't count came from those precincts. (Absentee ballots aren't included in this calculation.)
What would have happened if the invalid ballots were counted?
A ballot review sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and a group of other media companies shows 657 votes that could have been gleaned had Pinellas County officials conducted a hand recount. That recount was ordered by the Florida Supreme Court on Dec. 8, then halted by the U.S. Supreme Court a day later.
The media review found that those Pinellas ballots were almost evenly divided, giving George W. Bush only 15 net votes under the standard Pinellas intended to use for its review. But thousands more ballots were so badly marred they could not be counted under any standard, leaving black politicians wondering whether the invalid votes in Pinellas' Democratic minority precincts could have changed the overall result.
"Wow," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, a St. Petersburg resident who is one of two black county commissioners. "That's significant. . . . Those numbers are just very disappointing."
Those problems occurred even though Pinellas didn't face confusion over butterfly ballots or rumored roadblocks to keep black voters away.
"Pinellas, on the surface, was a place where there were not a lot of problems," said Commission Chairman Calvin Harris, the first black elected to the commission. "This means we have to work harder to make it better."
Pinellas' best-known problem in last year's election came after the polls closed, when poll workers mistakenly counted some ballots twice and others not at all. A recount the day after caught the mistake, resulting in a 478-vote swing in Gore's favor.
But those problems had nothing to do with invalid ballots that weren't counted at all. Pinellas County had an error rate of 2.1 percent.
As many as 1 in 11 voters walked into a majority-black precinct and walked out without casting a vote for president that counted.
Jonathan Wade, president of the North Greenwood Association, wasn't surprised to hear about the ballots' distribution. He was saddened.
|[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Jonathan Wade, president of the North Greenwood Association, said he was saddened to learn that precinct No. 526, in that neighborhood, had more ballots thrown out than any other in Pinellas.
"With all the struggles African-Americans had to go through, our votes ought to count," he said.
A St. Petersburg Times analysis examined other factors among the invalid ballots, such as voter's age and the poll workers' experience level, and didn't turn up trends other than race.
Except for one: absentee ballots. Those ballots also had a high number of invalid votes. Election officials say that's because voters have nobody helping them. Those votes were mostly undervotes -- cases in which no vote was cast, or a hole wasn't punched through. Most invalid votes in minority precincts were overvotes, in which people voted for more than one candidate. The newspaper's review of ballots found only 8 overvotes that could have counted, 7 of them for Gore.
So community leaders could offer only theories about why majority-black precincts had more discounted ballots. Some pointed to voter inexperience or mistakes, while others saw something more sinister -- a deliberate effort to discount the votes of black Democrats. Harris, a Democrat, dismissed that suggestion.
Wade agreed. Instead, he pointed to high illiteracy rates in his neighborhood. Fewer people have experience voting, he said. In the past, he said, his community group has set up voter registration tables at local fairs and forums .
Now, Wade thinks that hasn't been enough.
"I've got a stack of voter registration cards there," he said, gesturing toward a table by his office door. "But I haven't done enough voter education to make a difference."
In North Greenwood on Election Day, Green read the instructions on her ballot, "Vote for ONE Group" for president. She thought the wording was strange, but she saw nobody to ask and a line waiting to vote.
So Green punched a hole for the first of her "group," Al Gore. Then she punched a hole that she thought was for Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman. She finished and dropped her ballot in the box.
Green thought her vote counted until she talked to her mother, a regular voter, a few days later. Then she was sure she had gotten it wrong.
Months later, Green sat on a bench in her front yard, still angry about the vote she views as stolen.
"I think it was set up to fail," she said.
Others in North Greenwood said poll workers there didn't help enough. Complex supervisor Al Hinson was at the precinct all day.
"I'm not throwing stones, but they weren't involved in the election, giving instructions to voters, the way they were in the past," he said.
Jeralne Burt, a North Greenwood resident who ran for Clearwater City Commission this year, was in charge of the precinct. She said she spent hours making phone calls to check voters' qualifications, but she felt there were enough poll workers.
Burt said at least 15 people came to her and said they couldn't find the Democratic candidates, who were listed second on the ballot. At the time, she told people the candidates were listed and saw them return to the booth. Now, she wonders if those people had already punched for one candidate, and returned to vote again.
For Harris and Welch, the invalid ballots make it easier to justify the money -- as much as $15.5-million -- they are likely to spend on new voting machines. Maybe legislators were right to require new machines right away, despite the county's difficulty meeting the deadline, Welch said.
With the new machines, voters won't be able to make the same mistakes. There won't be holes to punch, and the machines won't accept votes for more than one candidate per race.
"If having new equipment makes people feel positive about voting, it's worth any amount of money," Harris said.
Elections officials are making plans to let voters try out the new machines at malls, grocery stores and schools. County Judge Patrick Caddell, chairman of the county's canvassing board, said those plans should reflect the distribution of invalid ballots.
"Outreach and education has to be tailored to the community to be effective," he said.
Harris also has talked to Deborah Clark, elections supervisor, about having county employees help supervise precincts in the next election.
"There are already a lot of people who feel it doesn't matter -- their vote doesn't count," Harris said. "We need to be able to assure them that every vote is counted."
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