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Duval County residents tell of obstacles that kept them from voting.
By ADAM C. SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000
JACKSONVILLE -- It wasn't for lack of trying that Janice Kelly became one of thousands of black Duval County voters who tried and failed to register a vote for president this year.
After work on election day, she showed up at the same precinct where she had voted for seven years and found it locked up tight. Frantically, Mrs. Kelly drove to another precinct, where workers ordered her to drive miles away to a church. There, though her watch showed five minutes left before polls closed, workers said it was too late for her and several other African-Americans to vote.
"You go driving all over town trying to vote and keep getting turned down," Mrs. Kelly said Wednesday night, still fuming about the experience.
Amid the battles over dimpled chad and absentee ballots, there is a growing current of frustration, anger and suspicion among African-Americans who say their votes were suppressed or disproportionately rejected.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Duval County, where as many as 16,000 presidential ballots from African-Americans were rejected. On Wednesday night, voter after voter testified at an NAACP hearing about obstacles placed in front of them when they tried to vote: erroneous felony conviction records that nearly kept them off voting lists; precinct records that wrongly showed they had voted absentee or weren't registered; poll workers who didn't tell voters they could correct a wrongly punched ballot; and an unusual ballot that confused thousands of people.
Nearly 27,000 presidential punch card ballots were rejected in Duval, the vast majority because voters punched holes for more than one presidential candidate.
Though Duval is a Republican stronghold, about 40 percent of those rejected ballots came from City Council districts that are predominantly black and that overwhelmingly backed Al Gore.
"What it shows is that black votes don't count," said Winford House, a retired naval civil servant from Jacksonville who attended the hearing and believes he voted correctly.
Susan Tucker Johnson of the Duval elections supervisor's office said the office weeks ago asked local NAACP officials to submit specific complaints but has yet to receive anything on which they can act.
"They're saying things that may or may not be valid. We want to take their word for it, and change things for the next time."
Duval County's surge in over-voted presidential ballots is widely believed to stem from its unusual ballot layout. Rather than list all the presidential candidates on a single page, Duval spread them over two pages.
Many voters apparently voted for one of the major presidential candidates on the first page, then turned to the second page and punched another of the more obscure presidential candidates.
Elections officials say they won't use the same ballot format again.
Stories from African-Americans in Duval County are among scores of stories statewide that started flooding into civil rights groups soon after the polls opened Nov. 7. The NAACP said it had received 80 complaints by noon on election day and now has 486 complaints and more than 300 pages of sworn statements showing a "massive, systematic exclusion of black, Jewish and immigrant voters."
The NAACP plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging widespread voting irregularities in Florida. Meanwhile, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights plans to examine voter irregularities, and the U.S. Justice Department is looking at such complaints in Florida, but has not decided whether to launch a formal investigation.
"I don't know how anybody living in America wouldn't be concerned when people's votes are getting thrown out, when people are getting intimidated at the polls, when people have to run to three different polling places and still not vote," Florida NAACP president Adora Obi Nweze said at the conclusion of the hearing, which continues tonight. "If we can't come together on this, I don't know what we can come together on."
Nweze herself said she was nearly unable to vote in Miami because precinct workers insisted she had already voted absentee. It took 90 minutes of arguing and calls to lawyers, she said, before she was allowed to vote.