Bamboozled at the Voting Booth

Republicans are trying to brush off allegations that some blacks in Florida were cheated out of voting as groundless paranoia. But the past hundred years of Southern history gives African Americans plenty of reason to wonder.

| Thu Nov. 16, 2000 3:00 AM EST

The polls in Florida had barely closed last week when black leaders immediately cried foul. Reports had already begun pouring in about African Americans being harassed and intimidated by police in some counties, and turned away by registrars who claimed a shortage of ballots in others. Then there is the famous butterfly ballot that turned up in some heavily black and Jewish precincts of Palm Beach. Result: virtually round-the-clock demonstrations and calls for a federal investigation from the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume.

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Republicans dismiss black accusations of vote irregularities as another self-serving Democratic ruse. True, Jackson and Mfume are fervent Democrats, as are most black voters in Florida, who voted nearly 10 to one for Gore.

But for the Republicans to dismiss as paranoia black fears that they were bamboozled at the voting booths ignores the terrible history of the South's century-long effort to disenfranchise black voters.

In the decade after the Civil War, blacks voted in proportionately far greater numbers in the South than whites. But that quickly changed. With the withdrawal of federal troops and the collapse of Reconstruction, white Southerners unleashed a reign of terror to drive blacks from the polls. Southern states attempted to finish the job with a wave of literacy tests, poll taxes, informal voting codes, and whites-only primaries. By 1900, blacks had virtually disappeared from Southern voting rolls.

As late as 1948 a Gallup Poll found that 8 million blacks eligible to vote in the South were unregistered. The Supreme Court's outlawing of the all-white Democratic Texas primary in 1944, and President Truman's 1947 recommendation that Congress increase black voter protections only marginally increased black registration in the South. The Eisenhower administration's 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills contained tepid provisions that permitted the Justice Department to sue districts that denied blacks the vote. But the White House, fearing a ferocious backlash, authorized only four such lawsuits in the entire South.

The first real breakthrough on black voting came in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson rode national revulsion over the bloody rampage by Alabama state troopers against civil rights marchers at Selma to prod Congress into taking action on his long-stalled voting-rights bill. The major opponents to the bill weren't rabid Southern Democrats but Northern Republicans. House Republicans, led by then-minority leader Gerald Ford, proposed four provisions aimed at gutting the bill.

Their provisions would have allowed poll taxes and literacy tests, authorized the attorney general to bring suit only after a set number of complaints of voting violations had been received, and eliminated the provision requiring the federal courts to approve all voting laws passed by recalcitrant Southern states. Congress, however, did the right thing, dumping the Republican provisions and passing the bill with full enforcement provisions intact.

But this did not end the battle to strengthen black voting rights. In response, white Southern Democrats and Republicans launched a major countercampaign to bolster white voter registration. The Republicans, long moribund in the South, sniffed a huge opportunity to regain the region by exploiting white fears over black political domination. Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush Sr. carefully crafted and fine-tuned the Republican's Southern strategy. It was simple: Say and do as little as possible about black rights, while actively courting white voters.

The Southern strategy has worked magnificently. It certainly paid big dividends for Bush Jr., who swept nearly the entire old Confederacy. And if he makes the sweep complete by bagging Florida, it will likely put him in the White House.

Black voters dare not forget this sordid history of voting betrayal and neglect. It is why they passionately believe that they were once again victimized at the voting booth in Florida.