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The Real Winners: Black Voters

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No matter how the Florida mess turns out, their clout can't be ignored

His grandiloquence the Rev. Jesse Jackson maintains that "I've never seen such a wholesale machinery of disenfranchisement at work" as what occurred in Florida on this Election Day. It was, he says, "a 10 on a scale of 10" in the degree of voting-rights abuses, worse than Selma, Ala. Though that is an exaggeration, since no one was murdered for the right to vote in Florida during last week's balloting, as they were in Selma, Jackson has a point. In Florida, black college students came to the polls with their registration cards but were turned away because their names were not listed on the voting rolls. In some black neighborhoods cops set up intimidating roadblocks near polling places to check IDs. Some voters who applied for absentee ballots never got them, while others who came to the polls were told that they had already voted absentee and were turned away.

In all, by the estimate of civil rights attorney Penda Hair of the Washington-based Advancement Project, "hundreds, maybe thousands" of votes were affected, more than enough to have swung a razor-thin election. Whether all this was the result of a racist plot or a by-product of insensitive police work and the incompetence of precinct workers remains to be investigated by the Justice Department. But in a sense, any skulduggery the feds discover will be beside the point, a mere footnote to the triumphant story of how this year the black vote came of age, thanks largely to Jesse Jackson. Lord knows he has his flaws, and over the years I've had plenty to say about them. But when it comes to turning blacks out on Election Day, Jackson is the undisputed champion. Without him and the millions of black votes he helped deliver, says political scientist Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland, "we'd have been planning George W. Bush's Inauguration since Election Day."

Just look at the numbers, especially in the all-important swing states. In Florida, the most crucial of them all, black votes constituted 15% of the turnout, up from 10% in 1996, even though they make up only 13% of the state's voting-age population. In Missouri, black turnout rose from 5% of the total turnout in the last election to 12%--not enough to keep the state out of Bush's column but assuring the election of the late Democratic Senate candidate Mel Carnahan (his widow will serve his term). Blacks in Tennessee, says political scientist David Bositis, "can't be blamed" for the Vice President's loss of his home state. Their share of the turnout leaped from 13% to 18%. In every one of these states and nationwide Gore received more than 90% of the black vote, rivaling the margins enjoyed by Bill Clinton, who some of us fondly call the "first black President."

Indeed, when all the numbers are in, it could turn out that Gore got more black votes than any other candidate in history, a fact that's all the more amazing because black voters aren't especially enamored of the Vice President. Some agree with Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney's unfair gibe that the Vice President suffers from a low "Negro tolerance level" because, until he named Donna Brazile as his campaign manager, he had not included many blacks in his high command. Others were infuriated when he sided with the anti-Castro fanatics in Miami on the Elian Gonzalez affair, suggesting that he thought refugees from Cuba should be treated better than those from Haiti. But for most black voters, Bositis says, this was less an election about Gore than about "aggressively asserting their self-interest."

It was also about a new level of political organization and effort. This year, Jackson says, he traveled more on Gore's behalf than "I did in either of my own campaigns" for President, making more than 300 appearances since August, including 13 days in Florida. His efforts meshed with an unprecedented get-out-the-vote campaign mounted by the N.A.A.C.P., which used some of the $10 million it received from sources it will not name to broadcast heavy-handed TV spots asserting that George W. Bush's failure to sign new hate-crimes legislation was the equivalent of dragging Texas murder victim James Byrd to his death all over again. Two black members of the Florida legislature, Kendrick Meek and Tony Hill, traveled to more than half the state's 67 counties to promote a voter-education project called "Arrive with Five," in which they urged voters to go to the polls with at least four other people.

Finally, there was what T. Williard Fair, a flamboyant Bush supporter who heads the Miami Urban League, calls "the fear syndrome," which involved painting Bush as a racist bogeyman by, for example, sending out false e-mail messages claiming that Bush had shut down historically black colleges in Texas. Such scare tactics were shameful and unneeded. Given the Clinton Administration's track record of defending affirmative action, reducing black unemployment to an all-time low and appointing the most diverse Cabinet in history, it should have been easy to sell Gore to African Americans as something better than the lesser of two evils. From now on, blacks will be a voting block that neither Republicans nor Democrats can afford to ignore.


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Cover Date: November 27, 2000

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