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Voting Rights in the South

For well over a century, the question of voting rights and access to democracy has been a definitive political struggle for the nation, especially in African-American and other dispossessed communities across the South. This fundamental issue has achieved new importance and notoriety in the wake of the 2000 elections, as evidence has mounted of outdated voting machinery, election fraud, voter intimidation, and other voting rights violations.

Coupled with the more systemic issues of widespread felon disenfranchisement and the corrupting influence of money in politics, the 2000 elections exposed long-standing barriers to political participation and the fundamental absence of basic democracy - again placing voting rights and the need for a pro-democracy movement squarely back on the political agenda.

After the 2000 elections, Democracy South and the Institute for Southern Studies began preliminary research on the extent of voting rights violations in the South. It was not surprising to discover evidence indicating that the gross irregularities that occurred in the Florida elections may have been just as bad in many other Southern states. In a July 2001 study by the Minority Staff Special Investigations Division Committee on Government Reform US House of Representatives titled "Income and Racial Disparities in the Undercount in the 2000 Presidential Election," investigators found that the 10 congressional districts with the highest percentage of uncounted votes were low-income, high minority districts. Five of the 10 were in the southern states of Florida (2 districts), South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. Here are a few more examples:

North Carolina:

Duplin County: The Duplin County Board of Elections staff was removed due to allegations of fraudulent and criminal behavior, including unauthorized voter address changes, altering signatures, and voter intimidation at the polls. The county is dominated by the owners of corporate hog farms that were campaigning against a Republican state representative who was one of their main critics in the legislature. In spite of overwhelming evidence of criminal behavior, the local district attorney has refused to prosecute. The director of the county board of elections was the aunt of the largest corporate hog farm owner in the state.

Harnett County: The Harnett County Board of Elections staff was forced to resign for failure to keep adequate records. An audit found that most of the voter information in the county database was incorrect, including many unauthorized changes to voter addresses. The director, after discovering that the State Board of Elections was coming to do an audit, placed a large number of items from her office in the trunk of her car. Though the director and staff were fired, the missing material was never searched for and never found. No charges were pressed against these election officials. An African-American city councilwoman, however, was arrested for absentee ballot fraud the night before the 2000 national election for an alleged 1999 violation.

Mecklenburg County (which contains most of Charlotte): A number of formal complaints have been filed and affidavits collected by voters alleging various voting irregularities in predominantly African-American precincts. This work was carried out by a voting rights task force which includes Democracy South, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the Mecklenburg Voter Coalition, as well as other organizations.


In February, the Southern Regional Council released a study based on Georgia data showing that the punch card system - used in counties representing over 30% of voters - resulted in almost twice as many uncounted votes as counties using optical scanning technology. Black voters were almost twice as likely as white voters to live in counties using punch card machines. In fact, 46% of black registered voters live in counties using punch card systems.


"data crunchers used computers to target thousands of voters, many of whom were then purged from the voter rolls without reason. And many thousands more saw their votes thrown out as a result of error-prone voting machines and poorly designed ballots, the results of an under funded and chaotic electoral system."

The above is an explosive report from The Nation magazine on the Florida voting rights problems.

Our Florida affiliates, the Florida League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club, were deeply involved in organizing the demonstrations following the election and continue to play a critical role in the continued efforts to ensure that such discrimination and voter disenfranchisement does not occur again in the state.


Since the 2000 election, complaints have arisen related to the state "Motor Voter" law, where citizens who thought they had been properly registered to vote under the law were in fact excluded from the rolls. Tennessee Citizen Action has served as a clearinghouse for these complaints and is now building a state coalition on this and related issues.


In January the Louisiana Democracy Project convened a daylong forum entitled "Democracy in the New Millennium" at the Southern University Law School with John Bonifaz of the National Voting Rights Institute as the keynote speaker. The forum addressed both electoral reform and campaign finance reform as key "unfinished business of the civil rights movement."

And this is very likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. A much more thorough investigation is needed in order to know the true nature and extent of such affronts to electoral democracy.


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