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The Great Voter "Black Out" of 2004

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Wednesday, January 26, 2005

by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Greg Palast

The inaugural confetti has been swept away and with it, the last quarrel
over who really won the presidential election.

But there is still unfinished business that can't be swept away. After
taking his oath, the president called for a "concerted effort to promote
democracy." The president should begin with the United States.

More than 133,000 votes remain uncounted in Ohio, more than George W. Bush's
supposed margin of victory. In New Mexico, the uncounted vote totals at
least three times the president's plurality -- and so on in other states.

The challenge to the vote count is over, but the matter of how the United
States counts votes, or fails to count them, remains.

The ballots left uncounted, and that will never be counted, are so-called
spoiled or rejected ballots -- votes cast by citizens, but never tallied.
This is the dark little secret of U.S. democracy: Nationwide, in our
presidential elections, about 2 million votes are cast and never counted,
most spoiled because they cannot be read by the tallying machines.

Not everyone's vote spoils equally. Cleveland State University Professor
Mark Salling analyzed ballots thrown into Ohio's electoral garbage can.
Salling found that, "overwhelmingly," the voided votes come from African
American precincts.

This racial bend in vote spoilage is not unique to Ohio. A U.S. Civil Rights
Commission investigation concluded that, of nearly 180,000 votes discarded
in Florida in the 2000 election as unreadable, a shocking 54 percent were
cast by black voters, though they make up only a tenth of the electorate. In
Florida, an African American is 900 percent more likely to have his or her
vote invalidated than a white voter. In New Mexico, a Hispanic voter is 500
percent more likely than a white voter to have her or his ballot lost to

Unfortunately, Florida and New Mexico are typical. Nationwide data gathered
by Harvard Law School Civil Rights Project indicate that, of the 2 million
ballots spoiled in a typical presidential election, about half are cast by
minority voters.

The problem is that some officials are quite happy with the outcome of
elections in which minority votes just don't count. They count on the

Before last November's election, the American Civil Liberties Union sued
five states for continuing to use punch-card machines, those notorious
generators of "hanging" chads and "pregnant" chads that disproportionately
disenfranchise black voters.

Four of those states settled with the ACLU by adopting simple fixes to
protect voters. One state, notably, refused: Ohio, which forced 75 percent
of its voters to use punch-card machines. In minority and low-income areas,
these old machines on average spoil an unacceptable 8 percent of the votes
cast on them. In high-income white districts, spoilage is typically 1

In Ohio, the decision to keep the vote-destroying machines in place in
African American districts was made by the state's Republican attorney
general, Jim Petro, and its secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell.
Blackwell, not incidentally, co-chaired the Bush-Cheney re-election
committee. The election in Ohio was fundamentally flawed, a fact compounded
by the widespread use of electronic voting machines susceptible to
manipulation and hacking.

This election saw an explosion in a new category of uncounted, ballots:
rejected provisional ballots. In Ohio alone, more than 35,000 of these votes
were never tallied. Once again, the provisional ballots were cast
overwhelmingly in African American precincts.

Why so many? In November, for the first time since the era of the Night
Riders, one major political party launched a program of mass challenges of
voters on Election Day. Paid Republican operatives, working from lists
prepared by the party, fingered tens of thousands of voters in Ohio, Florida
and elsewhere, questioning their right to a ballot.

One of these secret "caging lists" was obtained by BBC Television from
inside Republican campaign headquarters in Florida. Every one of the voters
on those sheets resided in African American neighborhoods, excepting a few
in precincts of elderly Jewish voters.

These lists helped Republican poll workers challenge voters on the basis of
an alleged change of address. An analysis of one roster showed that several
of those facing challenge were African American soldiers whose address
changed because they were shipped overseas.

Challenged voters were shunted to "provisional ballots," which, in Ohio and
elsewhere, were not counted on the flimsiest of technicalities.

Who won the presidential race? Given the millions of ballots spoiled and
provisional ballots rejected, the unfolding mystery of the exit polls and
widespread use of electronic voting machines, we will never know whether
John Kerry or George W. Bush received the most votes in Ohio and other swing

But we can name the election's big winner: Jim Crow.

Last Thursday, the president said, "Our country must abandon all the habits
of racism."

>From benign neglect of the voting machinery to malign intent in challenging
minority voters en masse, the United States is turning that ill habit into an
electoral strategy.

In 1965, Congress gave us the Voting Rights Act, promising all people the
right to cast a vote. It is now time to making counting that vote a right,
not just casting it, before Jim Crow rides again in the next election.


Rev. Jackson is founder of Rainbow Coalition/ People United to Save Humanity
(Operation PUSH). Greg Palast, author of the New York Times bestseller, The
Best Democracy Money Can Buy, investigated the election for BBC Television.

Permission to re-print granted to non-profit sites and newsletters.

To sign up for Palast's columns, go to

Catch Greg Palast's documentary, "Bush Family Fortunes," at the Freedom Film
Festival at Sundance, Thursday, January 27.