When George W. Bush met with the Congressional Black Caucus during his second week in the White House, the three members from Florida were no-shows. Representatives Alcee Hastings, Corrine Brown, and Carrie Meek boycotted the gathering to protest the treatment of black voters in the Sunshine State during last year’s presidential election.
The media treated lightly their absence and the grilling President Bush got on the subject of the Florida voting irregularities. This handling by the press indicates again that many in the press still fail to comprehend the rage many blacks feel about what happened in Florida or its connection to the results of the 2000 presidential contest.
From the moment the outcome of last year’s election was thrown in doubt by Florida’s contested vote count, journalists from all corners of this nation and a good bit of the rest of the world took to that story like barnacles to the side of a sunken ship. But few of them paid more than fleeting attention to the howls of protest that came from the state’s black voters.
By the time the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority handed Bush the Oval Office keys, most media organizations had reduced what happened to Florida’s black voters to a minor subplot of the much bigger story, one involving fights about hanging chads and dimpled ballots.
This media myopia is a haunting reminder of how much distance remains to be bridged if news organizations are to close the gap of understanding that exists between blacks and whites, a chasm the Kerner Commission decried in 1968. “Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and a white perspective. That is no longer good enough,” the commission said in the wake of a string of race riots that swept this country during the 1960’s. That message bears repeating today, even though much has changed.
Minority employment in the media has increased, albeit slowly. And there has been discernible improvement in the attention that news organizations give to stories rooted in black America. But as the general coverage of what happened in Florida reveals, many broadcast and print organizations still have blind spots when it comes to reporting such stories. Of course, there are exceptions. The Miami Herald and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel did a good job. But for the most part, well reported stories about the problems black voters encountered were missing in the coverage of Florida’s hotly contested election.
Whether what happened to black voters in Florida was a calculated act of disenfranchisement or a calamitous confluence of bad luck, it helped put Bush into the White House and sent Democrat Al Gore, who won the nation’s popular vote but was defeated in the Electoral College, into political exile. The nationwide totals turned in Gore’s favor because black voters, the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency, turned out in record numbers. Ten and a half million African-Americans voted in the general election, a million more than cast ballots in the 1996 presidential contest. Remarkably, more African-Americans voted for Al Gore than voted for Bill Clinton four years earlier.
The story of what happened to black voters in Florida is the jarring tale of how George W. Bush found victory in the rejection of thousands of ballots cast by African-Americans. Sadly, the media’s failure to recognize the inextricable link between these two events gives new urgency to the chilling conclusion the Kerner Commission reached 33 years ago.
Florida was one of five states in which the black share of the total vote (15 percent) was larger than the black portion (13.2 percent) of the state’s voting age population. Nowhere was the black electorate more energized than in Florida, and nowhere was its turnout more critical to Gore’s chances of winning the White House. That state’s massive black vote would have been enough to put Florida in Gore’s win column if all the ballots cast by African-Americans had been counted. That they were not is the source of great concern for black leaders and the reason for the lingering outrage among African-Americans.
One-third of all the votes rejected by election officials in south Florida were cast in black neighborhoods, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported in December. News organizations outside of the state paid virtually no attention to this finding. Of these disqualified votes, the Sun-Sentinel said, 22,807 would likely have gone to Gore and 4,474 probably to Bush. The difference—18,333 votes—would have been more than enough for Gore to overcome Bush’s 537-vote victory margin in Florida and give the Democratic presidential candidate the winning margin in the Electoral College.
Republicans were quick to argue that many of the rejected votes were cast aside for technical reasons. On some ballots voters punched the chad next to a candidate’s name and then wrote in a name somewhere else on the ballot. Some people used ink instead of a pencil to mark their ballots, something the counting machine couldn’t read. Others were rejected when voting machines read erasures as a double vote. Media organizations were quick to report the GOP’s contention that “voter error” was responsible for the rejection of thousands of ballots cast by African-Americans.
However, when Republicans harangued Democrats for using technical reasons to challenge absentee ballots cast by overseas military personnel (believed to heavily favor Bush), virtually no news organizations pointed out how Republicans wanted “to have their cake and eat it, too” when it came to voter error. With the absentee ballots, some were mailed after the deadline or had no postmark, others didn’t have the required witness signature, and some were mailed from locations inside the United States.
There were also troubling accusations that were reported but not vigorously investigated by the press. Polling places in black neighborhoods were said to have opened late, or not at all. Some legally registered African-American voters were not allowed to cast ballots. And state troopers were said to have set up a roadblock near a polling station in a black neighborhood that caused some African-Americans to forego voting. These charges, by themselves, contain the guts of an issue that cries out for investigative reporting.
It is a cry that, thus far, has gone unanswered.
DeWayne Wickham is a columnist for USA Today and the Gannett News Service and a regular panelist on “Lead Story,” Black Entertainment Television’s weekly news analysis program. A distinguished scholar-in-residence and visiting professor of journalism at Delaware State University, Wickham is the editor of “Thinking Black: Some of the Nation’s Best Black Columnists Speak Their Mind” (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1996), and author of “Woodholme: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995), and “Fire At Will” (USA Today Books, 1989). He is currently working on a fourth book about the troubles that pushed the NAACP to the brink of collapse.