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Making Sure Our Votes Count

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In Florida there were serious allegations about the treatment of Black voters. The charges sound more like 1955 than 2000: Voters wrongfully purged from rolls as felons or for other reasons; intimidated at police roadblocks; facing a demand for more than the standard two forms of I.D.; Haitian voters denied translators; voters who made mistakes denied new ballots; and voters wrongfully told that polls were closed.

But just as sad as the irregularities are the usual realities. Higher-tech, more accurate optical voting machines were placed in the wealthier, Whiter neighborhoods while the shabby, older, punch-card machines were in the Black neighborhoods. Machines in Black areas were three times more likely to malfunction, a rate of dysfunction typical for neighborhoods with poor services and unresponsive bureaucracies.

And on top of it all, in a year in which Blacks swamped the polls trying to exercise their right to vote, the presidential candidates had little to say about Black voters' troubles. Even Al Gore, who got the lion's share of the Black vote, took a month to react, and then did so only in response to a question at a news conference.

The NAACP held fact-finding hearings in Florida and intends to bring lawsuits. But many a voter, either humiliated or depressed by the situation, could understandably decide not to enter the fray again. Indeed, media reports have highlighted Black voters saying as much. But, says Jesse Jackson Sr., that would be giving a victory to the other side. "You become an ally of the anti-voting groups," he warns.

So how can you, the average Jo voter, fight back and protect your rights? The answers often aren't easy, but they are worth your elbow grease:
Organize, organize, organize A key fix is organized vigilance. Our churches and Greek and professional organizations, and other civic and politically minded groups can have ad-hoc committees focus solely on elections. "Get-out-the-vote is going to have to be more assertive," says Penda Hair, a civil rights lawyer and co-director of the D.C.-based Advancement Project. "You can't just have Jesse Jackson handing out a bunch of voter-registration applications at rallies anymore." She's right. It's no longer enough to set up registration drives. Instead, an organized committee needs to birddog the process: For new voters, gather the registration forms and submit them to the registrar's office. Make sure you get a receipt-- civil-rights lawyers says these forms have a way of, um, mysteriously disappearing and never showing up on the voter rolls. Two weeks after you submit the forms, go back and make sure these new voters are on the rolls; if not, find out why.

For already-registered voters, form another committee to collect their names, addresses and registration numbers. Again check with the office that keeps the voter rolls -- usually a county clerk -- to make sure these voters are there. If not, find out what -- assumed death, felony record, changed address -- got them purged from the rolls. Alert that voter and help them ensure their information is corrected.

And while you're checking lists, start a petition to get voter information computerized so individual voters can more easily walk into more government offices (or check on the Internet) to see their status, rather than having to stand in line to see a county clerk.

Take it to court But be warned: Lawsuits over voting-rights allegations are expensive and time consuming. And the remedy usually doesn't fix the contested election; instead the courts oftentimes issue a ruling that says to the offending party "Hey, don't let this happen next time." If problems continue, you're in strong position to bring suit again and get stiff penalties, including fines or changes that would affect the voting tally.
Call in expert help In many of our communities, the idea of bringing a costly suit would seem impossible. But you could start by alerting the NAACP, which is already filing suit in some places, including Florida. Or you could take the issue up with your local university, particularly if it is a historically Black college or university. Many law schools run law clinics or look for special projects; perhaps yours is a case they could take. Indeed, many of the reversals on death row this year came at the behest of law-school students.

Call your state senator and representative Demand that your elected officials propose state legislation and put forth budget requests to modernize voting machinery across your state, particularly in neighborhoods where people of color live. Also express your concerns to local and party officials. Ask why better machines go into certain neighborhoods. It's easy to be taken for granted if people know they can treat you unequally without complaint.

Fight for your right In about 15 states, most of them with high populations of people of color, convicted felons don't have the right to vote. "In some states you can trace back and see a high Black population and history of discrimination," Hair says. How unfair is this? "In Vermont you can be a convicted ax murderer and vote from your cell," says Dr. David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (www.jointcenter.org). If you have a loved one with a record, there are steps to apply for restitution of civil rights. Check with your county clerk's office. Restitution isn't always granted, but it makes sense to apply. And bug your lawmakers to overturn the state laws.

Don't sleep on the off-season It's easy to pay attention to the presidential contest because, well, the media won't let you get away from it. But don't forget the other important battles: School board, city council, city supervisor, secretary of state and judicial elections are some of the other crucial races to watch and show up for. These elections are often held in the spring and in off-years, to some extent, say voting experts, to take advantage of a low turnout. But if Black folk flipped the script and started showing up for these elections as well, Hair projects "Blacks would be the majority" of voters. Talk about getting your voice heard!

Be patient "These things take time, a lot of care, and attention to detail," says Bositis. But all these steps are worth your while. Be proud that Black folks turned out in huge numbers this November, raising their voices instead of staying home. But now is not the time to be discouraged or complacent. Indeed, Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, says he's been heartened by the number of Black folks who've decided not to just get mad but get busy. "They are more energized than ever," he says. "I find people more angry and more determined to vote." Follow their lead all the way to the polls and take a brother or sister with you.

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