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Previously in Politics & Prose:

Gore in Aught-Four? (November 30, 2000)
What Al Gore knows—and Republicans only pretend not to.
by Christopher Caldwell

The Spirit of Party (November 22, 2000)
Florida, November 2000. Two partisans, one Republican and one Democrat. An imaginary dialogue.
by Jack Beatty

Does Gore Deserve to Win? (November 1, 2000)
Jack Beatty on Gore's many failures—and why none of them outweigh the importance of defeating Bush.

My Father's Politics (November 1, 2000)
Scott Stossel on George Packer's Blood of the Liberals and the plight of the would-be liberal today.

Fuzzy Economics (October 12, 2000)
George W. Bush is right—the era of big government being over is over. Even if he's the one elected. Christopher Caldwell explains.

The New New South (September 13, 2000)
In recent decades the South has been a Republican stronghold. Times are changing, Christopher Caldwell writes.

The Tyranny of Belief (September 13, 2000)
Some politicians, including Joe Lieberman, would blur the line between religion and politics. They're gravely misguided, Jack Beatty argues.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.


Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.


The Burden of Florida

The cavalcade of racial injustice that was the Florida recount

by Jack Beatty


December 14, 2000

Race and class haunted the Florida recount. Political equality has been taken away from people whose ancestors died for the right to vote. According to a Washington Post analysis, the higher the percentage of black voters in a given precinct, the higher the rate of ballot rejection. In Jacksonville, a third of the ballots cast in black precincts were rejected, four times the number in white precincts. The columnist Arianna Huffington sees a reminder here that "[W]e are indeed two Americas.... In the precincts of the other America, there were longer lines, more unreliable voting machines and less access to technology that instantly identified mismarked ballots and gave voters a second chance." Even George W. Bush has said this disenfranchisement should be looked into—after the election, which the U.S. Supreme Court has now decided. The right to speak and, as the Florida Supreme Court wrote in its moving opinion that uncounted legal ballots must be counted, "the right to be heard" have been denied by the verdict of the conservative majority in Bush v. Gore.

Let's review the cavalcade of injustice, starting with the chief injusticer, William Rehnquist.

Years before President Nixon put him on the Court, he was a Republican heavy in Arizona, where he personally challenged black voters at the polls, much as white officials are reported to have done at polling places throughout Florida. Antonin—order over liberty, accelerate death for the disproportionately high number of African-American men convicted in capital cases and never mind that their buck-an-hour appointed lawyers fell asleep in court—Scalia is the mind of the far right. He's all brilliance joined to an infirm heart. Clarence Thomas, who never speaks during oral arguments, as if afraid of betraying his mediocrity, continues to give affirmative action an undeserved bad name. These three justices, one of whom (Rehnquist) has said he hopes to retire with Bush in the White House and two of whom (Scalia and Thomas) have relatives connected to the Bush lawyers or the Bush transition team, formed the political core of the five-vote majority finding for Bush—and against Gore, the Florida Supreme Court, and the people of Florida. To do so, they had to forget all the contumely they have heaped in past decisions on "judicial activism" and to set aside the fetish they have long made of federalism. The Supreme Court should not intervene in matters of state law except when the majority's presidential candidate needs to win a tainted victory. Such is the principle established in Bush v. Gore.

In Florida we have Governor Jeb Bush, who abolished affirmative action in the state, triggering the mass mobilization of African-American voters against his brother that Florida's secretary of state sought to contain by hiring a private company to disqualify them. We have the redoubtable secretary herself, bidding for her ambassadorship. We have the anti-democrats in the Florida legislature, eager to nullify the will of the people and substitute their own. We have the bully boys dispatched to Florida by Tom DeLay to intimidate the Miami-Dade canvassing board, paladins of the First Amendment rewarded (or is it punished?) for their foot-stomping with tickets to hear Wayne Newton. We have the Republican governors auditioning for parts in the Bush Administration by vilifying the vote counters, canvassing-board members, voters, and the Florida Supreme Court. We have old Bob Dole being the old Bob Dole, denouncing the Broward County counters for "stealing the election." We have James Baker destroying his reputation. Dragged back into the arena by the ungrateful Bushes, Baker has made us forget that the political mechanic blackguarding the Florida judiciary was ever U.S. secretary of state. The Republicans, who have flourished by depicting Democrats as elitists, are showing a streak of royalism, throwing popular sovereignty overboard to elevate George II.

Finally, in history we have the election of 1876 and the Electoral College. The talking heads have invoked 1876 to make surface parallels to today. But the significance of 1876 does not lie in the machinations that brought "Rutherfraud" B. Hayes to the White House. The low deal cut between the parties ended Reconstruction in the South, leaving newly enfranchised slaves under the dominion of white-supremacist state governments that used fraud and terror to keep blacks from voting for the next ninety years. Would it be asking too much of the pundits to draw the parallel between that disenfranchisement and the disenfranchisement in Florida documented by The Washington Post? Or to remark the sad irony of the Bush lawyers' using "equal protection of the laws"—the pith of the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment granting the rights of citizenship to freed slaves—to shut down the recount, when the real equal-protection violation is that poor and minority districts had to make do with antiquated voting machines while more affluent districts had the latest technology?

In the same vein, would it overtax the pontificators' diminished capacity for depth to stop discussing the Electoral College as if it were the plumbing of presidential elections and to say the truth—that this is an institution conceived to preserve and perpetuate slavery? "If the president was elected simply by the people," the Stanford historian Jack Rakove writes, explaining the rationale that led the Constitutional Convention to adopt the Electoral College, "with each qualified citizen casting a vote, the southern states would be at a serious and lasting disadvantage because so high a proportion of their population consisted of African-American slaves who would never vote. In a single national constituency, comprising voters only, the slaveholding population of the plantation states would gain no extra boost for owning property in people."

Robert Frost once said that poetry has only one subject: death. American history, morally, has only one subject, too, and it shouldn't be left to Jesse Jackson to say so. The burden of our history is to right the bestaining wrong of slavery and its afterspread in segregation, juridical racism, economic marginalization, and the unequal provision of public services. Florida has added to that burden.


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Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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