Suppressing the African-American vote in Florida

Suppress the Vote?
Published: August 16, 2004

The big story out of Florida over the weekend was the tragic
devastation caused by Hurricane Charley. But there's another story
from Florida that deserves our attention.State police officers have gone into the homes of elderly black voters
in Orlando and interrogated them as part of an odd "investigation"
that has frightened many voters, intimidated elderly volunteers and
thrown a chill over efforts to get out the black vote in November.

The officers, from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which
reports to Gov. Jeb Bush, say they are investigating allegations of
voter fraud that came up during the Orlando mayoral election in March.

Officials refused to discuss details of the investigation, other than
to say that absentee ballots are involved. They said they had no idea
when the investigation might end, and acknowledged that it may
continue right through the presidential election.

"We did a preliminary inquiry into those allegations and then we
concluded that there was enough evidence to follow through with a full
criminal investigation," said Geo Morales, a spokesman for the
Department of Law Enforcement.

The state police officers, armed and in plain clothes, have questioned
dozens of voters in their homes. Some of those questioned have been
volunteers in get-out-the-vote campaigns.

I asked Mr. Morales in a telephone conversation to tell me what
criminal activity had taken place.

"I can't talk about that," he said.

I asked if all the people interrogated were black.

"Well, mainly it was a black neighborhood we were looking at - yes,''
he said.

He also said, "Most of them were elderly."

When I asked why, he said, "That's just the people we selected out of
a random sample to interview."

Back in the bad old days, some decades ago, when Southern whites used
every imaginable form of chicanery to prevent blacks from voting,
blacks often fought back by creating voters leagues, which were
organizations that helped to register, educate and encourage black
voters. It became a tradition that continues in many places, including
Florida, today.

Not surprisingly, many of the elderly black voters who found
themselves face to face with state police officers in Orlando are
members of the Orlando League of Voters, which has been very
successful in mobilizing the city's black vote.

The president of the Orlando League of Voters is Ezzie Thomas, who is
73 years old. With his demonstrated ability to deliver the black vote
in Orlando, Mr. Thomas is a tempting target for supporters of George
W. Bush in a state in which the black vote may well spell the
difference between victory and defeat.

The vile smell of voter suppression is all over this so-called
investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Joseph Egan, an Orlando lawyer who represents Mr. Thomas, said: "The
Voters League has workers who go into the community to do voter
registration, drive people to the polls and help with absentee
ballots. They are elderly women mostly. They get paid like $100 for
four or five months' work, just to offset things like the cost of
their gas. They see this political activity as an important
contribution to their community. Some of the people in the community
had never cast a ballot until the league came to their door and
encouraged them to vote."

Now, said Mr. Egan, the fear generated by state police officers going
into people's homes as part of an ongoing criminal investigation
related to voting is threatening to undo much of the good work of the
league. He said, "One woman asked me, 'Am I going to go to jail now
because I voted by absentee ballot?' "

According to Mr. Egan, "People who have voted by absentee ballot for
years are refusing to allow campaign workers to come to their homes.
And volunteers who have participated for years in assisting people,
particularly the elderly or handicapped, are scared and don't want to
risk a criminal investigation."

Florida is a state that's very much in play in the presidential
election, with some polls showing John Kerry in the lead. A
heavy-handed state police investigation that throws a blanket of fear
over thousands of black voters can only help President Bush.

The long and ugly tradition of suppressing the black vote is alive and
thriving in the Sunshine State.