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At a recent gathering of Democratic activists and presidential candidates in Florida, party members did not just vow to defeat President George W. Bush in 2004. In loud chants and on signs they vowed to “re-defeat” him.
At the Florida Democratic Convention in early December the candidates left little doubt that whomever the party nominates in 2004, disputing the legitimacy of the 2000 presidential election will be a major party strategy. One after another, the candidates and elected officials who spoke decried the “stolen” election that “disenfranchised” black voters.
“I never thought the front line for democracy would be in the United States in this beautiful state of Florida, but it is,” said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, according to the Tampa Tribune. Clark called the ballot-recount war “one of the most shocking moments of my life. … I thought, ‘This is not the democracy I fought for.'”
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry told the crowd, “We know that thousands of people were denied the right to vote.” North Carolina Sen. John Edwards called the 2000 election “an incredible miscarriage of justice.”
Meanwhile the Republican message on Florida, to a large extent, seems to be just to punt. The GOP establishment has decided not to counter the Democrats’ allegations of election theft but to urge everyone to move on.
“People want their leaders … to talk about the future,” said GOP strategist Ralph Reed, who was standing in the hallway attempting to defend Bush and Republicans to an Associated Press reporter. Reed continued, “They don’t want anger and pessimism and personal attacks. They want a positive vision from leaders looking forward.”
Many GOP leaders say the best way to deal with issues lingering from the Florida recount is to ignore them. Consider the reaction when Republican Rep. Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who was the target of Democratic and media attacks for certifying Bush as the winner of the state in 2000, announced she was considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat. Despite the fact that Harris raised more money for Republican candidates and committees in 2002 elections than anyone except Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, there was panic among many Republicans.
“She would significantly energize Democrats not only in Florida but around the country,” said Republican Jim Smith, a former Florida secretary of state, to Miami’s NBC6.net. Smith is backing Mel Martinez, who recently resigned as housing and urban development secretary and reportedly is the White House favorite to run for Graham’s seat in 2004.
Republicans who don’t want to address the Florida issue point to the fact that Gov. Jeb Bush was re-elected handily in 2002. But some Republicans are saying that regardless of whether Harris runs, the GOP cannot simply let Democratic claims about the Florida recount go unchallenged.
“I’ve had discussions with a number of friends and they say they’re tired of repeating the same thing over and over,” Peter Kirsanow, a Cleveland lawyer and Republican member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, tells Insight. “But that’s what liberals do and that’s why they’re successful. They spread these myths until they’re accepted as truth. Any sort of falsehood that drives people to vote one way needs to be corrected.” Kirsanow adds that the myths must be corrected because “unchallenged claims that the process was corrupted or tainted erodes the legitimacy of democratic government.”
Harris and her staff do not shrink from setting the record straight about her role in certifying the Florida election, in which Bush won by 537 votes after a machine recount and court-mandated partial hand count.
“She believes most Americans are more concerned with the war in Iraq and continuing the economic recovery but, due to the outrageous falsehoods that persist, she never hesitates to respond with the truth,” says Harris’ communications director David Host, who served as an aide to her while she was Florida secretary of state. Despite the oncoming holidays in late December, Harris’ office made available to Insight a wealth of material. It shared her responses to skeptical, if not hostile, questions from the liberal-leaning ethics watchdog group, the Center for Public Integrity, or CPI, which is writing a book that includes the subject.
After hand counts conducted by the media showed Bush still would have won under any fair standard, Democratic activists have focused on specific charges of disenfranchising black voters. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights – which at the time was led by highly partisan Democrat Mary Frances Berry and had only one Republican commissioner – issued a scathing majority report in 2001 claiming “widespread voter disenfranchisement” and accusing Harris and Jeb Bush of “failing to fulfill their duties in a manner that would prevent this disenfranchisement.”
One of the charges made in the commission’s report, and recently leveled on C-SPAN by a liberal caller, is the so-called “voter purge.” This was a database of the names of felons set up for the state by a private company that contained some errors.
In a question to Harris, the CPI asked in an accusatory tone, “The purging of thousands of votes occurred on your clock. … Why haven’t you come out to apologize to the folks, a great majority of them black voters in your home state?”
As Harris patiently explained, the list wasn’t her idea. A mandate for the list was passed into law in 1998, sponsored by two Democratic legislators and signed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, Jeb Bush’s predecessor. The law was passed in response to the 1997 Miami mayoral election that was overturned by a court due to widespread fraud, with votes from disqualified felons and dead people. And Harris had no power to remove voters from the rolls. In Florida’s decentralized election system, that’s reserved for elected county supervisors of elections. The list served as a tool for them to use and verify with their own records.
Both the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post – “hardly bastions of Republicanism” as Harris has pointed out – found that, if anything, county officials were too permissive in whom they let vote, and this largely was to the benefit of Al Gore. An analysis by the Post found that 5,600 people whose names matched the names of convicted felons who should have been disqualified were allowed to cast their ballots. “These illegal voters almost certainly influenced the down-to-the-wire presidential election,” the Post reported. “It’s likely they benefited Democratic candidate Al Gore: Of the likely felons identified by the Post, 68 percent were registered Democrats.”
Furthermore, the Post found no more than 108 “law-abiding” citizens of all races that “were purged from the voter rolls as suspected criminals, only to be cleared after the election.” In fact during all the various lawsuits against Florida, only two people testified they weren’t allowed to vote because their names were mistakenly on the list.
In her comments to CPI, Harris notes that even “one qualified voter being unable to vote is anathema to me,” and talked about her effort to provide for “provisional ballots” in the 2001 election-reform bill for those voters whose registration is questioned. But Kirsanow says Republicans also must point out that a likely greater number of Bush’s legitimate votes were disqualified as well.
In his best-selling book, “At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election,” the White House correspondent for the Washington Times, Bill Sammon, points out that some 1,420 military ballots, many clearly received on or before Election Day, were disqualified at the behest of Gore’s lawyers because they didn’t technically comply with Florida’s law requiring a foreign postmark. Sammon writes that this and the illegal votes from felons are “what-ifs” that “a truly fair and objective press would entertain” but that the establishment media does not “since they would only serve to reaffirm the legitimacy of Bush’s victory.”
Kirsanow adds that other charges from Democratic activists turned out to be “falsehoods and exaggerations.” For instance, when the commission investigated the charge that a police traffic checkpoint near a polling place intimidated black voters, it turned out that the checkpoint operated for 90 minutes at a location two miles from the poll and not even on the same road. Sixteen people were given citations – 12 of whom were white.
As for the issue of spoiled punch-card ballots in which holes were not fully punched through or more than one hole was punched, the commission’s two dissenters made the point that in addition to equating disenfranchisement with voter error, the commission majority overlooked another important factor. In all but one of the 25 counties that had the highest ballot-spoilage rate, the county election supervisor was a Democrat.
The dissent, written by Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom, a respected scholar, argues that “it is very difficult to see any political motive that would lead Democratic local officials to try to keep the most faithful members of their party from the polls and to somehow spoil the ballots of those who did make it into the voting booth.”
Bucking the Republican trend of “moving on” from the 2000 presidential-election controversy, conservative activists based in Kansas City, Mo., produced ads for black radio stations in 2002 in which one black voter explains to another that Democrats controlled the Florida polls. John Uhlmann, cofounder of the firm that produced the ads, Access Communications Group, tells Insight that similar ads will run across the country in 2004. The idea is to show that with this and other issues such as school choice, “it’s Democrats who are taking things away from blacks rather than Republicans holding them back,” Uhlmann says.
John Berlau is a writer for Insight.