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Net Fuels Bogus Voting Rumor

A sensational but totally false Internet-fueled rumor that says blacks will lose the right to vote in eight years is irritating national black elected officials and voting rights advocates.

"It's amazing we even have to discuss this," political analyst David Bositis said with a sigh. "To think that somehow black voters will lose the franchise is pretty preposterous."

Even so, the rumor is being tossed around on talk radio and making the rounds in cyber-chatrooms.

The headline reads: "URGENT! URGENT! URGENT!" in thick black type and asks "I was wondering if anyone out there knew what the significance of the year 2007 is to black America? Did you know our right to vote will expire in the year 2007? Seriously."

But the unsigned letter is absolutely wrong.

While Congress is scheduled to consider changes to the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2007, the right of blacks to vote, ensured by the U.S. Constitution, won't be affected.

"I'd say we have gotten hundreds of calls on this over the past two years," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., incoming chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "It's frustrating dealing with this hoax."

The Congressional Black Caucus held its own news conference this summer to denounce the rumor. But because his office is still getting calls, Clyburn said he wants the caucus to create its own Internet site to rebut the gossip.

"When people click on the rumor, I would like for them to be supplied with our information at the same time," Clyburn said. "Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire."

What's distressing to many black leaders is that so many black people would give even a second thought to a claim that their voting rights will expire.

"I think this tells us how precarious African-Americans feel in their status in this society," Clyburn said. He said some people connected to his recent re-election campaign "were talking about this and we had to pull them to the side and say, 'Stop spreading this story.'"

Tracking who first posted the rumor in cyberspace or when it began isn't easy.

Harold McDougall, a former NAACP Washington legislative director, said he first heard the story in the fall of 1996.

"The problem is this thing hasn't been checked," said McDougall, a Catholic University law professor. "We haven't seen any big media announcement on it. When I first heard of it, I was embarrassed our people would fall for this."

"This is a good example of why we need to know our history," McDougall said.

Bositis said the rumor's persistence could be rooted in the checkered history of black voting in America.

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, guaranteed suffrage for blacks, but some states devised ways to keep blacks from actually voting for close to a century.

"Intimidation was the most commo weapon, but states also used grandfather clauses and literacy tests to keep blacks from voting," Bositis said. "When they didn't want you to vote, you could have been a Harvard professor and still not passed their literacy tests."

The rumor's durability prompted the Justice Department to take the unusual step of acknowledging the message to assert its fallacy, writing on the department's Web site: "The rumor is false. The voting rights of African Americans are guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, and those guarantees are permanent and do not expire."

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