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Skepticism At The Polls

By David Paul Kuhn, chief political writer

Americans head to the polls Tuesday with alarming skepticism about the legitimacy of the electoral process. In the shadow of the 2000 Florida election debacle and fresh legal battles leading into tomorrow's vote, fully 63 percent of registered voters say they have only some or no confidence that their votes will be counted, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll.

Of all registered voters, more than one in three said there was a deliberate attempt to keep African Americans from voting. Nearly 80 percent of black voters believed there was a deliberate attempt to prevent them from casting votes.

"It surprises me that it is quite that high and I'm sure there is a small bit of paranoia in these figures. But remember, even paranoids have enemies," said NAACP Chairman Julian Bond in an interview.

"It expresses real heartfelt fear that when I press that button, when I drop the ballot in that box, I'm not sure what's going to happen," said Bond.

Though there have been no polls measuring voter skepticism in the past, the sense among historians and pollsters is that voter cynicism is a bigger problem than ever before.

"There is more skepticism about votes counting than in past presidential elections, because I think it is a belated reaction to the last presidential election," said historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a former aide to John F. Kennedy. "I don't think the question of vote counting was raised in a massive way until 2000."

The root of voter skepticism today, says Schlesinger, is the chaos in Florida four years ago. After 36 days, the U.S. Supreme Court handed George W. Bush the presidency by stopping the Florida recount. Mr. Bush's margin of victory in Florida numbered 537 votes.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission said 180,000 ballots in Florida were not counted in 2000, more than half of them cast by African Americans, who supported Democrat Al Gore overwhelmingly. The ballots were disregarded primarily because of outdated voting equipment used in urban districts.

What has civil rights groups worried this time is what the NAACP's Bond calls the "broad-brush practice" of "voter suppression." News of the Ohio Republican Party forming an army of 35,000 vote challengers in mainly minority communities had Democrats and groups like the NAACP up in arms.

Bond calls the efforts by Republicans an attempt to intimidate minority voters.

The NAACP and People for the American Way claim 4 million voters – including 1 million African Americans – attempted to vote but could not in 2000.

"Blacks were intimidated from voting even after the Voting Rights Act was passed," Schlesinger said. "I think they are a vulnerable part of the population. Voting place challenges, blacks are more likely to be intimidated than the rest of the population."

Last week, about 60,000 absentee ballots were lost in Broward County, Florida, forcing those voters to go to the polls. People for the American Way claims that after some of those voters waited in line for four hours at early voting sites, they were told the polls were closed and there were no provisional ballots remaining.

Broward County has one of the largest African American populations in Florida.

The NAACP has also collected fliers widely distributed in South Carolina and Milwaukee that claim, among other things that, "If you've been found guilty of anything, including a traffic violation, you can't vote."

Read the fliers collected by the NAACP (pdf format):

Document 1 from South Carolina

Document 2 from Milwaukee

The civil rights group cites recent comments by Michigan Republican State Rep. John Pappageorge in the Detroit Free Press that, "If we don't suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time this election." Blacks comprise 83 percent of the Detroit electorate.

"State Rep. Pappageorge from Michigan made some unfortunate comments," said Robert Traynhan, a senior adviser to the Republican National Committee. "He was immediately asked to resign from the Bush campaign. The Republican Party does not condone any type of voter intimidation whatsoever. In fact, we have registered nearly 3.4 million new registrants for this voting cycle."

A report released today by the NAACP, People for the American Way and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law accused the Republican Party of trying to suppress African American votes by launching "last-minute challenges to voter registrations by the tens of thousands in several states."

The report called it "a variation on the so-called 'ballot integrity' strategies of the past."

"This number of challenges has never ever happened to my knowledge in American politics anywhere, anytime ever before," Bond said. "The fact that they are racially targeted is unprecedented but it is illustrative of the motivations of the people who do it. This is racial profiling."

In general, the widely publicized news of thousands of lawyers canvassing the country on Election Day has enhanced concern among Americans that, once again, the presidential election will be decided in the courts instead of the voting booth.

Almost half of registered voters, 48 percent, expressed a lack of confidence that their vote will be counted, according to a new study by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey. Fully six in ten voters polled by the Associated Press believe it's likely there will not be a clear winner the day after the election.

"The memory of the last election lingers and haunts people. And the incredible controversy that's arisen about the new polling technologies and the way in which there will be challenges and there will be doubts about the legitimacy of elections in swing states, can only make this a great problem in the minds of American voters," said Andy Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

"We may be doing a better job than we've ever done," Kohut continued, "but the public continues to remember 2000 and they are aware that everyone is lawyering up."

By David Paul Kuhn