In Duval County, Views of Vote Process as Different as Black and White


Terry Smith’s face scrunched up Saturday when he heard the news that the recounts had stopped.

“You’re lying, right?” he asked--twice--as he stared at the entrance of the Duval County Courthouse where the process was set to begin.

But when he saw county workers filing out and heard the thud, thud, thud of news crews slamming van doors, he got his answer.

“I feel cheated,” said Smith, a 33-year-old housekeeper. “I feel like I got left out.”

Smith spoke for many in Duval County, home to the third-biggest pile of undervotes in the state. Democrats have their hopes pinned on these undervotes--ballots with no presidential choice clearly marked--because they believe many here come from first-time African American voters.


Texas Gov. George W. Bush led Vice President Al Gore, 58% to 41%, in Duval County--but more than nine out of every 10 African Americans nationwide who voted chose Gore.

A Growing List of Complaints

The U.S. Supreme Court order stopping the recount was just the latest defeat in a long string of frustrations for voters here in Florida’s largest black-majority city.

The inescapable truth about Duval County is that--unlike the partisan lines that have framed the election dispute in other counties--the divide here over who won the presidential contest is focused on race.

Ever since the Nov. 7 election, blacks here have been cataloging complaints: confusing ballot directions and Jim Crow-era voting machines; delayed reports of undervotes after election day; an all-white, all-male, all-Republican canvassing board.

“We have been disrespected as a group,” said black state Rep. Anthony Hill. “We came out to vote for Al Gore, and our vote was supposed to be our equalizer. Now that has been taken away.

“Systematically,” he added.

Linda Nettles, a Bush supporter, says that’s ridiculous.

“They’re always complaining about equal rights when what they really want are special rights,” said Nettles, who is white, as she walked to the courthouse with a Bush sign attached to a dirt-streaked wood stake. “And I don’t understand why blacks vote in a bloc. White people don’t do that.”

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) is working with the Justice Department to investigate numerous complaints of voter discrimination. She’s also enlisted the support of the Black Caucus of the Florida Legislature, which has been pushing for election reform.

Last week, the outspoken, mince-no-words lawmaker filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Duval County canvassing board.

Brown now is calling for the board to name a black member to replace one of the four white men. Duval County is 28% black, with the “core” city of Jacksonville nearly 80% black.

“At least then they’ll have the appearance of credibility,” Brown said of the board. “You want to feel like you have somebody in the room.”

Blacks also are frustrated by Duval County’s state-high 21,942 overvotes--or double-punched ballots--that also were not counted. Nearly 42% of the county’s spoiled ballots--overvotes and undervotes--came from predominantly black areas, even though only 20% of the total votes were cast there. Black leaders blame the high inner-city illiteracy rate and a sample ballot thought to be confusing to first-time voters.

The evolution of Jacksonville has troubled many African American residents. The black-majority city merged with white-majority Duval County in 1968, diluting black political power just as many African Americans were first tasting it.

A Blistering Order From Washington

One reason why the canvassing board is all white is that blacks are outnumbered, 14 to five, on the city-county council and therefore have no say about which City Council member gets to rule on elections.

The two sides couldn’t have reflected sharper differences after the U.S. Supreme Court turned the election dispute on its head--again--Saturday afternoon with a blistering four-page rejection of the Florida Supreme Court’s plan to resume hand counting.

The news instantly dampened the spirits of many observers.

“What are we going to do now?” asked Shelia Andrews, a member of the local National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, who spent the day at the courthouse. “I don’t want the world to think we’re apathetic, but where are you going to turn when all there is here is a Republican administration? Who is going to help you?”

A few minutes later, the four canvassing board members left the courthouse looking relieved, even buoyed.

“I hope we don’t have to come back,” said Judge Brent Shore, the board’s chairman. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

The Supreme Court order to halt the counts capped a short but confusing day in the bowels of the Duval County Courthouse.

Starting at 9 a.m. EST, lawyers for the Democratic and Republican parties appeared in front of the board and began arguing about how to cull the 4,967 undervotes from the 264,720 total votes cast. They also unloaded boilerplate arguments about ballot standards, with the Democrats insisting that the board consider dimpled chads and the Republicans pressing for a more restrictive, two-prong rule. Duval County officials said they would resolve that later.

Meanwhile, the ballot counting machines arrived from Miami. On Friday, the Duval County board had ordered the machines flown up from Miami-Dade County, where officials two weeks ago had performed a similar cull. Despite GOP urgings that their use could result in a different number of undervotes, the canvassing board was all set to begin the separation process when the phone rang around 3 p.m.

Order to Stop Is Relayed

It was Shore’s wife. She was at home watching CNN. The Supreme Court said stop, she told him. The judge stopped.

“Stay means stay,” Shore told a crush of reporters who by that point had opened a campground on the courthouse lawn.

Democratic lawyer Ben Kuhne made one final plea to at least separate the ballots and get them ready to be counted if the Supreme Court rules that way Monday, when oral arguments are scheduled to be heard. The board said no.

An hour later the courthouse emptied, and many of the observers looked sullen.

“We had poured our hearts into getting out the vote,” said Betty Holzendorf, a Democratic state senator from Jacksonville. “This is going to make people lose faith that they can make a difference.”