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GOP Accused of Planning to Obstruct Blacks at Florida Polls

Times Staff Writer

The Bush campaign is planning an election day effort to disrupt ballot casting by African Americans by challenging voters whose names are on a “caging list,” according to a British news report.

Citing an internal GOP e-mail with the subject line “caging,” the BBC reported Tuesday that Florida Republicans had a list of 1,886 names and addresses of voters in largely black and traditionally Democratic areas of Jacksonville.

Republican officials contend that the list merely records returned mail from fundraising solicitations or letters sent to newly registered voters in Duval County, ostensibly to verify their addresses.

“This list was not compiled to challenge voters at the polls and it will not be used for that purpose,” said Mindy Tucker Fletcher, a senior advisor to the Florida GOP.

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But African American leaders Wednesday called the list another “shameful” Republican effort to keep blacks from voting.

“This is just another tactic they’re using to frustrate and discourage black voters in Florida,” Jacksonville minister Lee Harris said. “It’s unfortunate they’re resorting to these tricks against African American voters and the entire community.”

The list was obtained by the BBC from the publishers of a satirical website, georgewbush.org, which received it as an e-mail attachment mistakenly sent by a Republican Party researcher. The researcher intended to send the list to a Bush campaign staffer through the campaign’s e-mail server at georgewbush.com.

The creator of georgewbush.org, John Wooden, a website designer from Brooklyn, said he sent the voter list to the BBC reporter before posting it.

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Black leaders met Wednesday with election officials, who assured them they did not know about the GOP list.

“It’s been 40 years since the Civil Rights Act, and blacks in this country are still struggling for the basic right to vote,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, whose district includes Jacksonville and who attended the meeting. “These people will do whatever it takes to win an election. I don’t care who you are -- Republican, Democrat or what -- don’t you want things in Florida to be fair and square for once?”

Brown also expressed outrage over a segment of the BBC report that showed a private investigator in a vehicle with blacked-out windows filming African Americans as they cast votes during early balloting in Jacksonville. The investigator told the British film crew that he did not know who paid for his services.

“It’s all part of the intimidation,” Brown said.

Activists say efforts to keep blacks from the polls in Duval County go back at least four years to the 2000 election, when 27,000 ballots here -- largely cast by blacks -- were discounted by election officials.

In all, more than 175,000 ballots throughout the state where thrown out because of technicalities. Many of the ballots were cast by minority and low-income voters who usually vote Democratic, activists say.

This year, minority activists sued after Duval County election officials refused to open early voting sites in black communities -- instead forcing African Americans to drive several miles to a predominantly white area to vote. The officials later backed down and opened more polling sites.

In a letter sent to the BBC, Fletcher said, “The list was a listing of returned mail that came from a mailing that the Republican National Committee sent to new registrants” in Duval County “encouraging newly registered Republicans, Democrats and independents to vote Republican.”

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The letter also referred to “caging” as “a commonly used term in the political process by which someone opens a large amount of mail and logs it into a database.”

But many activists believe the list of voters with changed addresses was being amassed for use in a campaign to challenge low-income voters. The act of challenging voters at polling sites can be used to slow down the voting process, causing chaos on election day and discouraging voters from casting their ballots, they said.

Democrats on Wednesday didn’t buy the Republican explanation for the caging list.

“It couldn’t be more clear what they’re trying to do,” said Matt Miller, a spokesman for Sen. John F. Kerry’s campaign in Florida. “They’re trying to create chaos on election day. They want to keep voters from voting. And they hope to create enough chaos so others won’t come and vote. But we absolutely will not let them do that.”

He said Democrats would position lawyers at polling sites throughout Florida to make sure voters were not harassed when they attempted to cast ballots.

Miller also challenged the contention that collecting so-called caging lists was standard political practice. “I’ve talked to folks with 15 years’ experience dealing with political mail, and they’ve never heard of this,” he said. “This is not standard practice. This is a concerted strategy to scare voters from the polls.”

Fletcher said that the accusations were part of a Democratic plan to create controversy between the GOP and black voters “even when there is none.” She was frustrated by the media attention to the list, saying one reporter asked her “if the Republicans were going to put people in cages.”

On Wednesday, a group of African American ministers and other activists met with Duval County elections supervisor Bill Scheu, who said his office had not heard about the GOP list, Harris said.

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Scheu, a Republican, was recently appointed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, the younger brother of President Bush, after the previous county elections head retired.

Activists have criticized the move, saying the election office’s second-ranking official, a Democrat, was more qualified for the job.

Harris said that black officials had met daily with Scheu’s office and had received a pledge from Democrats in Duval County not to engage in challenging voters on election day. “The Republicans haven’t given us that promise,” he said. “We don’t have an answer yet.”

Black ministers planned to meet with GOP officials again Friday, and Harris said he hoped both parties would leave voters in peace when they went to cast their votes.

But Harris said that many blacks already were suspicious of the system.

“The African American community has no confidence in the voting system in this state,” he said. “The system has to prove to them that it will be fair. And this episode doesn’t go very far in doing that.”

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Times staff writer Peter Wallsten in Washington contributed to this report.


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