MAY 4. BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA. At the dais, Martin Luther King spoke with the marchers who had crossed the bridge into Birmingham, the women and men who had faced down Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses:
“We ask a simple question. Do African Americans have the right to vote in the United States of America?”
I (Greg) had to blink. Speaking was Martin Luther King the Third, son of the late Nobel Laureate—and the year was 2003. The elderly foot soldiers of the legendary civil rights march of 1963 had gathered to commemorate their peaceful invasion of the city 40 years earlier.
They were invited by Birmingham’s new mayor and police chief, both African Americans. Counterpoint to the toasts to such stunning progress, King called attention to a cloud on the political horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand, threatening to grow into a storm—the racial fix of the presidential election of 2000 in the state of Florida.
The civil rights activists knew in detail what most Americans today have yet to learn: In the five months leading to the 2000 presidential election, political appointees working for Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered the removal of 57,700 voters from Florida’s vote registries. The official reason? Those they targeted were felons, ex-cons, who had illegally registered to vote. The truth? Virtually every voter they “scrubbed” from the voter rolls is innocent of any crime—except that many are guilty of the crime of Voting While Black. There’s no guessing about this—Florida voter registrations include each citizen’s race.
King had invited me to the 40th anniversary of the march on Birmingham because I uncovered this racially bent cleansing of the Florida voter rosters. I’m an investigative reporter for BBC Television and the Guardian papers of Britain. It didn’t take much investigating, however, to note something funny about the voter purge once I got my hands on Katherine Harris’ computer files. One criminal, Thomas Cooper, was listed as convicted of a felony on “January 30, 2007.” The whole list was rotten with these whacky faux felony convictions—and loaded with the tag line “BLA”—black voter.
The purge of black voters in Florida was the herald of an ugly new development in our democracy. Where once African Americans had to fear night-riders in white sheets, the new threat to their civil rights comes from politicians armed with computer programs—“lynching by laptop” one called it. And now, King warns, America faces “Florida-tion of the nation”—the system that disenfranchised tens of thousands of black folk in Florida would now be imposed by a new federal law upon all 50 states.
In 2002, with little public notice, Congress passed and the president signed the “Help America Vote Act.” Hidden behind the apple-pie-and-motherhood name lies a nasty civil rights time-bomb. Every state must, by the 2004 election, imitate Florida’s system of computerizing voter files; the law empowers 50 secretaries of state to purge these lists of suspect voters. And King knew darn well the probable color of those who will be wrongly purged.
The new law is a radical change in our democracy. Until now, with the notable exception of Florida, voter rolls throughout America have been maintained by county officials watched over by bi-partisan committees. Now the job of deciding who can and who can’t vote will fall to a single official —the ‘Katherine Harris’ of each state. Secretaries of states are notoriously partisan offices. Besides the well-known Ms. Harris (who directed the vote count in Florida while holding the title of chair of the Bush for President campaign), there’s Illinois’ office of secretary of state, whose former director was convicted this month of running what prosecutors called “one of the most corrupt constitutional offices in Illinois history.”
King and the civil rights activists knew the spread of the Florida system—computerizing and centralizing voter files—could only harm black and Hispanic voters whose voting pattern (solidly Democratic) makes them an obvious target for over-zealous voter-list cleansing.
But King III had learned a lot at his daddy’s knee. That is, he did not come to wring his hands at this new threat to civil rights, nor moan helplessly. Rather, he would use the occasion of the anniversary of the Birmingham march to launch a new struggle for civil rights at the ballot box.
The crowd stood to sing “We Shall Overcome,” not out of nostalgia for the old days, but as a melodic announcement of the new form of activism. Like his father, King knows that adversity is opportunity, challenge is inspirational. We’d all grown complacent about the right of all citizens to vote, so few had their guards up to protect it.
And most important, Martin the Third learned from his father the trick of shrewd organizing: using the tools of the opposition against them. In decades past, the Ku Klux Klan used parades and demonstrations to intimidate black citizens and Jim Crow laws to bar them from voting. In the ’60s, King Junior surprised the South with marches and a call to higher law, reversing segregation with its own weapons. Now his son would use the computer and the Internet to organize against Jim Crow’s new appearance in cyberspace.
On May 12, on the website WorkingForChange.org, King announced a petition drive. Within days, thirty thousand virtual demonstrators had added their cyber-signatures. Through the viral organizing power of the Internet, the petition has gone up on nearly 500 websites ranging from bv.channel.aol.com/ to CoalitionForWorldPeace.org, along with an explanatory op-ed that I wrote with King. The ethnic and political breadth of the sites that have joined together harks back to the original civil rights coalition before the vanity of small differences fractured the progressive movement.
Voting by computer? Just say paper trail
And where the late King, Jr., used the expertise of constitutional lawyers, King III has called on the expertise of computer science professors, those at the pinnacle of American geekdom, to expose the computer games politicians play.
The new law to “Help America Vote” will eat up $3.9 billion of the taxpayers’ money, partly to tempt states and counties to adopt computerized ‘touch-screen’ voting—an expensive electronic con game. As reported in the summer issue of YES!, computer sciences academics have already sniffed-out the rat in the ballot box. Led by Professor David Dill of Stanford University, 300 of America’s top computer academics have signed their own petition warning of the dangers of electronic voting.
What gives the experts the jitters? Unlike paper ballots, there’s no “audit” trail. If the machine is messed with, or even crashes of its own volition (that’s happened a few times with computers), there is no way to tell how people actually voted.
Professor Dill and the dissenting academics are no Luddites opposed to "progress." They have seen the first elections with computers produce vote-count horror shows that make one yearn for hanging chads. In 2002, Comal County, Texas, tried out new computer voting machines—and three Republican candidates each won their respective offices with exactly 18,181 votes. “Isn’t that the weirdest thing?” County Clerk Joy Streater asked at the time. “We noticed it right away, but it is just a big coincidence.”
Just down the road in Scurry County, Texas, two unexpected landslide wins for Republican candidates struck election clerks as just one coincidence too many. That county’s clerk, Joan Bunch, investigated and found that a faulty computer chip had caused the county’s optical scanner to record Democratic votes as Republican instead. After two manual recounts and one electronic recount using a replacement chip in the scanner, the Democratic candidates were found to have won by large margins and the original results were overturned.
King is not so naïve as to believe vote-count errors are race neutral. In the presidential election of 2000, 1.9 million ballots cast were never counted by tally machines—“spoiled” in the language of elections officials. But the spoilage rate has a distinctly racial profile: The massive Harvard University Civil Rights Project study released last year found that it was 50 percent more likely for a black vote to be “spoiled” than a white vote. In Florida, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found that a black vote was nearly 10 times as likely as a white vote to be rejected.
Machinery, computerized or otherwise, has made the racial bend of lost votes worse. In my investigations in Florida for the BBC, I found that in 2000, paper ballots read by optical scanners in the county with the highest black population were 25 times as likely to be rejected as those cast in the neighboring majority white county, using the same paper ballots—but a different automated counting system.
Does the situation sound grim to you? Heck, no. Most of us have become lazy about civil rights. But the old lions of the marches of the ‘60s have remained vigilant. The road they have traveled is long and the sacrifices too many to let down their guard. The new challenge is invigorating. I stayed up with King and Dick Gregory past midnight planning the next maneuvers on this new civil rights battlefront.
For them, the ethnic cleansing of black voters in Florida is the wake-up call to a new activism that must be fought in the Birminghams and Selmas of cyberspace. Now it’s your turn. Click in, sign on.
Most states are holding public hearings on computerization right now. Tell your officials that those voting computers must provide paper trails. And we can begin to clean up those nasty purge lists by ending the disenfranchisement of ex-felons. Anyone who has paid his debt to society should have his rights fully restored. And purge lists must have strict procedures to protect voters from being wrongly cut.
Get in and raise the facts, then raise hell.