Nov. 30, 2000 -- This presidential election was the first in which Chonchitia Mitchell was eligible to vote.
The 22-year-old Jacksonville, Fla., native, who is black, was looking forward to it: She was, she says, particularly concerned about the issue of Social Security.
But when Mitchell, the mother of two young children, showed up at a local church where she thought she was supposed to vote, she says the elections clerk told her she wasn’t on the list of registered voters.
Then, Mitchell says, the woman, who was white, told her to come back the next day. By then, of course, polls would have been closed.
“I didn’t know what to do and it upset me,” says Mitchell. “She asked me who was influencing me to vote. And I was like, ‘No, I am a grown woman and it is my right to vote.’”
Mitchell did not vote that day.
Complaints Across Florida
While the battle over chad, dimpled or otherwise, continues on across Florida, another argument is gaining steam: Black and Latino voters and civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, are questioning whether minority voters were disproportionately disenfranchised.
Like Mitchell, hundreds of voters have claimed they were unfairly turned away from voting on Election Day or to have become so confused by the ballot that they voted incorrectly. In Duval County, where Mitchell lives, 27,000 ballots, or nearly 10 percent — multiples higher than the state average — were not counted because the voters did not vote properly. Of those, 42 percent came from the county’s four predominantly black voting precincts.
Four days after the election, the NAACP held hearings and has since compiled 300 pages of testimony that include accusations of voter intimidation, people being turned away at the polls, polling sites being closed without notice and legitimateinterpreters barred from helping non-English speaking voters, said John C. White, a spokesman for the civil rights group.
In Miami-Dade County, Haitian-American voters complained that they were not allowed to have translators or ballot instructions in their native Creole language. In Broward County, voters claimed that roadblocks by police near voting precincts were intimidating. And students in Tallahassee say they were turned away from the polls because the clerks said they had no record of their registration.
There were allegations that four ballot boxes in heavily black precincts were never picked up.
There is no question that voting mishaps affected white voters as well. In Palm Beach, for instance, many white voters said they became confused by the so-called butterfly ballot and voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan when they meant to choose Democrat Al Gore. The Florida Supreme Court may hear arguments on lawsuits filed in that county over the ballot.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, however, has asked the Justice Department to investigate the allegations of voting irregularities in Florida. A Justice official, who declined to be identified, told ABCNEWS that while the department is reviewing the case, it is “not inclined to launch a formal investigation.”
The NAACP announced this week that it plans to sue the state of Florida andseveral of its counties over the alleged irregularities.
“What you will see is a pattern of targeted racial profiling,” said Jackson, who has also called for a federal investigation. “In a democracy, you can afford to lose an election, but youcannot afford to lose your franchise.”
With George W. Bush leading in the state’s official count by a mere 537 votes, the allegedly missed votes could have a potentially decisive margin.
Back in Duval
Back in Duval County, even a local congresswoman says she had trouble voting. When Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., tried to vote at her local precinct, she was told she could not because records showed she had requested an absentee ballot. While she had requested an absentee ballot for the primary elections, she planned to vote in person in the general election. It took the congresswoman two hours to straighten out the mistake so she could finally cast her ballot, said her spokeswoman, Gretchen Hitchner.
“She was going to vote, regardless,” says Hitchner. “But there are a lot of people who didn’t have two hours to spend trying to [vote].” Hitchner says she fears many voters who faced confusion at the polls may have just given up.
The congresswoman has also asked for federal intervention but has so far heard nothing back from the Justice Department.
“Once again, African-Americans, who have fought so hard in the past to win their right to vote and participate in the political process, are being shunned,” Brown said in a statement.
Chonchitia Mitchell says, like the congresswoman, she was determined to vote, but time ran out on her that night as her polling place closed at 7 p.m.
It turns out that Mitchell was indeed registered to vote — under the name “Conchitia” Mitchell, says Dick Carlberg, assistant supervisor of elections in Duval County. Carlberg said the misspelling should not have kept her from voting, and that he is not sure why Mitchell was not allowed to cast a ballot.
It is possible, he says, that she was voting at the wrong precinct, and that the clerk could not reach the busy elections office to confirm her registration. In Florida, voters are not allowed to sign affidavits and have their ballots checked later against registration rolls, as they are in some states. As for Mitchell’s claims concerning the clerk, Carlberg says: “That doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“We don’t turn voters away,” says Carlberg, who added that the county was so swamped with voters calling the elections offices that the office telephones went down for a period. He also mentioned that most poll workers in predominantly black precincts were themselves black.
Mitchell says she is hurt and frustrated by her first voting experience.
“I felt like she didn’t really want me vote,” Mitchell says of the elections clerk. “I don’t want to say she was prejudiced, but my reaction is that she was.”