The Ethnic Cleansing of American Democracy
Jim Crow revived in cyberspace
By Martin Luther King III and Greg Palast
May 8, 2003
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Astonishingly, and sadly, four decades after the
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Birmingham, we must ask again,
"Do African-Americans have the unimpeded right to vote in the United
In 1963, Dr. King's determined and courageous band faced water hoses and
police attack dogs to call attention to the thicket of Jim Crow laws --
including poll taxes and so-called "literacy" tests -- that stood in the
way of black Americans' right to have their ballots cast and counted.
Today, there is a new and real threat to minority voters, this time from
cyberspace: computerized purges of voter rolls.
The menace first appeared in Florida in the November 2000 presidential
election. While the media
chased butterfly ballots and hanging chads, a much more sinister and
devastating attack on voting
rights went almost undetected.
In the two years before the elections, the Florida secretary of state's
office quietly ordered the
removal of 94,000 voters from the registries. Supposedly, these were
convicted felons who may not
vote in Florida. Instead, the overwhelming majority were innocent of any
crime, though just over half
were black or Hispanic.
We are not guessing about the race of the disenfranchised: A voter's
color is listed next to his or her
name in most Southern states. (Ironically, this racial ID is required by
the Voting Rights Act of 1965,
a King legacy.)
How did mass expulsion of legal voters occur?
At the heart of the ethnic purge of voting rights was the creation of a
central voter file for Florida
placed in the hands of an elected, and therefore partisan, official.
Computerization and a 1998
"reform" law meant to prevent voter fraud allowed for a politically and
racially biased purge of
thousands of registered voters on the flimsiest of grounds.
Voters whose name, birth date and gender loosely matched that of a felon
anywhere in America
were targeted for removal. And so one Thomas Butler (of several in
Florida) was tagged because a
"Thomas Butler Cooper Jr." of Ohio was convicted of a crime. The legacy
of slavery -- commonality
of black names -- aided the racial bias of the "scrub list."
Florida was the first state to create, computerize and purge lists of
allegedly "ineligible" voters. Meant
as a reform, in the hands of partisan officials it became a weapon of
mass voting rights destruction.
(The fact that Mr. Cooper's conviction date is shown on state files as
"1/30/2007" underscores other
dangers of computerizing our democracy.)
You'd think that Congress and President Bush would run from imitating
Florida's disastrous system.
Astonishingly, Congress adopted the absurdly named "Help America Vote
Act," which requires
every state to replicate Florida's system of centralized, computerized
voter files before the 2004
The controls on the 50 secretaries of state are few -- and the
temptation to purge voters of the
opposition party enormous.
African-Americans, whose vote concentrates in one party, are an easy and
The act also lays a minefield of other impediments to black voters: an
effective rollback of the easy
voter registration methods of the Motor Voter Act; new identification
requirements at polling
stations; and perilous incentives for fault-prone and fraud-susceptible
touch-screen voting machines.
No, we are not rehashing the who-really-won fight from the 2000
presidential election. But we have
no intention of "getting over it." We are moving on, but on to a new
nationwide call and petition drive
to restore and protect the rights of all Americans and monitor the
implementation of frighteningly
ill-conceived new state and federal voting "reform" laws.
And so on Sunday in Birmingham we marched again as our fathers and
mothers did 40 years ago,
this time demanding security against the dangerous "Floridation" of our
nation's voting methods
through computerization of voter rolls.
Four decades ago, the opposition to the civil right to vote was easy to
identify: night riders wearing
white sheets and burning crosses. Today, the threat comes from partisan
politicians wearing pinstripe
suits and clutching laptops.
Jim Crow has moved into cyberspace -- harder to detect, craftier in
operation, shifting shape into the
electronic guardian of a new electoral segregation.
Martin Luther King III is president of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference. Greg Palast is
author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, and his investigation of
computer purges of black
voters appeared in Harper's Magazine.