Friday, May 09, 2003

Jim Crow Revived in Cyberspace

By Martin Luther King III and Greg Palast
(Martin Luther King III is head of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, Greg Palast is the author of the bestseller "The Best
Democracy Money Can Buy."

Originally published May 8, 2003
Baltimore Sun:
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 States?"

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

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

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

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 election.

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
obvious target.

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.

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