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   Vol.65/No.9            March 5, 2001 
Florida forum: Blacks were denied voting rights in last election
MIAMI--Denial of voting rights for Haitian-Americans and for former prisoners was highlighted at a February 16 Militant Labor Forum here. The program was a panel of speakers addressing issues posed by the Nov. 7, 2000, presidential elections.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a class-action lawsuit against Florida state officials in the wake of the elections, charging that "thousands of black citizens were denied registration, wrongly purged from voter rolls, and denied the opportunity to vote in that election." The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a hearing here February 16 on the violations of voting rights.

At the Militant Labor Forum, Marleine Bastien, from Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami), reported that an estimated 37,000 Haitian-Americans in Miami-Dade County registered to vote in 2000 for the first time. She told the audience that her organization received numerous complaints from Haitian-Americans about problems they encountered trying to cast a ballot. Some who had registered were told they were not on the voting list. Some were sent to a second polling place, and still not allowed to vote, she said. Others were turned away because they did not bring their voter card with them, although the card is not legally required.

Many Haitian-American voters, whose native language is Creole, needed translation at the polls and did not receive it. Bastien reported that volunteers offering to translate into Creole for voters were turned away from polling places by officials. Alessandra Soler, public education director of the American Civil Liberties Union, reported further on violations of voting rights on election day.

Earnest Thomas, director of A New Start, spoke on the fight of former prisoners to regain their right to vote. Thomas's organization recently cosponsored a public meeting on this issue in Liberty City, a working-class community in Miami that is predominantly Black. Two hundred people showed up.

Thomas said that until 1974, those released from prison in Florida had their voting rights restored more or less routinely. But in 1974 the law was changed to require the governor's approval. Few of those previously incarcerated are able to receive gubernatorial approval. Thomas said that State Sen. Kendrick Meek submitted a list of 175 people requesting restoration of their right to vote and only nine were approved.

There is a long list of reasons the governor can cite to reject a request, including failure to pay child support, a traffic violation, owing the state of Florida money, and allegations of drug or alcohol abuse. "The only people who seem to be able to get approval are those who have some money," Thomas wryly noted.

Thomas also described his own case. While in prison in 1979, he applied for parole, but was rejected. The state said it had discovered a previous conviction when Thomas was a teenager. When he got records of the "conviction," Thomas learned that the person convicted attended Edison High School, which at that time was a segregated, whites-only school. Thomas is Black. Although he submitted proof that he was obviously not the person named in the records, the parole board turned him down. He served another 20 years in prison before his release in 2000.

Thomas spoke about the civil rights struggles in the 1960s that led to winning voting rights for Blacks. He described the violence fighters like himself met at the hands of segregationist forces in Georgia and the importance of the movement for achieving victory at that time.

Mary Ann Schmidt, a supporter of James Harris, Socialist Workers Party candidate for president in 2000, also spoke on the role of the civil rights movement in winning the vote for Blacks. She stressed that winning and defending democratic rights can only be done through the independent mobilization of working people.

Schmidt also said the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Albert Gore "was a demagogic one," claiming that Black votes were stolen from him, while the White House turned a deaf ear to demands by the NAACP for an investigation into voting rights violations in the state. Gore "tried to steal the election," she asserted, noting that he asked for vote recounts only in heavily Democratic counties where he expected to increase his share of the overall vote total.  
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