John Leo

"Disenfranchised" is a particularly toxic word to use. It traditionally refers to literacy tests, poll taxes and other obstacles deliberately placed before blacks to prevent them from voting. To use the word to cover mistakes made by voters carries slippery language to the point of propaganda. In fact, the commission report argues that under the Voting Rights Act, disenfranchisement can occur without discriminatory actions or intent -- it can be judged by impact alone. This would mean that a racial or ethnic group can decisively produce illegal discrimination against itself simply by voting more sloppily than other groups.

The commission revives the argument that poorer and blacker districts got the worst voting equipment. This is yet another myth promoted by the news media and signed onto by prominent Democrats, including Al Gore and Jesse Jackson. The Washington Post, for example, said, "It is mainly affluent counties that have switched" to electronic voting equipment. Not so. According to the commission's own figures, four of the seven counties with the highest percentage of black voters used optical balloting, while all five of the huge, overwhelmingly white counties (Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward, Hillsborough and Pinellas) used punch cards.

Stephen Knack, an economist who studies voting issues, says that Florida is a good example of a national pattern: The largest and richest counties tend to use punch-card equipment. Nationally, he said, 31.9 percent of whites and 31.4 percent of blacks live in punch-card counties. With Professor Martha Kropf of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Knack analyzed demographic and Florida election data, finding "little support for the view that resource constraints caused poorer counties with large minority populations to retain antiquated or inferior voting equipment."

Testifying before Congress, Knack cited a CalTech-MIT voting study which found that punch-card systems result in about the same number of invalid ballots as touch-screen electronic systems. As The Miami Herald reported last week, experts do not believe that differing voting systems were the source of the difficulty; they think that "the underlying problem was the surge in first-time minority voters who did not know how to cast a ballot correctly -- regardless of the voting technology."

It's folly to "define disenfranchisement downward" by including honest voting mistakes. Most of what went wrong in Florida's balloting was the result of voter error, well-intentioned mistakes (layout of the butterfly ballot) and stress on the system -- so many people showed up that officials had little time to advise confused voters. Trying to depict this as a conspiracy or a massive civil rights violation is a sad and dishonest business.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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