A current example is last week's majority report on the Florida presidential vote by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Once respected, the commission long ago degenerated into a hard-left hit group that specializes in trashing Republicans -- Rudy Giuliani, Jeb Bush, George W. Bush. Its erratic and sarcastic chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, friend of Hillary and donor to the Gore campaign, is devoted to the idea that the Republicans worked to suppress the black vote in Florida. But since her commission found no evidence of this -- journalists haven't either -- it settled for slippery passive language that implies what couldn't be proved.
In Florida, the commission charged, blacks were more likely than whites to "have their votes spoiled" and were therefore "disenfranchised." Spoiled by whom? The voters themselves. Over 890,000 Florida blacks went to the polls in November, up 65 percent over 1996. This unexpectedly huge turnout brought a large number of inexperienced voters to the polls. Many voters mismarked their ballots, thus "disenfranchising" themselves.
But Berry took the opportunity to call for a Justice Department investigation of whether minorities had been denied their voting rights. A nice touch. Berry investigates for six months, comes up with nothing, then calls for another investigation because something may yet be wrong.
The net effect of the report is to keep alive the legend of the suppressed black vote in Florida. Like the hoax about black church-burnings, this story is becoming an unshakable myth. It may have the staying power to poison race relations for a long time to come. One example of how this can play out: Last week an L.A. Times columnist wrote that "the power of the vote (was stolen) from one in five African-Americans, as certainly as if their ballots had been boxed up and trucked off to the Everglades." Zero evidence of disenfranchisement, but the vote was stolen anyway.
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.
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.