WASHINGTON – It's been nearly five years since President Bush (search) beat then-Vice President Al Gore, but the election is still a sore point with many black voters.
After widespread problems in Florida in 2000, and similar discrepancies reported last year in Ohio, black leaders are taking up the issue of voting rights this week at the annual legislative conference held by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (search) — and they are not mincing words.
"The people of Iraq and Afghanistan are going to get the right to vote on their constitution before we do," said Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill.
"[Black votes are being suppressed by a] right-wing, terrorist ideology that at all costs (says) 'we're gonna rule,'" said Ron Walters in a panel discussion Wednesday.
Walters is a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland and worked on the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns.
Donna Brazile (search), Gore's campaign manager in 2000, who sat on the panel with Walters, said recent provisions aren't necessarily as good as they appear.
Among the major concerns aired at the conference is the reliability of electronic voting systems. Added to that were worries over how Hurricane Katrina (search), and now Rita, might shift the socio-political picture, possibly ousting black elected leaders. Participants added that federal laws aren't being enforced. Some complained shifts in state laws appear to roll back key provisions of national civil rights laws.
The voting issue isn't crucial only to black voters. On Monday, the private Commission on Federal Election Reform — also known as the Carter-Baker commission — released its report on how it believes election laws and procedures should change to help elderly, poor and minority voters. The report included 87 recommendations for the federal election system.
Among other items, the commission, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, recommended the full implementation of 2002's Help America Vote Act (search).
HAVA was designed to improve election systems, increase integrity in the voting process and broaden ballot access. It has been criticized for not being fully funded by the federal government or being completely implemented by some states.
To the chagrin of some civil rights groups, the commission also recommended implementing a free-of-cost national identification system. In its findings, the panel suggested creating a regional primary system that would conduct four primaries for each national election, one per month, and in an order that would rotate every four years. It also mandated that electronic voting systems have paper trails for vote-counting accuracy and public confidence.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in a statement Monday said the national ID program "would inevitably disenfranchise minority voters and the most vulnerable among us — those who live in poverty and the elderly."
And while some members of the Congressional Black Caucus accepted the idea of ID cards, the group appeared to universally agree that a recent Georgia law requiring photo identification at the polls is unfair to blacks. According to people who spoke at the conference. CBC members say that the is unacceptable for number of reasons including that it considers state school IDs as valid, but not IDs from private schools, including historically black colleges.
In addition, attendees complained that photo IDs are not available for purchase in Atlanta, which has a large African-American population and the cost of registration cards is $20 for five-year voter registration cards and $35 for 10-year cards.
Katrina's aftereffects are another major concern for black leaders, Brazile said. She said a distinct possibility exists that black politicians in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama could lose their seats because of the mass evacuation of their black constituents, especially the ones who are too poor to return.
The situation presents a Catch-22, Brazile said. If black leaders aren't re-elected, "the little pieces of land we owned, we will never reclaim them," and "if we don't reclaim our land, then we can't help reclaim our politics."
Election reform clearly has the support of voters, but the question is in which direction it will go. Multiple bills are being considered, among them ones from Jackson and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, D-Ohio, who were also part of Thursday's panel discussion.
In March, Jackson introduced a constitutional amendment intended to make voting a right, something that is not now explicitly protected. Tubbs and Jones introduced the Count Every Vote Act of 2005 in February, which aims to increase voting machine security and poll access and provides additional money for elections.
Another contentious issue is whether convicted felons should be allowed to vote. Many black leaders say felons should be allowed to vote after release because blacks are disproportionately represented in America's prison system.
Sharon Jordan, who runs a youth crime prevention program for the Broward County, Fla., Sheriff's Office, said she sees how blacks, especially young blacks, can be prevented from voting because of institutional prejudice. A black youth might, for example, be charged with a felony for shoplifting whereas a white youth might get misdemeanor charges. Those youths can easily end up in the prison system and not be allowed to vote.
"I always believe in second chances. … They ought to be allowed to vote," Jordan said.
But that proposition has earned considerable opposition. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have some form of law to deprive former inmates of the right to vote.
In April, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Florida ban on felon voting that affects 600,000 residents, including 167,000 blacks.
Leaders at the conference encouraged blacks, especially youths, to get involved in elections. Some have taken up the charge.
Desmond Dove, 19, and a friend came to the conference Thursday for the job fair, but Dove said he's already registered to vote and voted in last year's national elections. His parents encouraged him to do so because they weren't allowed to vote when they were younger.
"All I can do is my part," Dove said.