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Last Updated: Friday, 24 September, 2004, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Florida: Getting out the vote
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News Online in Tallahassee, Florida

"Excuse me, ma'am. Are you registered to vote?"

Jeremy Bled and Ida Pratt
Jeremy Bled is spending seven weeks registering Florida voters

Jeremy Bled asks that question a lot these days - for an average of three or four hours every day, in fact.

He is one of the co-founders of Stand Up Florida, a non-partisan organisation dedicated to voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The group targets predominantly African-American neighbourhoods outside the state capital Tallahassee - areas that saw a large number of ballots tossed out in the infamous 2000 election.

Mr Bled spent a recent Thursday afternoon in a low-income housing project in Gadsden county, just west of Tallahassee.

He said the county had the highest rate of ballot spoilage in Florida in 2000.

Jerome Watkins
We voted for one president, they gave us another president
Jerome Watkins
"Voting machines didn't operate properly. What was supposed to happen is that if you had a bad ballot, it was supposed to spit it back out and tell you to do it again."

That didn't happen, he said.

The glitch could have changed history: Cornell University professor of government Walter Mebane argues that if the best possible voting machinery had been used, Al Gore would have won Florida by 30,000 votes - and become president.

George W Bush won the state by 537 votes.

'Cheated'

The poor African-American people Mr Bled met in the Gadsden county town of Quincy found it hard to believe that result. One person after another used the same word: "Cheated".

"Bush cheated. Gore won from what I've seen," said Eddie Walker.

Florida map

"They probably gypped us in 2000," said Jerome Watkins. "We voted for [one] president, they gave us [another] president.

"Gore had him beat," said Mitchell Setts.

All of them said they had voted in 2000 - and there was a combination of bitterness and resignation about the outcome.

"It doesn't matter what I think. Bush won. There's nothing I can do about it," Kathy Jessie said.

"Whatever we thought doesn't matter," Mr Watkins agreed.

But Mr Setts was one of several people who expected things to turn out better this November.

"They can do that once but they can't do that twice," he said. "They're getting new machines that are supposed to be more accurate."

Updated technology

Indeed, since the 2000 debacle, the state of Florida has discarded the discredited punch-card ballots that left chads - and the world - hanging.

Mitchell Setts
Mitchell Setts expects things to turn out better this time
All 67 counties across the state now use either optical scanning or touch-screen voting equipment.

The federal government has appropriated about $77m to Florida over the past two years under the Help America Vote Act (Hava), according to the Florida department of state.

The money has been used to purchase new voting equipment, including machines that allow disabled people to vote unaided; for voter registration and education; and to fund a dozen officials dedicated to ensuring the state complies with Hava requirements by the 1 January 2006 deadline.

The state has funded training for poll workers, established a Get-Out-The-Vote foundation and engaged in a "rigorous" outreach campaign to first-time voters and registered voters, said Florida department of state spokeswoman Alia Faraj.

Many organisations nationwide are running similar efforts, including the Republicans and the Democrats - both of whom see getting out their base as key to winning the election - and groups such as People for the American Way (PFAW), the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and Mr Bled's Stand Up Florida.

Originally from California, Mr Bled is taking seven weeks off from his job in computer support at a San Francisco-area hospital to register voters.

There's a fine line between not being able to take care of things as well as you want and actually discouraging people from showing up
Jeremy Bled
Stand Up Florida
He is focusing on low-income housing around Tallahassee because, as he puts it, "you can find people who are pretty darn well disenfranchised".

Part of the reason for that, he said, is that even with federal aid, there isn't enough money for voter registration and education.

"A lot of supervisors of elections do try hard, but [have] low funding and low manpower," he said.

And, he charged, in some cases there is another problem: intimidation of potential voters.

"There's a fine line between not being able to take care of things as well as you want and actually discouraging people from showing up," he said.

The accusation echoes a recent report by PFAW and the NAACP, "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today."

US ELECTION ROAD TRIP
Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene
Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene are travelling across the US to get to the heart of the issues in this year's election. They are sending back regular in-depth reports telling us what they find

"In every national American election since [the mid-19th-Century], every election since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, voters - particularly African-American voters and minorities - have faced calculated and determined efforts at intimidation and suppression," the report says.

It cites alleged cases of race-based incidents in Florida, Michigan, South Dakota, Kentucky and Texas this year alone.

It has strong words about the last presidential election as well.

"The election problems in Florida and elsewhere that led to the disenfranchisement of some four million American voters in the 2000 elections cast a harsh spotlight on flaws in our voting system," it alleges.

Cartoon from the Tallahassee Democrat (Image courtesy Tallahassee Democrat)
Tossing a coin: The cartoon from the Tallahassee Democrat
Department of state spokeswoman Alia Faraj said the department had been regularly meeting organisations such as PFAW and disabled-rights advocates to iron out problems.

She said the state had held very successful primary elections at the end of August, despite the hurricanes that have battered the state.

And she added that not a single person had filed suit to say he or she had been wrongfully disenfranchised in 2000.

In Tallahassee, there are mixed expectations as another election looms.

On the same day that Mr Bled knocked on doors in Quincy, the Tallahassee Democrat ran a cartoon in which an elections official insisted that "of course" the state had a back-up system in case anything went wrong - tossing a coin.

But amid that sort of cynicism, Mr Bled maintained his optimism.

"We're not here to tell people how to vote - we're just here to motivate them to vote," he said.

"We don't want these people to feel like they aren't part of the process any more. We want them to believe in the government and democracy."


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