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John Lewis

MINORITY VOTES GO UNCOUNTED

Congressman Lewis says -- and studies support -- that financially strapped minority communities suffer from poorly run election systems more often than well-to-do suburbs because there's less money to hire poll workers, buy new equipment or make contingency plans.

Lewis wasn't the only one to have problems at the polls that day. Across Georgia, votes weren't counted because of broken equipment and incomplete voter rolls.

"We found that almost 94 000 votes for president were not counted in the state," says Cathy Cox, Georgia's Secretary of State. "That equaled about 3.5 percent of our total vote-- so proportionally, we were in worse shape than Florida."

In Atlanta, voters in downtown minority districts used punch card technology and six out of ten of their votes were thrown out. However, in the more affluent and white suburban Gwinnett County, the discard rate was only six out of every hundred votes. That's a ten-fold difference. One reason for the disparity is that in Gwinnett, the county could afford new voting equipment.

Experiences across the country were even worse. In inner city Chicago where the discard rate was the highest in the nation, nearly 40 percent of the vote was thrown out because of a decision not to allow voters to correct their mistakes. In St. Louis, Missouri, police were brought in to tell people whose names were missing from the rolls (due to an Election Board mistake) -- people who had been waiting in line for three hours so they could vote for president, that they wouldn't get the chance.

The vast majority of people whose votes weren't counted were African Americans, and this, says John Lewis is the result of a sad legacy.

"We may have the Act," Lewis explains, "but the scars and stings of racism and discrimination still exist - because these are the communities that tend to receive less resources.

SUSPECTED FELONS REMOVED FROM VOTER ROLLS

It was Florida's hanging chads and butterfly ballots that got all the attention in 2000, but there were other problems in that state as well.

Apostle Willie Whiting, a Tallahassee pastor, was stopped by a poll worker.

"He said, we have you listed as a convicted felon," explains Whiting. "You have been purged from our system, you have lost all your civil rights."

Whiting was one of thousands kept from voting in Florida by an aggressive purge list designed to keep ex-felons from voting. The purge yanked voters off the rolls if their name was similar to any former prisoner's name.

VOTING BARRIERS FOR THE HANDICAPPED

Problems at the polls are nothing new, but in some parts of the country, people complain that the laws enacted to fix the system aren't being enforced.

One such case is that of Elyse Nathan, a 50 year old petite blond woman. Because of multiple sclerosis, Nathan uses a specialized cane on wheels to get around. She lives in West Orange, New Jersey and in 2003 she was able to vote in the summer primaries at a new polling location without a problem.

But that was only after numerous phone calls, and an inch thick file of correspondence with election officials to get her polling place changed. She also had to live through an embarrassing scene the year before.

"My ballot says the polling place is handicapped accessible," explains Nelson. "And when I got there, I said I need help getting down the steps; so this elderly gentleman --one of the poll workers-- said 'we have this little ramp.'"

The ramp, which turned out to be a piece of plywood covered with outdoor carpeting looked unsafe and the poll worker who brought it out decided against using it.

Nathan waited while election officials tried to figure out how to accommodate her. Three hours later, she was unpleasantly surprised.

"I hear fire engines," recalls Nathan, "the sirens going and I turn around, I see the lights flashing, I say oh my goodness there's a fire in the church... and no, they were there to help me. These four very large firemen carried me down the steps and then waited for me to vote and then carried me back up the steps."

For Nathan, it's not asking too much to be guaranteed a polling place she can reach on her own. But poll workers where Nathan had trouble voting see it differently.

"She was told that its not handicapped accessible," said one poll worker.

"She just wants to make trouble, she is the only one here who couldn't manage," said another.

Or they added, she could have avoided an ordeal by voting absentee. But several studies have shown than absentee ballots are often only counted if their numbers would influence the outcome of an election.

A report by the General Accounting Office from 2001 found that in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 84 percent of polling places still have impediments that make it difficult for some 30 million disabled people to get to the polls.


Next: COUNTIES FAIL BALLOT TRANSLATION REQUIREMENTS