ACLU, National Civil Rights Groups File Florida Voting Rights Lawsuit to Eliminate Unfair Voting Practices

January 10, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union, along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, The Advancement Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and People for the American Way Foundation today filed a historic lawsuit in Florida to eliminate discriminatory and unequal voting policies and practices from Florida’s electoral system.

The lawsuit was announced at simultaneous news conferences in Washington and Miami.

“Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision halting the manual recount focused more on dimpled chads than disenfranchised voters,” Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the National ACLU, said in a statement. “But despite its limited focus, the Court nonetheless made clear that every vote must be given equal weight under the Constitution. By bringing this lawsuit, we are doing nothing more than taking the Supreme Court at its word.”

Kweisi Mfume, NAACP President & CEO, said the lawsuit is part of an effort to “restore justice to the thousands of black and other voters who were denied the right to have their vote counted on November 7, 2000.” Mfume said: “There was evidence of massive voter disenfranchisement of people of color during the presidential election. The election in Florida was conducted in a manner which was unfair, illegal, immoral and undemocratic.”

Starting on Election Day, the NAACP national and Florida offices, as well as many other civil rights organizations, received calls from black voters and others who had been turned away from the polls or had trouble casting their ballots. Civil rights lawyers were immediately sent to Florida to interview witnesses and on November 11, 2000, the NAACP held a hearing in Miami to highlight the extent of the violations of state and federal law.

Today’s lawsuit stems from that investigation and alleges that the disparate and unfair voting practices across the state resulted in the invalidation of a disproportionate number of ballots cast by black voters for President, the wrongful purge of black voters from official voter lists, a failure to properly process registrations of black voters, and the establishment of unjustifiable barriers to black voters.

This lawsuit seeks fundamental change to the voting practices in Florida to make them fair and equal for all Floridians. Specifically, it asks that election practices in Florida, which result in the denial of the right of Florida citizens to vote on account of race, color or any other discriminatory manner be stopped immediately and that fair and non-discriminatory procedures be put into place by the state of Florida.

“The people’s vote is the people’s voice, but in Florida thousands of African American and Haitian American voices were silenced on November 7,” said Ralph G. Neas, President of People For the American Way Foundation. “We’re involved in this court action to make sure that Florida officials who failed the voters on Election Day know that they must correct the problems that caused these injustices and make it their top priority to assure that they are never repeated.”

“Black voters in Florida came out in record numbers on November 7th to exercise their constitutional rights to vote,” said Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It is shameful that qualified voters were prevented from voting or from having their vote count because they were purged from registration rolls or because they used voting machines that did not accurately record a vote. These measures have become the literacy tests of the new millennium. These and other practices unlawfully suppressed the black vote. We need to ensure that in our democracy this unfair disenfranchisement never happens again.”

Theodore M. Shaw, Associate Director-Counsel, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said: “It is ironic that the Supreme Court, in rendering its decision regarding the election, cited the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. That amendment was adopted to protect recently freed slaves, yet thousands of African Americans were denied the vote in Florida. That is why we are going to court – to ensure that the Equal Protection clause serves its original purpose. Whatever other purposes it might serve, it certainly should serve its original purpose – to protect African American voters from disenfranchisement.”

“Many of the plaintiffs and thousands of African American class members made extraordinary efforts to vote but were disenfranchised by illegal purges, poorly trained poll workers and other discriminatory practices,” said Penda Hair, Co-Director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C. based social and legal action group. “This lawsuit challenges Florida State and local officials to fix their discriminatory voting system and to ensure that such abuses never again deny the precious right to vote.”

Additional information can be found at:

— Statement from Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU Legal Director:
http://archive.aclu.org/news/2001/n011001a.html

— Complaint in NAACP v. Harris:
http://archive.aclu.org/court/harris.pdf

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