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Group Aims to Have Every Vote Counted

Politics: Monitoring of polls is planned. The action stems from the 2000 presidential election, when the ballots of thousands of blacks were rejected.


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Reggie Fullwood, the City Council's junior member, recalls the immense frustration and sense of helplessness like it was yesterday. It was the last presidential election, and thousands of ballots cast by fellow African American voters were being tossed out.

"I can remember sitting there watching TV and thinking, I'm an elected official, but I can't do anything," said Fullwood, 27. "When my grandmother called and said, 'I wonder if my vote counted,' I couldn't do anything."

Though much of the country may have moved on, memories of the 2000 presidential contest remain vivid and raw among Florida blacks. In this north Florida city alone, more than 10,000 ballots cast by African Americans were rejected as invalid--more than enough to put Democratic candidate Al Gore, and not Republican George W. Bush, in the White House.

To guarantee that each vote this November counts, a motley grass-roots coalition--embracing organizations as disparate as labor unions, churches and Masonic lodges--is forming. Many of its leading voices, like black voters as a whole, are avowedly pro-Democratic, but the common goal is mobilizing African Americans so they remain a potent political force in this increasingly diverse state.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 27, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 386 words Type of Material: Correction
Florida elections--A photo caption accompanying a story in Sunday's Section A about Florida election practices suggested that only optical-scan voting machines would be used in the state. Some voters will use machines that employ touch-screen technology.

"Now is the time," said Isaiah Jesse Williams III, publisher of the Jacksonville Advocate, a weekly newspaper that caters to the black community. "Because if we don't organize this time, we're going to be cut out of the loop altogether."

One project, already begun, is the creation of so-called voter protection squads that will go to the polls in predominantly African American neighborhoods on election day. The volunteers, who will include black fraternity and sorority members, will wear T-shirts identifying them and promoting a toll-free hotline that voters can call for assistance. The volunteers also will be issued cell phones so they can contact panels of black lawyers that are being assembled.

"They will be able to advise voters of their rights or file a protest if there is a dispute," said Tony Hill, 44, a union organizer active in the effort and a former Democratic member of the state House of Representatives running for the state Senate. "This time, we'll be watching."

Experts cannot explain why more than 50% of the disqualified Florida ballots were cast by black voters, but they cite confusing ballot designs, unreliable voting machines and an effort to cut felons from voter rolls that also winnowed out legitimate voters. But among the African American communities here, the belief is widespread their votes were intentionally sacrificed so a Republican candidate would win.

Contributing to the grass-roots campaign's zeal and sense of mission is this fall's governor's race in Florida. Up for reelection is the president's brother, Republican Jeb Bush, who, many Florida Democrats suspect, helped mastermind his older sibling's presidential victory, which hinged on Florida's 25 electoral votes.

Many black leaders already held Jeb Bush at arm's length after he eliminated affirmative action in the state university system and government purchasing. They say his One Florida policy--aimed at offering equal opportunity for all to compete for state contracts--has harmed minorities. "We don't have one Florida, but a divided Florida," Andrew Gillum, then student body president at Florida A&M University, said at a rally in Tallahassee last spring.

Heavy voter turnout by blacks is considered vital if Janet Reno, the former U.S. attorney general and the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, is to have a fighting chance against Bush. One poll this month showed the Republican incumbent beating Reno, 57% to 35%. During a visit last week to Ponte Vedra Beach, Reno said she needs a presidential election turnout in a nonpresidential year to win.

"If you're rich and you've got a lot of money, you're going to vote for Bush," said Richard Danford, president of the Jacksonville Urban League and a Democrat.

To help people of more modest means defend their interests, the Urban League is enlisting the Head Start programs it administers here. In August, when parents drop off the 2,000 children enrolled in the programs, staff members will be on hand to demonstrate the new voting machines to be used in November, Danford said. Twenty-four Urban League workers also will be trained as computer-capable poll watchers in African American precincts, so they can use laptops at polling stations to access official records if someone's right to vote is challenged.

"This is just one grass-roots effort to do something proactive rather than complaining," Danford said. "In this country, the land of the free and the home of the brave, why should some people have to worry about whether their vote is counted?"

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