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Wednesday, December 31, 2003
By Steven Taylor

Back to the voting issue for a minute or two (or perhaps longer…).

Yesterday I posted on General Clark’s comments to an audience in Birmingham, AL that I interpreted as race-baiting on the topic of voting (also here and here). I still consider them such.

Those posts results in a few comments that challenged my position and a lengthy e-mail exchange with Kevin Drum of CalPundit. The gist of the criticisms of my position were basically twofold: 1) a general argument that Clark was correct and that a US Civil Rights Commission Reportproves Clark was right, and 2) that the problem has to do with voting equipment and incorrectly denying voters access because they were incorrectly identified as ex-felons.

Now, the issue at hand for me is not whether or not there are problems in the voting system, there are (and, let’s face facts, there always will be), but rather the question becomes whether or not there exists widespread racism which is disenfranchising voters.

The answer is no.

Racism and/or discrimination means, to me (and I think to the English language), the purposeful mistreatment of individuals due to their skin color. While there are problems which I agree should be fixed, the issue is not racism.

The Short(ish) Version

When it comes to public policy problem is rather important to properly identify the cause of a problem before it can be solved. The comments by Clark and various comments in the post below wish to attribute these problems to blatant racism; however that is not the problem. Rather, the problem is linked to poverty.

Let’s face facts: poor people are not as well off as wealthier people. Not only will they have higher rates of error in voting, they will have poorer health, worse education, shorter life expectancies, worse living conditions, and so forth, than those wealthier than them. And, since there is a higher percentage of blacks who are in poverty than whites, they are disproportionately affected by those factors which are linked to poverty.

I would agree that slavery, and institutional racism of the past are part of the reason why more blacks live in poverty than do whites, but now we are talking about different issues than voting technology and registration problems.

I would also note that the voting technology situation does not create the tremendous divide that some people seem to think they do:

The main issue is the question of “residual votes” which are defined by the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project as the combination of uncounted ballots, unmarked ballots and overvoted ballots. Residual vote rates for the 1988-2000 period for presidential elections are as follows: paper (1.8%), level machine (1.5%), punch card (2.5%), optical scan (1.5%), electronic (2.3%). The rates are quite higher for Governor and Senator during this same period: paper (3.3%), level machine (7.6%), punch card (4.7%), optical scan (3.5%), electronic (5.9%). Such numbers demonstrate that differing technologies do indeed have important effects on the balloting process.

Now, I do agree that problems exist, and were I in charger, I would support the following:

  • Ex-felons, having served their debt to society, would have their voting rights restored. I have never heard an argument that would persuade me otherwise.
  • Everyone would vote with optical scan ballots, the system which has been demonstrated to be the least error prone, and one which makes recounts relatively easy.

    Now, even with such policies, there would still be people who, through their own errors or the errors of county and state official, who will show up to vote and find they are not on voting rolls.

    And, there will be higher error rates in poor counties than wealthier counties. No. Matter. What. The. Government. Does. (see above).

    I would argue that pursuing such policies by trying to deal with the actual problem is far more construction, and would actually alleviate real problems, than trying to scare black voters about being disenfranchised.

    The Longer Version

    Now, I am aware that, as the US Civil Rights Commission Report notes, that African-Americans have a higher chance of not having their votes counted, whether because of the aforementioned voting equipment or because of the ex-felon issue.

    However, the bottom line is that statistically, the poor tend to be hardest hit by everything, be it disease or be it undercounted votes. This is true whether one is black, or whether one is white. Now, it is true that there are disproportionately more blacks who are poor (in terms of relative percentages of the population) than whites.

    I point this out because issues of disenfranchisement due to the issues raises here are issues that should be dealt with via public policy

    Here’s the deal:

    First, voting machines:

    1. Older voting equipment has a higher error rate than new equipment.

    2. Older equipment tends to be used by poorer counties.

    3. African-American tend to be disproportionately in poorer county as compared to their percentage of the population.

    4. Therefore, African-Americans have a disproportionately higher chance of using older voting equipment.

    And, yes, part of the reason that African-Americans live disproportionately in poorer counties does have to do with institutional racism over the decades, including slavery. Also, living in a poorer county likely means under funded schools, lower levels of economic opportunity, and therefore a less educated population, which, in turn leads to more errors on voter registration forms, and in the usage of voting technology, no matter what machines are used.

    These are all problems, and ones that require, to some substantial degree, public policy solutions. However, that does not mean that having to use older voting equipment is the result of racism.

    Let’s ask the question this way: if a white person (such as myself when I voted in the late 1980s in Orange County, CA, an affluent county, btw), uses a punch-card, is that racism?

    I would argue not.

    Now, if it isn’t racism when a white person uses a punch-card ballot, chads and all, why is it racism (and disenfranchisement) when a black person uses it?

    Second, roles of ex-felons:

    1. There is clearly a problem with the rolls. I am amazed that given computer databases that these rolls cannot be properly maintained, but I agree that there is a problem,.

    2. There are a disproportionate number of felons who are black v. whites when compared to the overall populations.

    3. As a results, errors in ex-felon rolls will disproportionately affect blacks.

    This does not mean that institutional racism is in place to deny blacks the right to vote. One can argue that the criminal justice system is skewed against blacks, but even if that is the case, the problem wouldn’t be the voting system, it would be the criminal justice system. It is also quite possible that black young men disproportionately commit crimes, which contributes to the problem as well.

    The bottom line is, however, that the issues at hand regarding voting machines and disenfranchised felons, while one can argue they can link back to the history of race relations in this county are not, in and of themselves, race issues. Simply: the problems identified are not problems which can be demonstrated to be ones caused by a racist voting system, which was what Clark stated, and what the comments supported.

    If you want to solve the problem, figure out what it is first.

    I see problems with education, personal responsibility and crime and not a systematic attempt to deny anyone the right to vote. This is especially true because the problems of voting machines, disenfranchised ex-felons and even general registration issues, apply to poor whites as well as to poor blacks.

    And since this is so danged long, it is part of today’s BELTWAY TRAFFIC JAM

    Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments/Trackbacks (13)|
    The views expressed in the comments are the sole responsibility of the person leaving those comments. They do not reflect the opinion of the author of PoliBlog, nor have they been vetted by the author.

    13 Responses to “One Last Post (at least for now) on Clark, Race and Voting”

    1. Matthew Stinson Says:

      Beyond your criticism, we shouldn’t forget that the CRC Report was a hideously one-sided and partisan document intended by Chair Mary Frances Berry to be an attack on the incoming Bush administration rather than an attempt to arrive at the truth. There’s no Republican input on the report at all; famously, the report was issued before Republican members of the commission, one of whom is blind, were even allowed to review it. If Kevin and others were citing a nonpartisan document put together by researchers without an axe to grind, that’d be one thing. Instead, the CRC Report is meant to tell a story written by and for the “Bush Stole Florida” Democrats, and it’s about as trustworthy as a polemic by Ann Coulter.

    2. Mikhel Says:

      Well, to the extent you altered your argument I now don’t have a problem with what you’ve said. But here’s what you said in the first post:

      Forty years after four black girls were killed in a church bombing here, Gen. Wesley K. Clark visited the same church on Monday and said African-Americans were still in danger of having their votes go uncounted and their voices unheard.

      It would nice to have some actual examples of this, rather than innuendo.

      At which point, I gave a number of examples which strongly suggested Clark was correct in what he had said. You had a valid point in wanting Clark to give these examples himself; but note that Clark never claimed that the voter system was inherently racist. He merely said, African Americans still have to fear that their votes won’t be counted. And you said for him, African Americans have to fear that their vote won’t be counted, because the voting system, and those who run it, are inherently racist.

      Looks like a strawman.

    3. Steven Says:

      I stand by the statements insofar as the suggestion by Clark is that African-Americans are uniquely at risk. As I noted in my posts, the issue of voting machines and voter roles can affect blacks, whites, hispanics and so forth. So, no, I haven’t altered my srgument, I still think he was race-baiting, but I have better explained myself.

    4. Steven Says:

      Make that “rolls”–I keep, but have mostly caught myself.

    5. Mikhel Says:

      But Steven, as the report says (and this is all we have to go on, unless you have Something Else) African Americans were rather uniquely at risk. Look right here, Steven:

      This disenfranchisement of Florida voters fell most harshly on the shoulders of African Americans. Statewide, based on county-level statistical estimates, African American voters were nearly 10 times more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected in the November 2000 election.[5]

      What more do you want? Findings indicate that — yes — African Americans are uniquely at risk. That may have changed, but if I were black, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

    6. Mikhel Says:

      Matthew —

      Your comments don’t come off as any more reasonable than those who argue that Bush only won the election because Jeb was the gubnah. When someone sees something they don’t like, they automatically cry, “Political bias!”. It’d be better if people would concede that maybe blacks were disenfranchised (they seem to think so) and just maybe GW is the legitimate president.

    7. Steven Says:

      Mikhel,

      That is a conclusion drawn from a particular, and politcal, interpretation of the statstics.

      Yes, the probability was higher that African-Americans would be affected, because they are statstically more likely either to be poor, or to be ex-felons. That doesn’t mean, however, that there was institutional racism involved.

    8. Mikhel Says:

      Steven —

      Yes, exactly. Where did Clark claim that there was institutional racism involved? You put those words in his mouth (unless you have another quote?) and I charged that your argument was a strawman. At present, this seems an obvious conclusion. I’ve read the article, and Clark never mentions racism: he makes claims concurrent with the facts as presently known. You say he charges racism, but he clearly doesn’t. As I pointed out to you in our email conversation, you can still charge race-bating. If you choose to, I’ll say that you’re reading with too broad a brush. But that’s all fair game.

      But as I have said repeatedly,

      That doesn’t mean, however, that there was institutional racism involved.

      And Clark never said it did.

    9. Steven Says:

      Let’s see, if one goes to an African-American church that was once bombed by the KKK and, to quote the NYT piece “Gen. Wesley K. Clark visited the same church on Monday and said African-Americans were still in danger of having their votes go uncounted and their voices unheard.” And then one goes on to talk about the lack of “one man one vote” on some counties, and gto make a large number of allusions to disenfranchisement to a black audience, then I think it is clear that one is trying to inflame fear based on race and to suggest in no subtle way that blacks are specifically at risk for having their votes lost.

      I am unsure how one can interpret this event as some sort of general discussion of voting tech and voter registration rolls.

    10. DF Says:

      Also worth mentioning is the fact that, compared to the one person who claims to have been prevented to vote by reason of having been incorrectly placed on a list, there are thousands who were ineligible to vote but voted anyway – overwhelmingly Democratic, disproportionately black. Compared to wht would have been the case if the law had been properly enforced, there were more blacks who were alowed to vote than should have been, not fewer.

    11. Mikhel Says:

      … then I think it is clear that one is trying to inflame fear based on race and to suggest in no subtle way that blacks are specifically at risk for having their votes lost.

      It simply doesn’t follow from,

      Suggesting that blacks are more at risk

      To

      Claiming that this must be because of institutional racism

      Again, I simply don’t know how to more clearly state it: your Clark is a strawman. Blacks — from every analysis we have — are more at risk, whether because of racism or because of geographical location in reference to poverty.

      I wonder why Clark talked about these things at that Church? Could it be because he was speaking in front of a black audience? Could it be that this was a specific concern of the audience?

      This is my last word on the subject.

    12. Steven Says:

      Please explain to me how this is a straw man. I get the impression what you are saying by making that assertion is that you don’t think I have made my case. I do not accept, however, that what I have done is build up a false Clark and then knocked him down. The bottom line seems to be that you simply don’t see that Clark could be race-baiting.

      Let me ask the question like this: if Clark addressed the Southern Baptist Convention and one of his topics was religious persecution, don’t you think that the audience would assume that he was talking about the persecution of Christians, and not of Muslims or Jews?

    13. Signifying Nothing Says:

      Clark, Race and Voting
      Steven Taylor of PoliBlog gets to the bottom of the whole Clark/disenfranchisement discussion. Suffice it to say I agree with Taylor’s policy prescriptions; however, I will say that the use of outdated voting technology in poorer counties seems t…


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