JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nearly a dozen African American ministers and civil rights leaders walked into the Duval County election office here, television cameras in tow, with a list of questions: How come there were not more early voting sites closer to black neighborhoods? How come so many blacks were not being allowed to redo incomplete voter registrations? Who was deciding all this?
Standing across the office counter under a banner that read "Partners in Democracy" was the man who made those decisions, election chief Dick Carlberg. Visibly angry, the Republican explained why he decided the way he had: "We call it the law."
Duval County election official Dick Carlberg, left, listens to ministers and civil rights leaders, who question whether blacks are being fairly treated.
(John Pemberton -- Florida Times-union)
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Black leaders said the scene at the supervisor's office last week was reminiscent of a blocked schoolhouse door at the height of desegregation. They charge that GOP officials are deliberately using the law to keep black people off the rolls and hinder them from voting.
Four years ago, ballots cast from black neighborhoods throughout Florida were four times as likely to go uncounted as those from white neighborhoods. Nowhere was the disparity more apparent than in Duval County, where 42 percent of 27,000 ballots thrown out came from four heavily Democratic black precincts.
Despite attempts by Florida officials to prevent a repeat of the controversy that dogged the last presidential election, black leaders said they are concerned that this year new registrations are being rejected for technical errors and that limited accessibility to early polling places could lead to more disputes, roiling Florida and the nation long after Election Day.
Florida, with 27 electoral votes, is again a hotly contested battleground. Democratic organizations, black churches and civil rights groups have embarked on an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort in minority neighborhoods in Duval County and elsewhere in the state.
From the 2000 election to August 2004, nearly 200,000 black voters were added to the rolls in Florida, a 21 percent increase in large part because of registration drives by groups including America Coming Together. Registration by white voters increased almost 6 percent.
Black people overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has made turning out that vote a key part of his Florida strategy. He and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), have made three campaign trips to Jacksonville alone.
But black leaders said they are worried that the campaigning will not matter if black voters are disenfranchised.
In Duval County, 31,155 black voters had been added to the rolls by the end of last week. That is more than the total number of ballots nullified here four years ago, in a race that George W. Bush won by 537 votes.
But hundreds more could show up at the polls only to find they cannot vote. The office has flagged 1,448 registrations as incomplete, and as of last week had yet to process 11,500 more.
A Washington Post analysis found nearly three times the number of flagged Democratic registrations as Republican. Broken down by race, no group had more flagged registrations than blacks.
This, in a heavily GOP county where records show that the number of blacks added to the rolls since 2000 approximately equals the number of non-Hispanic whites.
Some registrations were missing critical information, such as a signature. Others had different problems, with some people listing post office boxes instead of street addresses or putting street addresses on the wrong line.