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   Does Your Vote Count? Depends on Where You Cast It.

NEWS ANALYSIS:

Does Your Vote Count? Depends on Where You Cast It.

In 2000, The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University estimates that two million people who turned out to vote were disenfranchised.
New research recently released by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University (CRP) found vast national, state, and local disparities in uncounted votes, or "spoiled ballots," in the 2000 election. The report, “Democracy Spoiled,” by Christopher Edley, Jr., co-director of CRP, Jocelyn Benson and Vesla Weaver, CRP research assistants, and Professor Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College, finds that whether or not a vote is counted depends greatly on where it is cast, proving that ballot spoilage is a national problem that dilutes the voice of millions of Americans. In 2000, they estimate based on their study results, two million people who turned out to vote were disenfranchised.

The report details disparities that create obstacles to voting and undermine the fundamental principle of one person, one vote—a principle that was a critical aspect of the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore. It also covers local "success stories" indicating that, with the right leadership and determination, the US electoral system can achieve equality for US voters.

Professor Edley said, "There is a critical need for national, state, and local election reform that includes enforceable limits on spoilage levels. While the problem is serious, the solutions are simple. With little cost or effort, we can insure that all Americans enjoy the benefits of democracy."

Key findings in this report, which was based on data compiled from state and local election authorities, include:

  • Voters are not equally likely to have their vote count.

    The percent of ballots cast that were not counted in the 2000 general election varied greatly by state, ranging from less than 1 percent in Maryland, Alabama, Louisiana, and Minnesota to nearly 4 percent in Georgia and Illinois.

    The nation's worst incidence of ballot spoilage occurred in several counties in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Additionally, 82 of the 100 counties with the worst spoilage rates are concentrated in those states.

    The probability of having one's vote counted greatly depends not only on the state of residency, but what county a voter resides in. Spoilage rates in some of Florida's counties were as low as 0.27 percent and in others were as high as 12 percent.

    Even within states that boasted low spoilage rates overall, county disparities still loomed. In Virginia, for example, county spoilage rates ranged from less than one percent to greater than 6 percent.

  • Black voters are more likely to have their votes thrown out. The report found that a citizen's vote was much more likely to be spoiled if he or she lived in a predominantly black county. As the percentage of black citizens in a county increases, the spoiled ballot rate correspondingly increases. Similarly, as the percentage of white citizens in a county increases, the spoiled ballot rate correspondingly decreases.

    Two-thirds of the 100 counties with the highest spoilage rates nationwide have black populations above 12 percent.

    Of the top 100 counties with the lowest spoilage rate, the reverse is true—only 10 had significant black populations.

The researchers conclude that, if this nationwide dilemma goes unabated in coming elections, spoiled ballots not only challenge the principle of representative democracy, they threaten civil rights.

"Florida 2000 exposed a disturbing aspect of American elections,” said Professor Edley, “but it would be truly tragic if millions of Americans are denied the benefits of democracy because of our failure to fix this problem."


The Harvard report is based upon data supplied by Election Data Services, Secretaries of State Election Divisions, and local election authorities. Further data are being compiled to compare and rank state and county election administrations that performed best in 2002 and saw the most improvement since 2000. This additional report will be released this winter. To view the entire report, an executive summary, and additional materials, go to The Civil Rights Project’s website.


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This story was published on November 9, 2002.
  
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