August 20, 2004
Voting While Black
by Bob Herbert
The smell of voter suppression coming out of Florida is getting stronger. It turns out that a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, in which state troopers have gone into the homes of elderly black voters in Orlando in a bizarre hunt for evidence of election fraud, is being conducted despite a finding by the department last May "that there was no basis to support the allegations of election fraud."
State officials have said that the investigation, which has already frightened many voters and intimidated elderly volunteers, is in response to allegations of voter fraud involving absentee ballots that came up during the Orlando mayoral election in March. But the department considered that matter closed last spring, according to a letter from the office of Guy Tunnell, the department's commissioner, to Lawson Lamar, the state attorney in Orlando, who would be responsible for any criminal prosecutions.
The letter, dated May 13, said:
"We received your package related to the allegations of voter fraud during the 2004 mayoral election. This dealt with the manner in which absentee ballots were either handled or collected by campaign staffers for Mayor Buddy Dyer. Since this matter involved an elected official, the allegations were forwarded to F.D.L.E.'s Executive Investigations in Tallahassee, Florida.
"The documents were reviewed by F.D.L.E., as well as the Florida Division of Elections. It was determined that there was no basis to support the allegations of election fraud concerning these absentee ballots. Since there is no evidence of criminal misconduct involving Mayor Dyer, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement considers this matter closed."
Well, it's not closed. And department officials said yesterday that the letter sent out in May was never meant to indicate that the "entire" investigation was closed. Since the letter went out, state troopers have gone into the homes of 40 or 50 black voters, most of them elderly, in what the department describes as a criminal investigation. Many longtime Florida observers have said the use of state troopers for this type of investigation is extremely unusual, and it has caused a storm of controversy.
The officers were armed and in plain clothes. For elderly African-American voters, who remember the terrible torment inflicted on blacks who tried to vote in the South in the 1950's and 60's, the sight of armed police officers coming into their homes to interrogate them about voting is chilling indeed.
One woman, who is in her mid-70's and was visited by two officers in June, said in an affidavit: "After entering my house, they asked me if they could take their jackets off, to which I answered yes. When they removed their jackets, I noticed they were wearing side arms. ... And I noticed an ankle holster on one of them when they sat down."
Though apprehensive, she answered all of their questions. But for a lot of voters, the emotional response to the investigation has gone beyond apprehension to outright fear.
"These guys are using these intimidating methods to try and get these folks to stay away from the polls in the future,'' said Eugene Poole, president of the Florida Voters League, which tries to increase black voter participation throughout the state. "And you know what? It's working. One woman said, 'My God, they're going to put us in jail for nothing.' I said, 'That's not true.' "
State officials deny that their intent was to intimidate black voters. Mr. Tunnell, who was handpicked by Gov. Jeb Bush to head the Department of Law Enforcement, said in a statement yesterday: "Instead of having them come to the F.D.L.E. office, which may seem quite imposing, our agents felt it would be a more relaxed atmosphere if they visited the witnesses at their homes.''
When I asked a spokesman for Mr. Tunnell, Tom Berlinger, about the letter in May indicating that the allegations were without merit, he replied that the intent of the letter had not been made clear by Joyce Dawley, a regional director who drafted and signed the letter for Mr. Tunnell.
letter was poorly worded,'' said Mr. Berlinger. He said he spoke to Ms. Dawley
about the letter a few weeks ago and she told him, "God, I wish I would have
made that more clear." What Ms. Dawley meant to say, said Mr. Berlinger, was
that it did not appear that Mayor Dyer himself was criminally involved.