The ghosts of Campaign 2000 in the form of Florida's controversial presidential vote will trail the next president into the White House. If it is George W. Bush, his first year will be haunted by a decision reached this week in Washington. If it is Al Gore, he can sit back and watch the fun.
After several daily meetings with FBI and Civil Rights Division staff to review intelligence concerning alleged voting irregularities, senior Justice Department officials concluded that there were sufficient grounds to send federal lawyers to Florida last Monday. The decision was a long time coming.
Since Election Day, civil rights groups have demanded that the Justice Department probe numerous complaints of improprieties, minority vote dilution and violation of federal civil rights laws in Florida voting precincts. This week, the federal government finally agreed to act--with too little and too late, critics say. Maybe not.
The introduction of Justice Department lawyers certainly won't change the election results or alter court decisions reached yesterday. But the current information gathering effort may get converted into a formal Justice Department investigation. If that happens, the civil rights probe could reach out and touch Florida Bush backers in a way that street protests, demonstrations and heated cyberspace traffic never could.
By Jan. 20, the judicial jousting and Florida's Supreme Court justices will be a memory. Not so the charges of African American voters being denied the right to vote due to discrimination, intimidation and fraud. There's no such thing as the clock's running out on the fight against racism.
If the Justice Department finds that voters of color were disenfranchised and left unprotected by the Florida state government--that U.S. laws indeed were broken--the issue will be alive and squarely in the lap of the next administration. And the problem will come with a twist that is sure to make a Bush White House squirm.
Simply put, a George W. Bush appointed attorney general could not be entrusted to investigate and prosecute illegal voter suppression activities in the state that gave Bush the presidency and in which his brother Jeb is governor. A civil rights probe in Florida, on the other hand, would be no problem for a president Gore.
Faced with a formal Justice Department investigation, the Bush administration would have no choice but to seek the appointment of a special counsel to conduct an independent inquiry into possible federal violations in Florida. Only an impartial outsider, not beholden to Bush or his attorney general, can be expected to serve the interest of justice. Nothing short of an independent team of lawyers and investigators interviewing witnesses and probing the nooks and crannies of the likes of Volusia, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, will reassure the public that politics and special preference won't rule the day in a Bush White House.
Investigating voting irregularities in Florida will not be a game of trivial pursuit. Some troubling allegations have already surfaced, such as:
* The names of law-abiding voters, disproportionately African American, wrongly removed from the rolls or identified for purging.
* Registered African American voters banished from the polls because their names couldn't be found on voter registration lists.
* Voting sites in African American precincts switched without timely notice or any notification at all.
* African American voters harassed and intimidated near the polling places.
* Ballot boxes in African American precincts not collected, predominantly minority polls understaffed, language assistance sought but denied, old and unreliable voting machinery.
And the list of alleged irregularities does not include the disproportionate number of ballots in predominantly minority precincts that were thrown out.
For those of you tempted to dismiss these complaints as the predictable whining of blacks who find themselves on the losing side, I say not so fast. Experience, old and new, has been a great teacher.
I commend to you the observations of Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" show. Price backs calls for the Justice Department to get into the Florida situation in a strong way. He told listeners: "I'm reminded of what happened in the case of racial profiling in New Jersey when the first response to the allegation was, 'We don't do this,' a staunch denial.
"Then we discovered there were some correlations between race and who was being stopped, but there was still a lot of denial. . . . And then it turned out that it was happenstance. And now that the New York Times has dug into and received mounds of paper they have found that it was an outright, point-blank, in-your-face conspiracy on the part of the New Jersey troopers to stop people of color."
All the media attention today is on Florida courts, the presidential contenders and the potential winning candidate's thrill of victory. Come next year, the limelight shifts to Washington--and maybe to another scene--an all-too familiar tale about the uphill struggle of a people who tried in vain to live out the American Dream on Election Day.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company