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In 1787, desperate to broker a compromise between the pro-slavery American South and the more moderate American North, the framers of the American constitution put forth the notion that, for purposes of representation and taxes, one slave would count as three-fifths of a free man.

For those not familiar with the issue (I'm told they're not very reliable about teaching this anymore), I'll refer you to the copy of the constitution in the database, Article I, paragraph 3:

Representative and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons...

Very few Americans are unfamiliar with the debate over the legitimacy of George W. Bush Jr.'s presidency. Many arguments were made against it, the U.S. Supreme Court was ultimately called upon to decide the election (or more accurrately, whether recounts - stopped by Republican officials in the state of Florida, and threatened by the Republican-majority Florida legislature - would be allowed to continue), and it did, along party lines.

One of the more quietly uttered objections was that poor voting equipment, practices, and standards were unusually concentrated in voting districts where what we Americans like to refer to as "ethnic minorities" were in the majority.

Further study of the election, otherwise just as fractious as the efforts to decide the election itself, has produced largely uncontested results on this point alone. According to a Reuters article titled "Study Finds Racial Gap in Fla. Ballot Invalidations":

"An analysis of Florida's majority black voting precincts found that residents were four times more likely to have their 2000 presidential election ballots disqualified than voters in majority white precincts, USA Today reported Friday.

The newspaper said the racial disparity between the precincts was found in an overall review of Florida's votes by USA Today, The Miami Herald and Knight Ridder Corp.

It said the study found that black voters were disproportionately affected by antiquated voting equipment, poorly-trained poll workers and confusion at polling places.

The error rate among black voters was exacerbated by a higher than usual turnout that included large numbers of new and infrequent voters, USA Today said.

The study noted that there were significant problems with voter registration lists throughout Florida and that some lists supplied by the state contained errors..."

The article goes on to indicate that, "for Florida's majority black counties, the median percentage at which ballots were disqualified was 7.7 percent, compared with 1.9 percent in majority white counties."

Apologists will, of course, leap into the breach and call into question the methods and credibility of the study. You may judge the merits of these arguments by the degree to which the people making them have first actually studied the process by which these results were arrived at. Asking about details like this is generally a good conversation stopper.

Others will simply despair at the collateral effects of economic disadvantage. It has been delicately danced around by a variety of journalists from both sides of the fence that such disadvantage and being black are a frequent coincidence in the state of Florida, as elsewhere. And, with a hand-waving gesture, the unspoken thought is, "what can we do?"

Poor mechanisms of political representation must be considered in the same breath as with other unimpeachably observed disparities among schools, transportation infrastructure, and public safety in areas which are, as USA Today refers to them, "non-white precincts." And in that comparison, perhaps, we begin to see another important point at which, despite many intimations to the contrary, we are failing the other members of our community.

The historical comparison is, contrary to what I expect some to suggest, not unjustified - we have a new proportion today in America - and the Knight Ridder corporation has been kind enough to discover it for us. Some simple math tells us that we have come a long way from the 60% days - and that today, the vote of a person in a majority black precinct is worth 94.09% of a vote in a majority white precinct. This progress is not insignificant in the time that we have made it - though we must recognize that innocent people have poured a river of blood into the ground to make it happen.

What I think is so important today is that the last six percent is just as important as the last sixty. The affairs of the voting boards in Florida, as elsewhere in the country - for certainly Florida is no exception - will proceed quietly and, I expect, largely unobserved by the national press. But the work they do to address this disparity (and some, certainly, will try to widen it) is perhaps more important than most of the rest of what we will be preoccupied with in the days and months and years to come. Their charge is one of the most important things we have in our hope for a just and good society - that we all, equally, determine our future.

I hope no one will be foolish enough to suggest that six percent is an acceptable margin for error. Not even one percent must be tolerated - if not for ourselves, for the people on whose backs we have come so far. Certainly, certainly not after the 2000 election - which, I hope, this will make quite clear the price at which it was won.

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