While the nation watched and waited as the battle over the presidency continued to unfold, two old friends met in Florida last week to try to bring a resolution to the dispute over the ballots in West Palm Beach. Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and his longtime colleague, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, spent the week after the election touring the state, attempting to bring together what they called the disenfranchised voters of Florida's Black and Jewish communities.
The pair visited polling places, interviewed voters and organized a rally Sunday morning at Temple Israel of Greater Miami featuring Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Ralph G. Neas, president of the progressive political organization People for the American Way.
"The crisis in Florida is a testing ground for how you would handle a national or international crisis," Jackson told the crowd. "The moral issue is not who will be president. It is the integrity and sanctity of the vote that is the heart of this debate. Once again, sons and daughters of slavery and Holocaust survivors are bound together with a shared agenda, bound by their hopes and their fears about national public policy."According to Jacobs, poll officials recognized the problem with the ballots before Election Day ended. At 5 p.m., a notice signed by Theresa LePore (whose ballot design is at the heart of the Palm Beach County dispute) was distributed to poll workers asking them to "please remind all voters coming in that they are to vote only for one presidential candidate and that they are to punch the hole next to the arrow next to the number next to the candidate they wish to vote for."
Jacobs said that such measures prove the ballot had serious flaws.
"This is not matter of someone just being angry with how the election turned out. These are verifiable kinds of problems," he said. "We were shown this piece of paper that was handed out to the officials running the polling places on election day, telling people to tell voters to vote for only one president. So you knew there were complaints all day long, but it was 5 o'clock before they had the word out."
Since many voters involved in the dispute are Haitian immigrants, African Americans or elderly Jews, the team of Jackson and Jacobs are using the opportunity to unite Florida's Black and Jewish communities. The two activists have often made the same attempt in other cities under a variety of circumstances, including Los Angeles following the riots in 1992.
"This is an alliance that goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, when Jews and Blacks were being lynched over the right to vote," Jacobs said. "Jews and Blacks together formed the NAACP. Then there was the civil rights movement, with Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, two Jews and a Black man, being murdered [while promoting a massive voter registration drive]. A vote meant that much to an individual. Since then, it seems we had become cynical about elections, but look how much we care!"
Some Jewish leaders, however, feel there is no legitimate reason to bring race or religion into the voting issue in Florida. David A. Lehrer, director of Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League, said he has been in touch with staffers at the Palm Beach office, and their report contradicts any allegations of discrimination.
"We have no evidence of anti-Semitic intent in the voting confusion in Palm Beach County," stated Lehrer. "Our folks [in Palm Beach] see no motivation to disenfranchise Jews."
Jacobs said he felt a re-vote in West Palm Beach would be a fair solution to the dispute. He declined to say who he believed would be the winner once all the state's votes were in, but pointed out that assuming all absentee ballots from military personnel would go to Gov. Bush was inaccurate, since many minorities serve in the U.S. military who might be more inclined to vote for a Democrat.
"The bottom line is, this is not about Gore and not about Bush," Jacobs said. "This is about the integrity of our democracy. There are masses of people out in the street, angry but peaceful. They want their votes to count. If Mr. Bush wins, he will win fairly and squarely, by the vote."