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No Syllabus Needed for Election 2000

No Syllabus Needed for Election 2000
Prepared lectures were cast aside. Textbooks became irrelevant.
By Pearl Stewart

During the final weeks of the fall semester, Election 2000 presented an unusual challenge for academe. For faculty around the country, the education emanating from C-Span, CNN and MSNBC overshadowed their syllabi. But for those of us in Tallahassee, Fla., the center of the Election 2000 controversy, the problem was more acute. It was as if the atypically mild hurricane season had been the proverbial calm that precedes the storm. Election 2000 roared in on Nov. 7 and didn’t let up until Al Gore gave his concession speech on Dec. 13.
I was one of the challenged, teaching journalism at Florida A & M University. I didn’t mind the difficulties. We would probably never have the opportunity again to witness election history, let alone drive past it every day. I used as much of the material that flowed from the various stages of the drama as I could. But the struggle remained. How much of the election debate to include in class discussion? How to cut it off once it began? Whether to chuck the syllabus entirely and concentrate on the unprecedented events unfolding every hour.
We followed the process from counting to recounting, from county courthouse to state courthouse to the U.S. Supreme Court. (One student nicknamed it “the supremacist court.”) Nothing we had believed about the process before it began compared with the spectacle that unfolded before us.
So our course material changed. It now included: Racial Politics at the Polls, The Role of News Media in National Elections and Politics and the Judiciary.
Protesters were everywhere. And where they appeared, counter-protesters also popped up — to keep the other side from hogging the cameras.
The Republican protesters were especially intriguing to my students. Their presence was a kind of turnabout for them and led to. . .
Lesson I: the Role of the Media
It is commonly known that in this day of campus complacency, FAMU students continue to voice opposition to injustices. They did just that during the election standoff. Led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, they held two demonstrations to protest the numerous voting irregularities that occurred in Black communities. But as the court battles continued, conservative Republican demonstrators stole the limelight, and the students saw their own protests covered deep inside the local paper, while Republican protesters received front-page coverage. They saw Jackson being maligned on television talk shows for “intruding” into Florida politics, while the Bush camp flew in dozens of party leaders, including the governors of Montana and New Jersey.
The students raised these issues in class, questioned the disparities and criticized the unfairness. Most importantly, through the media they saw how their own actions or inactions contributed to the situation. The student newspaper, The FAMUAN, reported that some 500 votes cast at the campus polling place were invalidated because students had not properly registered to vote — in many cases they had filled out the registration cards incorrectly. Those students carried the weight of knowing that their votes could have changed the outcome of the election. They learned that they could no longer shrug off the responsibility of registering and voting. This was part of. . .
Lesson II: Racial Politics at the Polls
It became evident shortly after the recounts began that the problem precincts were those with the most outdated voting equipment, and they happened to be in the less affluent, lower-income neighborhoods, populated largely by people of color. It later turned out that this was the case not only in Florida, but around the country. In Chicago-dominated Cook County, “Voters used rickety punch-card machines that are hard to operate at the best of times,” The Washington Post reported. “The machines get so out of alignment that voters sometimes can’t line up the holes to be pressed, and the plastic backing under the ballot can become so brittle or filled with discarded chads that it gets hard to punch the holes properly.”
As a result, one in six votes in the predominantly Black and Democratic precincts were thrown out.
“Moreover,” the article continued,  “the GOP-led state Senate prevented Cook County from using a device on its machines that notifies voters of some mistakes and gives them a second chance to cast valid ballots.” Would they have made that decision if the affected precincts were heavily Republican? Unlikely, the students concluded.
They also concluded from these incidents that the Voting Rights Act had not necessarily guaranteed all people equal rights after they got to the polls. Only the right to go in and vote was guaranteed, not the right to have that vote counted. When the discrepancies occurred, the courts would decide, and their decision-making was. . .
Lesson III: Politics and the Judiciary
Perhaps most educational to the students was the denouement, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision that placed a president in office. All civics lessons about the separation of powers and the roles of the branches of government were contradicted when the Dec. 12 ruling brought the five weeks of turbulence to an appropriately rancorous end.
Life has returned to “normal” in Tallahassee and on campus. But because of the surprise storm of last fall and the lessons that streamed from it, the Sunshine State isn’t as warm as we thought. 

— Pearl Stewart is Director of Career
Development Services, School of Journalism, Media & Graphic Arts, Florida A & M University and a contributor to Black Issues.

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