It may be too late to change the outcome of the presidential election for the 9,000 Jewish senior citizens of West Palm Beach County, Fla., but the ongoing investigations into voter irregularities and fraud may help them feel they can return to fair elections in the future.
To help move that process along, more than 5,000 union members, senior citizens and religious and community activists from around the country, including the Seattle area, went to Florida to investigate, organize and document the alleged voting irregularities that were cited by tens of thousands of Floridians.
For Rabbi Richard Yellin, spiritual leader of Temple Emeth in Delray Beach, Fla., located about 20 minutes south of West Palm Beach, the wounds are real, the votes are lost and the country has a newly elected president that will require a unified electorate following the rule of American law.
His congregation, which boasts possibly the largest elderly Jewish population in the state if not the country, was ground zero for confusion, chaos and complaints as polls opened on that now infamous election day. He was called back to his temple building, itself a voting location, to witness many citizens angry and demanding justice.
In the aftermath, he continues to lead his members toward acceptance while trying to maintain a certain militancy regarding the injustices he himself witnessed.
“They were angry but now they are resolved on the issue,” said Yellin from his home in the Sunshine State, reporting on the emotional state of his congregation. “From the Jewish point of view, it is not the time for staging confrontations with the governor of Florida or the United States. At our synagogue, with some 2,800 members, we say the prayer for the president and the government. Initially, there were a couple of hoots but I quieted them down. I told them to put it to rest. Onward Jewish soldiers.”
Although most of the congregants have chosen acceptance over militancy, the events of Nov. 7 have not been justified for many in West Palm Beach.
“To my knowledge the FBI and state authorities are still investigating the charges. I asked them to impound the (voting) machines and compare them to other machines in other precincts and other counties,” Yellin said. “At some point they will have to reveal their findings. So far, they have said that they saw a misalignment but not enough to invalidate or to create irregularities but how can they say that. How much confusion does it take to create irregularities?”
Only a couple of hours after voting had begun, hundreds of calls began pouring into the AFL-CIO headquarters in Florida requesting help to oversee the voting process and help insure a fair vote count.
Once on the scene, observers began to hear the stories from African-Americans who said they were denied access to polling locations, students who were mysteriously dropped from precinct lists and seniors in West Palm Beach County who believed they voted for the wrong candidate. But for the Jews of West Palm Beach County, who went to the front lines of the media protest, the ridicule and backlash was more than harsh.
Many of them Holocaust survivors, they not only faced the public humiliation of being called stupid and confused for miscasting their votes. But even greater was the bitter and painful truth that they had erroneously voted for Pat Buchanan, a man who has publicly praised Adolph Hitler, and that they may have been robbed of the joy of seeing the first Jewish vice presidential candidate elected to office.
The brunt of a cruel national joke, these elderly retirees became activists and rallied with other would-be disenfranchised voters including newly registered voters who claimed they were turned away or denied assistance at polling locations.
“We heard that there were widespread irregularities,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, director and lead organizer at Seattle Union Now, AFL-CIO in Seattle and the only AFL-CIO representative from Seattle to be sent to Florida. “We would be dispatched in teams that included a lawyer, a notary and an organizer. People would set up tables in their driveways or invite us to their Yiddish club to collect affidavits. A retired teacher from New York organized 20 people and got affidavits. We collected more than 3,000 affidavits.”
But instead of pursuing citizen complaints of voter irregularities, the Gore campaign chose to pursue recounts in the courts and deflected the bright light of the media and public opinion off of the local grievances.
“It’s a community in shock to think that their mistake could have been decisive in putting George Bush into the White House,” said Rosenblum. “What was most compelling for me as a Jew were the powerful emotional outpourings from Jewish voters who thought they might have prevented Joe Lieberman from going to the White House. It meant so much to them. These are smart people who are active in their unions, in organizations, in their communities, they manage budgets and they have nice homes. Anybody would have screwed up that ballot. If you didn’t get the ballot in just right it would be misaligned. It just shows you the machine was worn out.”
But when angry Jewish voters joined forces with Haitian and African-American populations to fight for the right to vote in an unobstructed and fair process, it established an alliance between blacks and Jews that had not been seen in this country since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Seen as a clear and intentional violation of voting rights laws by the several thousand in attendance at the first of two November rallies led by Jesse Jackson in Florida, local ministers, rabbis and union members preached and exhorted their constituencies to demand justice. The rage has not turned to complacency and, for Rosenblum, the fight has only begun.
“We have seen that the status of civil rights and voting rights in this country are not to be counted on or taken for granted,” said Rosenblum. “George Bush has the legality provided by the Supreme Court but not the legitimacy of a democracy. The election was stolen. We’ve raised the fight for the right to vote to a new level, rebuilt important coalition forces and developed the basis for popular resistance. The federal Voting Rights Act is coming up for renewal in 2007 and we have a Supreme Court that is hostile to universal voting rights. People should be outraged. He (Bush) did not get the popular vote in the nation and he did not get the popular vote in Florida. This is not what democracy looks like. The open question for us all is how we take this fight back to all of our communities. People need to get involved in social action organizations and their unions.”