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‘American Blackout’ looks at the recent past and asks: Will all of our votes count?

Toussaint Losier | 10/8/2008, 5:24 a.m.
Toussaint Losier ...
Voters wait on long lines in the rain to vote in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 2, 2004, in this image from the documentary “American Blackout.” The film, which will be screened in Cambridge tomorrow and in Roxbury next Thursday, details a number of cases over the past eight years in which black voters have been disenfranchised. Some voting rights activists fear a repeat of those circumstances this November.

‘American Blackout’ looks at the recent past and asks: Will all of our votes count?

As the presidential election draws closer and tens of millions prepare to go to the polls, some community and voting rights activists are concerned — not only about whether all citizens will be allowed to vote, but also whether all of their ballots will be counted.

To fully inform the public about protecting their right to vote, activists across the country have been organizing screenings of the documentary “American Blackout.” Greater Boston audiences will have two opportunities to see the award-winning documentary in the coming weeks — tomorrow night at the Democracy Center in Cambridge, and next Thursday, Oct. 16, at the Roxbury offices of Alternatives for Community and Environment.

Honored with a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, the film details numerous cases over the past eight years in which black voters have been disenfranchised.

The documentary opens with a flurry of footage from Florida in 2000, where officials ultimately called the contested presidential election for Republican nominee George W. Bush by a razor-thin margin of 537 votes. Rather than debate the well-worn territory of the subsequent vote recount, “American Blackout” zeroes in on the purging from the voting rolls of tens of thousands of Floridians suspected of being ex-felons.

Nearly all of the roughly 60,000 people removed from the state’s voter list had never committed a crime, but were prevented from casting a ballot on Election Day. Most were African Americans.

“Florida was an apartheid election, a Jim Crow election,” independent journalist Greg Palast says during the film. “That’s what happened.”

The film then shifts to Cynthia McKinney, then a Georgia Democrat in the House of Representatives, who became the only member of Congress to challenge the election’s certification. She called a hearing on racial disenfranchisement to investigate why the voter list provided to the Florida Board of Elections by data analysis company ChoicePoint/DBT was riddled with inaccuracies.

McKinney becomes the focal point of the film, as her outspoken criticism of the voter disenfranchisement — and later, the Bush administration’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — make her the target of a Republican effort to unseat her during the 2002 congressional midterm election.

Rather than removing voters from the election list, this effort funded the campaign of another black woman during the Democratic primary and turned out thousands of Republicans to vote against McKinney in her own party’s primary. Although legal in Georgia, many contend that the state’s open primary had been used to disenfranchise African Americans.

“It transformed Southern politics when black people started registering and voting,” says U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in the film. “So what happened in Florida and Georgia reminded me of the dark past.”

After losing her seat, McKinney would remain a harsh critic of the Bush administration, ultimately returning to the House in 2004, only to lose her seat in 2006 after another Republican crossover vote in the Democratic primary. Following her second defeat, McKinney committed herself to anti-war activism and is now the Green Party nominee for president in the upcoming November election.