Not just Florida

ARGUABLY, the most effective civil rights law ever passed was the 1965 Voting Rights Act that abolished literacy tests, poll taxes and other Jim Crow laws that prevented black people from voting. It was a major affront to Southern racism, fiercely affirming the right to vote as the fundamental tenet of democracy.

Because of it, more legislation and court decisions struck down subtler but equally abhorrent obstructions stifling minority participation in elections. The voting battle, it seemed, was won. Then came Florida, and now a new congressional study, that sadly show otherwise.

The study found that the votes of people living in poor or minority neighborhoods were three times more likely not to be counted in the 2000 presidential election than votes from white, well-to-do areas. It turns out Florida was a symptom, not a blip.

Nationwide, ballots from poor communities were more often discarded because they use outdated voting machines that mangle or otherwise render ballots useless. Recall the “hanging chads.”

In the last election, 1.9 percent of the ballots — about 2 million votes —

were “lost”– mostly from low-income, high minority areas. The findings stunned some lawmakers, but not many African Americans who have long distrusted or disregarded elections, convinced they don’t matter.

Like Jim Crow, unreliable voting machines — and a lack of public will to replace them — are fostering dangerous resignations for a republic. Rep. Howard Waxman, D-Los Angeles, calls it “an urgent national priority.”

To eliminate disparities, Congress should set national election standards. And California lawmakers should pass AB56, the $300 million plan to upgrade voting systems statewide. Technology can help ensure that every vote counts. We should use it.