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Fighting Vote Suppression by the Rightwing

Complicated and confusing processes, threats of punishment for voter registration volunteers, systematic purging of voter databases -- a wholesale effort to use any means necessary to deny the right to vote to wide swaths of Americans. This is what People for the American Way recently called The New Face of Jim Crow.

Suppressing the vote is hardy new tool of rightwing campaigns, but the efforts have taken new twists, as stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, Salon and numerous other news sources have recently documented:

  • Under new rules designed by conservative elected leaders, groups registering voters face the threat of massive fines and even imprisonment simply for trying to register people to vote.
  • Citizens trying to register to vote face new identification requirements that disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of legal potential voters who lack the documents required under the law.
  • Tens of thousands who have registered have been tossed off the rolls due to database purges.

Make no mistake. These laws are not designed to fight fraud, of which there is little evidence, but to systematically deny the right to vote to those Americans most likely to be impacted by these actions: young voters, mobile voters, and low-income voters.

There is good news as advocates and political leaders have stepped up to challenge these new abusive tactics, but it's clear that progressive leaders need to use the next legislative sessions to rebuild fair and accessible voting systems that don't disenfranchise citizens.

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The War Against Registration Drives

Back in 1993, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), better known as the "Motor Voter" act, was designed to open up the registration process, allowing people to register at most public agencies and by mail. The latter was a key change in many states, since it allowed community organizations to do outreach to bring unregistered citizens into the voting process.

Working to undermine that law, new state laws have declared that any clerical mistake by groups doing registration drives would be grounds for criminal sanctions -- a way to intimidate those groups and shut down voter drives in poor and minority communities:

  • Under Florida's law, any group misplacing a blank registration form could be fined $5000 for each form; eight lost forms would bankrupt the Florida League of Women Voters, so they shut down their voter registration campaign for the first time in 70 years.
  • Georgia created similar rules requiring all forms to be returned to the state within 72 hours of being signed with a $5000 per violation fine for each mistake.
  • In Ohio, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell (and candidate for governor) issued some of the most draconian rules in the country. Those handing in late registration forms late faced a year in prison -- and every registration worker had to personally deliver the forms to the local elections board, thereby preventing groups from easily collecting forms from volunteers and making sure they had been filled out correctly. In Ohio, Project Vote suspended voter registration activities for two months and collected less than 20% of the registration applicants it signed up before the law was implemented.

Thankfully, lower courts in both Florida and Ohio in the last few weeks blocked enforcement of the laws in those states as gross violations of federal law and the First Amendment. Judge Kathleen O'Malley in Ohio found that such restrictions on voter registration "severely chills participation in the voter registration process" through "an unusual and burdensome maze of laws and penalties." But voter registration drives lost months in various states to this voter suppression gambit.

The Brennan Center for Justice, which is assisting the plaintiffs in both Florida and Ohio, believes the precedents will be helpful in derailing the similar laws in Georgia, Colorado, and New Mexico.

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IDs as the New Poll Tax

For individual voters, states are throwing up new ID requirements to vote that many of them just can't meet:

  • In Indiana, thousands of voters, an estimated 8 to 23 percent of all registered voters, have been dropped from county registration rolls because they could not produce proper ID. Social security cards are not acceptable and even the birth certificate of a married woman who has changed her name needs an accompanying marriage certificate.
  • In Missouri, where once voters could submit university IDs, bank statements or other proof of residency, the new law requires a government-issued photo ID card to vote, something 200,000 legal voters lack in the state.
  • Arizona's Proposition 200, supposedly designed to bar undocumented immigrants from voting, has similarly blocked those without a government ID from registering to vote.

The good news is that Georgia's 2005 law requiring that non-drivers purchase a government ID was overturned by federal courts as discriminatory, although the state passed a new version in 2006 that is still being litigated. Other states are facing similar lawsuits that these ID laws violate the federal Civil Rights Act.

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Purging Voter Databases

Unfortunately, even if they get to register, many voters may find it hardly matters, since computerized databases, required under the federal Help American Vote Act, may drop them from the voting rolls.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County registrar discovered that 43 percent of all new registered voters in that county, 26,824 people between January and June, had been disqualified by the state computer database system. The system was trying to match each name against social security rolls, but was so rigid that the slightest discrepancy with the social security information -- Joe versus Joseph used as the first name for example -- invalidated the registration.

Reviving memories of Florida, where a politically-tainted database was used to purge legitimate voters in 2000, the question is whether states are going to mechanically knock people off the voter rolls-- or followup with phone calls and other research to make sure that no one is denied the right to vote. California modified its matching rules after protests earlier in the year, but 11 percent of Los Angeles County registrants have still been disqualified in 2006.

Even more worrisome, Florida's law -- like a number of other states -- now allows "voting observers" to descend on voting precincts and challenge any voter's right to cast a ballot, forcing that voter to use a provisional ballot and rush home to bring additional proof of their right to vote.

Combining such "voter observers" intimidating voters at the polls with recent election tactics of voter deception and intimidation, from letters that threatened voters with possible arrest at the polls to lies that polling stations had moved, and you have a recipe for massive voter suppression in many of our communities -- all courtesy of a well-organized campaign by rightwing groups.

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Legislative Action to Protect Voting Rights

Litigation and political pressure on election officials are the main tools for protecting voting rights for this coming election, but legislators and advocates need to be developing legislative strategies that will defend the right to vote in our states in the future

  • The first step is repealing rightwing vote suppression laws and bringing state registration laws in conformity with the National Voter Registration Act and the Voting Rights Act. As one example, the NVRA Implementation Project is promoting a model bill to improve state agencies' outreach to register voters.
  • States also need to reform database procedures, following best practices to improve voter matching and verification.
  • And as discussed here, Oregon and other communities that have moved to voting by mail systems have been able to better enforce voting rights and prevent fraud, since extending voting over a number of weeks creates the time for election officials to investigate and resolve registration problems.
  • Barack Obama has introduced a federal Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act to create strong penalties for groups that suppress voter turnout through deception and intimidation. The Center for Policy Alternatives also has a state-level Voter Protection Model Bill with similar goals.

Combined with allowing registration at the same time a person votes, these reforms will give citizens the fullest opportunity to exercise their vote free of vote suppression efforts or intimidation.

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