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Christian Smith-Socaris on June 2, 2008 - 8:43am
Voter suppression is growing rapidly in America today. Over half of states now have voter ID requirements more stringent than that required for first time voters in federal elections. Several states are clamping down on voter registration drives or are considering proof of citizenship requirements.
Most recently, the Supreme Court upheld a major new barrier to voting, Indiana's photo ID requirement, a tool that right wing forces are already gearing up to promote in more states to strengthen their voter suppression arsenal. These are joined by a range of other voter suppression techniques - such as caging voters and passing out deceptive fliers about voting requirements - that are being perpetrated at an increasing scale.
Voter ID laws alone have the ability to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands and possibly more voters throughout the country. Fighting them and other voter suppression initiatives should be a top priority of all progressives. In this Dispatch we outline the most immediate current voter suppression threats, and place them in the historical context of a continuous, long-term campaign to suppress the vote in minority communities.
Voter Suppression in American History
Voter suppression has been a part of the American political system since the passage of the 15th Amendment granting all men the right to vote. Poll taxes, literacy tests and a host of obstacles were used to almost completely disenfranchise the black population in many states.
The modern era of voter suppression began during the civil rights era as a response to the weakening of Jim Crow and the re-enfranchisement of African Americans. Since that time, spurred by an electoral strategy of making racial appeals to white voters, the right wing has used two often combined strategies for suppressing the vote of minorities and other groups likely to support their opponents ”“ so called “ballot security”? campaigns, and intimidation and deception of voters.
Beginning in the late 1950’s, a new era of rightwing operatives emerged engaging in a series of “ballot security”? campaigns which have used the fear of voter fraud to challenge, harass and intimidate voters in heavily minority precincts across the country. These programs combine baseless charges of voter fraud, presented to the media as fact, with large and sophisticated operations to challenge the eligibility of thousands of voters, scare minority communities with threats of prosecution for violating voting laws, and placing intimidating “observers”? in the polls.
For example, the Republican National Committee (RNC) is still under a consent decree issued in 1981 as a result of a ballot security operation that included an attempt to disenfranchise 45,000 mostly African American voters by having them removed from the rolls, posters placed in predominantly African American neighborhoods that issued a warning regarding election law violations and read, “This area is being patrolled by the National Ballot Security Task Force,”? and posting off-duty police officers at targeted poll sites. That decree was strengthened five years later when the RNC was caught again engaging in a caging operation in Louisiana.
The RNC was hardly alone in these activities and a host of individual campaigns and private groups have become prominent organizers of ballot security operations.
Efforts to Suppress the Vote are Strengthening and Diversifying
Traditional voter suppression efforts have been reinvigorated and broadened to include other tactics such as voter ID requirements, registration drive restrictions, and allocating insufficient resources to precincts with a high concentration of minority voters. For the first time since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, America is on a path of restricting the franchise. While voter ID requirements have received much of the attention, 2004 saw the most well coordinated voter suppression campaign in our nation’s history. At the same time, independent misinformation and voter intimidation campaigns continue to sprout up in every election.
Recently, we have also seen instances where prosecutors and police intimidate minority voters by either aggressively questioning them or prosecuting them for minor, technical violations of voting laws. In Texas the Attorney General just completed a two year investigation of voter fraud that resulted in just 26 prosecutions of minor violations, none coordinated and none that could have had any chance of swinging an election. All of the defendants were Democrats and almost all were black or Hispanic. In 18 cases involving absentee ballots no votes were illegally cast, but people who assisted voters in mailing ballots otherwise legally cast were prosecuted. The intimidating and discriminatory nature of these investigations has resulted in a civil rights lawsuit by the Texas Democratic Party.
Federal Enforcement of Voting Rights has Largely Disappeared: The Justice Department has been turning a blind eye to voter suppression since the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency. Between 2001 and 2006 no voting rights cases were brought on behalf of African American or Native American voters. Instead of protecting the right to vote against real attacks, the voting rights division has been obsessively pursuing “voter fraud”? cases against political opponents. This came to the fore with the firing of several US Attorney’s who alleged that they had been forced out for failing to go along with DOJ’s urging to prosecute cases with limited evidence.
Voter Suppression Campaigns are a Direct and Immediate Threat to the Progressive Agenda: The votes being actively suppressed are ones that the right wing has reason to believe will be cast for candidates who oppose their policies, and these tactics are used to maintain right wing control over government even when the people don’t support conservative policies.
The size and scope of these campaigns is increasing and it is not an exaggeration to say that our democracy is under real and immediate threat from these practices. The fundamental right to vote is once again under direct attack and the will of the people is being subverted. Progressive lawmakers should make responding to this attack the highest priority because it aims to do no less then to steal positions in government in order to stymie progressive change.
Traditional Suppression Tactics are Alive and Thriving
The basic strategies for preventing voters from exercising their franchise ”“ intimidation, deception, and challenging a voter’s eligibility through laws designed to facilitate disenfranchisement ”“ have been in continuous use since reconstruction. They continue to be used with virtual impunity today.
Voter Intimidation: Intimidating voters takes many forms from videotaping or asking inappropriate questions of voters in a polling place, to placing heavily armed police outside poll sites, and distributing threatening flyers announcing the penalties for voting fraud. The intention is to make voting actually or apparently risky in order to keep people away from the polls. Voter intimidation is illegal under federal law, and many states’ laws as well. However, most laws are not clear on what constitutes intimidation and there is a need for clearly articulated standards at the state level to make sure that these laws cover all of the techniques used to threaten voters.
- In a 2003 Philadelphia mayoral race, hundreds of men with cars and clipboards that bore official-looking insignias were dispatched to polling places in predominantly African American neighborhoods. In a poll conducted after the election, 7 percent of African American voters said they had encountered these men.
- In 2004 the Election Protection Hotline received over a thousand complaints of voter intimidation or suppression. The hotline reports that police outside a Cook County, Illinois, polling place were requesting photo ID and telling voters that if they had been convicted of a felony they could not vote.
Deceptive Practices: Voter deception involves using disinformation campaigns to prevent targeted populations from voting. This usually involves publicizing bogus restrictions on who can vote and what the voting procedures are. In some instances the perpetrators prevent registration or make people believe they aren’t registered when they are, and in others they use misinformation to prevent registered voters from going to the polls.
- In this year’s presidential primary a “voter mobilization”? group made calls to residents of predominantly African American neighborhoods in several states giving misinformation about voter registration.
- Virginia enacted HB 1835 last year, which makes it a class 1 misdemeanor to knowingly communicate false information regarding the date, time, and place of the election or a voter’s precinct, polling place, or voter registration status, intending to impede the voter in the exercise of his right to vote.
Caging: Caging is the practice of sending non-forwardable mail to voters and challenging the eligibility of every person for whom the mail is returned as undeliverable. The mailings are targeted to members of one party and often to minority communities. The existence of undeliverable mail is, of course, no evidence that a voter isn’t eligible and the people engaging in caging know that, but they disingenuously claim to the media that it represents evidence of large scale voter fraud.
In many states, because of broad challenge statutes, it is very easy to disenfranchise someone with a challenge. This is by design as these laws were created in the post-civil war period specifically to allow for ad hoc disenfranchisement of African American voters. An early challenge statute from Ohio provides a good example of the explicitly racist intent of the law: “It shall be the duty of judges of elections to challenge any person offering to vote at any election ”¦ having a distinct and visible admixture of African blood”¦”?
Challenge laws remain ubiquitous today and some allow voters’ eligibility to be challenged without any personal knowledge that a voter is ineligible. At least seven states saw caging operations in the 2004 presidential election.
- In 2004 the Ohio State Republican Party challenged over 30,000 voters prior to election day and recruited 3,600 people to challenge thousands of voters on election day.
- The same year the Florida Republican Party compiled a 1,886 person caging list that included deployed military personnel registered at a naval base.
- Minnesota has passed a law that prohibits generating challenge lists based upon “mail sent by a political party that is returned as undeliverable.”?
- Washington has narrowed its challenge statute significantly, establishing a presumption of eligibility and requiring clear and convincing evidence that the voter is not in fact eligible, among other reforms.
The Voter Suppression Toolbox is Expanding
Recently those who would suppress the vote for political advantage have developed new tools which on their face are neutral election regulations, much as the poll tax was. These tactics are perhaps more insidious because they have been countenanced by the courts and have been given an air of legitimacy.
Voter ID: Over the last ten years states have passed dozens of laws requiring identification to vote. The laws have been sold as a solution to voter fraud, yet they have been specifically designed in most instances not to apply to absentee balloting, where the small amount of voter fraud that does occur is most likely to be perpetrated. The starkly partisan purpose of these laws is clear by the fact that they have been passed with party line votes everywhere they have been enacted. In Missouri this year the legislative leaders made no secret of the fact that they were rushing through a voter ID bill specifically because they might not be in power after November.
These laws are not intended to prevent in-person voter fraud, of which there is almost no evidence, but are truly designed for the simple purpose of suppressing the vote of groups less likely to have or be able to obtain the required ID ”“ the poor, the disabled, the elderly, and racial and ethnic minorities. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that, in Missouri, 238,000 adults lack the ID required by the proposed photo ID law. This is over 5% of the state’s population. In this year’s presidential primary in Indiana a dozen nuns and unknown numbers of students couldn’t vote because they lacked the requisite Indiana or federal government issued photo ID.
Proof of Citizenship: The vanguard of voter identification laws are requirements to provide proof of citizenship in order to register to vote, and in some instances every time you vote. Seizing on fears of illegal immigration, conservative lawmakers are claiming that citizens are having their votes diluted by non-citizens. As with other voter ID requirements, the burdens of these laws are real and fall disproportionately on poor, disabled, elderly and minority voters. Providing proof of citizenship is more onerous than even obtaining a photo ID. And as with fears of voter fraud generally, there is no evidence that non-citizens vote in significant numbers anywhere in the country.
In Arizona, the only state that currently has a proof of citizenship requirement for voter registration, election officials have denied 30,000 registrations and have discarded 4,000 provisional ballots due to the requirement.
Registration Drive Restrictions: As a response to successful efforts by non-partisan and progressive organizations to register hundreds of thousands of new voters in recent years, many states are enacting restrictions on voter registration drives. These laws have a discriminatory effect as African Americans and members of Spanish speaking households are twice as likely to be registered through a voter registration drive than whites or members of English speaking households.
- In Florida strict deadlines have been established mandating that completed registration forms must be delivered to election officials within days of being filled out. Failure to comply with the deadlines makes someone liable for heavy fines. This recently led the League of Women Voters of Florida to briefly suspend voter registration activities. The law is currently not being enforced while a lawsuit between the League and the state is resolved.
- In Ohio voting rights groups won a lawsuit that struck down voter registration law provisions that required “registration drive workers to register and to undergo training, to list detailed information on each registration form they help with and for every gatherer to turn in forms in person, not through an organizer”¦"
Lack of Poll Site Resources: In recent elections it has not been rare to see long lines at some polling places while neighboring precincts accommodate all voters easily. These lines are the result of choices in how many voting machines or ballots are distributed to each polling place, and these choices sometimes have the effect of disproportionately reducing the vote in minority or low income communities.
In Ohio in 2004 many voters in heavily African American urban counties experienced lines that took five or more hours to stand through, while voters in neighboring, predominantly white suburban counties waited for a fraction as long.
Poll Locations: Another long standing tactic for voter suppression involves the placement of poll sites. Merely reducing the number of sites in a community or placing sites in difficult to access locations can help suppress the vote of disfavored groups. This is an especially prevalent tactic in college towns where local leaders want to discourage the participation of students in local elections.
Just this February over a thousand students marched six miles from Prairie View A&M University to the closest early voting site. Several years earlier a judge had found the students not to satisfy residency requirements for voting, which decision was eventually overturned.
Since the end of Jim Crow and the re-enfranchisement of African Americans there has been an unceasing attempt to prevent certain classes of people from voting. Under the banner of “ballot security”? and the prevention of voter fraud, these campaigns have instead sought to undermine the democratic process.
The tools to fight this vote suppression, as detailed above, are clear:
Enact Voter Protection laws to stop voter intimidation and deception.
Stop "caging" with laws that prohibits generating challenge lists based upon mail sent that is returned as undeliverable.
Narrow challenge statutes to create presumption of voter eligibility with clear and convincing evidence required to prove a voter is not in fact eligible to vote.
Block "voter ID" laws which largely serve to suppress the vote of otherwise eligible voters.
Protect community-based voter registration drives from state intimidation.
The whole toolkit of voter suppression techniques are being deployed as the rightwing faces an angry and disgusted electorate that is eager to see fundamental change. Progressives who are fighting for that change and putting themselves forward as an alternative to the bankrupt right wing must be aware of the present attacks on our democracy aimed directly at thwarting progressive change. Without fighting back to ensure fair elections in which everyone can participate the entire progressive agenda is imperiled.