Thursday, September 27, 2012

Voter Repression II: 2012

The attempt to prevent voter fraud is in itself the only voter fraud taking place."  (Sarah Silverman, the G rated

 The amount of voter fraud that could be prevented by photo IDs is "a jaw-dropping forty-four one-millionth of 
         one percent." (Stephen Colbert)

For those of you who have read my previous blog, much of this one may evoke a sense of "deja vu all over again," to quote my favorite catcher/philosopher. It will become increasingly clear that that today's right-wing Republicans (Are there any other kind these days?) have actually learned something from history, and that they want to condemn the rest of us to relive it.

In the years immediately following the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, most states adopted some version of it, if only to "take the heat off" or to buy time in which to figure out how to circumvent it.  In an unusual flash of prescience, the authors of the act were "pretty sure that certain states would not take kindly to the new rules," and gave the Department of Justice authority to review voting procedures (preclearance) in nine specified states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia), and to block laws that "deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language language group." For good measure, Congress also established a four person Election Assistance Commission to "advise" states whose voting laws contravened any provision of the law. At the time, nearly all of these states were represented by racist Democrats who had opposed both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thanks to one of the most massive partisan realignments in in the nation's history, they are now governed mostly by racist Republicans. What is it the French say? Something like the more things change the more they stay the same.    

 By the onset of the 21st century, a "new breed" of right-wingers had finally gotten their act together, so to speak. During the presidential debacle of 2000, Florida Republicans demonstrated that they had acquired sufficient mastery of the tools of voter suppression to deny their state's electoral votes to Gore, with the eager cooperation of their fellow ideologues on the U.S. Supreme Court. Their loss to Obama eight years later was a temporary setback, but they recovered quickly enough to capture the House of Representatives and to deny Senate Democrats the "super- majority" necessary to enact most of their agenda. Moreover, there is something about Obama that drives them even more crazy than usual. It is hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, unless calling him a Muslim and questioning the legitimacy of his birthright to citizenship is really "code" for something more base and sinister. For whatever reason, denying him reelection in 2012 has become their idee fixe, and "purging" the electorate one of their main weapon of choice. In its broadest terms, their strategy involved a witches brew of gutting existing voter rights laws, while reviving many of the "tried and true" scams for disenfranchising voters most likely to lean Democratic, and least equipped to defend their right to vote: racial minorities, the elderly, college students, the handicapped, the unemployed, the homeless, and those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in general.  

The first Voter ID law was enacted in Indiana in in 2008, with the potential to disenfranchise 3.2 million voters. During the 2008 primaries in the Hoosier State, a group of retired nuns were prohibited from voting because they lacked proper photo IDs. By 2011, Georgia, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin had passed similar laws. In South Carolina alone, as many as 180,000 citizens could be denied the right to vote, most of them elderly, students, poor, and minorities. In Tennessee, a 96 year old black woman was turned away because she could not produce a valid marriage license. She later told MSNBC that the experience was worse than during the Jim Crow era. five states--Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, and West Virginia--have reduced the time period in which early voting can take place. (In 2008, fully 30% of Americans voted early, either in person or by absentee ballot. In Florida,the number among blacks was 54% and in Georgia 35%.) Republican strategists in South Carolina have openly acknowledged that suppressing black voters was "why we need Voter ID laws," while another proponent of such restrictions has asserted that allowing welfare recipients to vote is akin to "handing out burglar tools to criminals" and encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn't helping the poor "is about helping the poor to help themselves to other people's money." Many other Republican-controlled states have made it more difficult even to register by adding new requirements for individuals, and more onerous regulations on non-profit organizations conducting registration drives. In some instances, right-wing poll "watchers" have even resorted to personal confrontation in order to prevent the elderly or persons with disabilities from participating. There have even been instances of elderly people, especially women, have been so traumatized by overzealous    
challengers that they required assistance in getting home and/or vowed never to try to vote again. During the recent recall election in my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, some overly zealous (and probably paranoid) "poll watchers" even resorted to "dumpster diving" in order to examine utility bills and other forms of identification used by "suspicious" voters.

The situation in Florida was especially blatant. A Democratic-controlled legislature had passed a "no-fault early voting" law in which any registered voter could request an absentee ballot and either mail it in or submit it in person before 6:00 p.m. the Monday before the election. As a result, early voting increased from 607,416 to 1,717,256 between 2004 and 2008. Absentee voting during the week before the election increased from 10% to 29.7%. After the Republican landslide of 2010 gave them complete control of both legislative houses, they quickly dismantled the the entire voting apparatus. Early voting was severely curtailed, County election boards were prohibited from mailing absentee ballots or paying return postage on them, eliminated the requirement that poll workers had to redirect confused voters to their proper polling place, and shut down early voting three days before the election. Most of those who had voted early under the 2004 law were either elderly, women, or had low incomes. the great majority resided in the states two metropolitan counties: Miami-Dade or Broward. The League of Women Voters had to suspend voter registration drives because the new law required "complicated, onerous filings" and mandated that completed registrations had to be turned in less than 48 hours. In a recent letter to the Florida secretary of state, the DOJ ordered him to stop "scrubbing" the rolls in a search for "non-citizens," citing possible violations of Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act. In Kansas and Alabama, first time voters must produce proof of citizenship.  Michigan is debating a law that would reduce Florida's window to 24 hours, while Maine, which led the nation in voter turnout in 2010, has repealed a 38 year old law permitting registration at the polls on election day. Between 2004 and 2008, there was a 5,000,000 increase in the number of registered voters nationwide;since then there has been an almost identical decrease.    

Beginning in 2011, 34 states have introduced photo  ID laws, all of them, save one, in states with Republican controlled legislatures.(In a circumstance that defies coincidence, most of them are almost identically worded, almost as if they were copied from a template provided, say, by the American Legislative Exchange Council. Or maybe hundreds of Republicans legislators in dozens of states all across the country communicate by ESP,or all hit upon nearly the exact same ideas and wording independently.)Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin have already adopted such laws, although the U.S. Department of Justice has temporarily blocked implementation in South Carolina, and Wisconsin. Twelve other states, with the same partisan profiles, have introduced "proof of citizenship" requirements.Acquiring photo IDs can be an extremely difficult and expensive proposition, especially for those with few resources and means of transportation. Most of these laws require either a Social Security card, a notarized birth certificate, or naturalization papers. According to the Brennan center for Justice at New York University, some 21 million voters (11% of the population) do not currently have photo IDs of any kind, most of them poor, elderly, or non-white.Among African Americans the figure is 25%, and among Latinos more than 16%.  What makes this drive particularly punitive and absurd is the fact that, in the
opinion of the Brennan Center, it is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."  Most cases, it concluded, "can be traced to causes far more logical than
voter fraud," including clerical or typographical errors, mismatched entries, or simple mistakes on either end. Moreover, as political science and law professor Richard L. Hasen has concluded, registering or voting under a false name "is an exceedingly dumb way to try to steal an election." The penalties far outweigh the potential benefits--stiff fines and imprisonment for U.S. citizens; deportation for resident aliens. A survey in Ohio in 2002 and 2004 revealed that there were only 4 cases of voter fraud out of 9 million votes cast. In Wisconsin in 2004, only 7 votes out of 3 million found to be illegal, all of them by convicted felons who did not realize that they had been disenfranchised.      

Easily the most comprehensive and authoritative investigation about the subject is the Brennan Center for Justice's "The Truth About Voter Fraud." The Center is housed in the New York University School of Law and is a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. It is "part think tank, part public interest law firm, part advocacy group." Its Voting Rights and Elections Project "works to expand the franchise, to make it as simple as possible for every eligible American to vote, and to ensure that every vote is accurately recorded and counted." In its intensive examinations, it has found that "many of the claims of voter fraud amount to a great deal of smoke without much fire." Such unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, it asserts, divert attention from real problems that need real solutions and and are often used to justify policies that do not solve the alleged wrongs, but could well disenfranchise legitimate voters. It defines voter fraud as an instance in which individuals cast ballots despite knowing that they are ineligible to vote in an attempt to defraud the election system. Voter fraud, it says, are "often conflated , intentionally or unintentionally, with other forms of electoral misconduct." It also distracts attention from the real election issues that can be far better addressed, for example, by resource allocation, poll worker education, or implementation of longstanding statutory mandates." Over the past several years, the Center has developed a methodology for reviewing allegations of voter fraud. It reserves some of its harshest criticism for "imprecise and inflated claims of "voter fraud" that have led to the call for in-person photo IDs because they are effective only in preventing individuals from impersonating other voters at the polls--an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightening." The report quotes Royal Masset, the former political director for the Texas Republican Party: "Among Republicans it is "an article of religious faith that voter fraud is causing us to lose elections..Although Masset says that he disagrees with that,he does believe that "requiring phot IDS could cause enough of a drop off in legitimate Democratic voting to add 3% to the Republican vote."

The report painstakingly examines how alleged cases of voter fraud most often result from clerical or typographical errors in poll books or registration lists, bad "matching," of registration lists to other documents,  "jumping to conclusions" from death or criminal records, unusual addresses, or returned mail, and voter mistakes.   One increasingly popular tactic among vote suppressors is "caging," in which they send out a mass mailing, gather up those undelivered because the person no longer lives at that address, and use them to purge the voter rolls. It then intensively examines specific types of alleged "voter fraud": double voting, dead voters, fraudulent addresses, persons with felony convictions, non-citizens, registration fraud, vote-buying, and fraud by election officials. Especially bizarre are the extremely rare occasions when people allegedly registered and voted their dogs. The remainder of the report deals with selected case studies of alleged voter fraud in Missouri, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Anyone seriously interested in discovering the truth about voter fraud can find no better source.           

Probably the most vicious and diabolical of all these conspiracies calls itself "True the Vote", and, as a New York Times editorial of September 23 charged, are reviving "Jim Crow tactics at the ballot box." Actually True the Vote is the grotesque spawn of the Tea Party movement. Its "modus operandi" is to descend upon a largely   
 minority precinct and comb its registration records for the even most miniscule misspelling or address error. It uses this information to challenge voters at the polls and, knowing that almost everyone of these challenges will be found baseless. Their real purpose is to cause arguments and delays at the polls that will frustrate those waiting in line and thereby reduce turnout. Almost as insidious is their disingenuous pretext that they are merely combating voter fraud. Although voter fraud involving false identity is, as we have seen, all but nonexistent, the challenge to each voter takes up valuable time, calls into question the legitimacy of the registration and voting process, and discourages people whose voting time period is seriously constrained due to work or class schedules, childcare limitations, or physical disabilities. In one Ohio precinct in 2008, delaying tactics forced the polls to remain open  until 4:00 a.m. The real goal, as the Times flatly charges, is to reduce the the political participation of "minorities, the poor, students, older Americans and other groups that tend to vote Democratic."

In a Times article of September 17, Stephanie Saul reveals exactly how this subterfuge works. True the Vote originated with a Tea Party spinoff in Texas called the King Street Patriots, aided by Americans for Prosperity, a phony "apolitical" organization funded by the nefarious Koch brothers, whose real mission is to elect conservative Republicans at every level of government. Together, they developed computer software that enables them to check voter registration lists against driver's license and property tax records. These kind of database matches are notoriously unreliable because names and addresses are often slightly different in the various databases, but that is precisely the point. Any miniscule discrepancy can be used as a ruse to challenge the identity of a potential voter. In 2009 and 2010, for instance, this "deadly duo" zeroed in on a Houston Congressional district represented by Sheila Jackson Lee, a black Democrat. After scrutinizing the records for five months, True the Vote generated a list of 500 names of voters whose legitimacy they could challenge. Election officials put these 500 people on "suspense," so that they had to produce additional proof of residence, even though most of "the accused" had only been guilty of changing addresses since the previous election. Nevertheless, True the Vote dispatched dozens of white "poll watchers" to district precincts, thereby consciously creating friction between election officials and black voters. On the day of the recall election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the group used inaccurate lists to to delay student voting at Lawrence University in Appleton with highly intrusive identity checks. Three "poll watchers," at least one of whom was clearly from True the Vote, were so disruptive that election officials gave them two warnings, but the ploy was effective because many students gave up waiting in line.

True the Vote is currently active in at least 30 states and has openly bragged that its tactic was to make the experience of voting like "driving and seeing the police following you." The group is also deeply involved in the voter ID scam. As a recent report by Common Cause alleged, their activities "present a clear and present danger to the fair administration of elections and to the fundamental freedom to vote." Despite the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit intimidation and interference in the act of voting, but the penalties are relatively innocuous and enforcement sporadic at best. All four seats on the Election Assistance Commission created in 1965 to enforce the law are currently vacant!
In an attempt to counter this onslaught,, the Department of Justice, the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, and the NAACP have all made serious efforts to protect the right to vote from these nefarious attacks. The ACLU has launched a nationwide voter education campaign called LET ME VOTE that will target states with recent voting law changes and high levels of voter confusion. It will coordinate with local, state, and national allies, to put accessible, accurate information on registration and voting--in both English and Spanish--into the hands of affected voters.It will get the word out to the communications media and the general public, with opeds, public service announcements, advertising and social media. On its website <> Let Me Vote will feature personal stories of people affected by these laws, information about restrictive voting efforts throughout the country, and advocacy tools to fight this concerted attempt by right-wing Republicans to deprive targeted groups of citizens from exercising their most precious, and potentially effective, right.         

The brutality of voter suppression was best captured by Charles Pierce in
The purpose of those laws in not to make voting merely inconvenient. It is also to make the voters whom the laws target nervous about moving through the various (government) steps required to comply.The solution to the problem of the braver voters who navigate the new landscape is either to knock them off the rolls through techniques like voter "caging," which we all became familiar with in Florida in 2000, or simply to get in their faces at the polls and intimidate them directly.  


1 comment:

  1. Well put.

    The pretextual "hunt for voter fraud" goes beyond registration purging and poll watchers. In states where poll watchers are more heavily regulated, True the Vote and their affiliates/allies are recruiting and training people to be actual election judges. One organizer went so far as to say "Being an election judge is even better than being a poll watcher as you are actually running the election."

    So do you think that driver's license makes your vote safe?

    Any liquor store clerk knows how easy it is to get a fake. Do we expect TTV not to be aware of this fact in their training? Does the state provide adequate guidance for election judges in determining whether an ID's picture sufficiently matches the person staning before them? What about the signature matching requirements?

    These subjective judgment calls concerning a person's right to vote a regular ballot may end up in the hands of someone trained to be paranoid rather than reasonably vigilant. See for some of the flaws in Ohio's laws protecting voters on election day.