Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters
Weekly Voting Rights News Update
America’s Democratic Promise
The history of democracy in the United States is one marked by the steady, though intensely contested, expansion of the right to vote. Where once only male landowners were permitted the right to choose their representatives, the United States now proudly extends that right to all adult citizens. The most recent expansion of the franchise were the result of years of struggle through the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. The seminal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 26th Amendment ratified in 1971 created enforcement mechanisms to protect minority voting rights and extended the right to vote to 18 year olds.
But these struggles are not over. Despite these advances, enshrined in the Constitution itself not just in the 26th Amendment, but also the 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments, attempts by powerful forces to exclude historically disenfranchised populations from the electoral arena have not abated. Perhaps the most vivid and pervasive of these attempts in recent history is encapsulated in the exposure of the US Attorneys scandal that engulfed the Department of Justice starting the late winter and early spring of 2007.
America’s Unrepresentative Electorate
But first, let’s give some context to the stakes at risk in this fight for America’s democratic legacy. It is no secret that the electorate does not equally represent all Americans. In fact, if minorities voted at the same rate as whites, there would be an increase of 7.5 million voters on Election Day. One of the biggest reasons minority voting rates are so much lower than those of whites, the most enfranchised group in the electorate, rests with their lower rates of voter registration. Only 61% of African-Americans and 54% of Latinos are registered to vote compared with 71% of whites. Consequently, in an effort to ensure that the American electorate reflects the make-up of America’s citizens, groups like Project Vote engage in large-scale voter registration efforts among historically underrepresented groups. (Indeed, over the last two election cycles Project Vote, working with local field partners such as unions and community organizations, has helped 1.6 million people register to vote and will assist another 1.2 million do the same in time for Election Day 2008.)
Creating an electorate that accurately reflects America has important implications for public policy choices as candidates are forced to compete for the votes of these new voters by addressing the issues that resonate most deeply with them. However, the intense focus that progressives put on Election Day dirty tricks and the problems of electronic voting machines is wasted if they do not also recognize that systemic attempts to lock entire groups out of the process months and years before Election Day pose just as much - if not order of magnitude more - risk to representative democracy in the United States.
The Conservative War on Voting Rights
Three recent articles made available online this week - including two by Art Levine and one by Steve Rosenfeld - focus on the partisan subversion of the Department of Justice and show how partisan schemes to engage in widespread voter suppression targeted one of the most active defenders of the rights of poor people and people of color. These articles have exposed what amounts to an entire war waged by conservatives against the voting rights gains of the past generation. Taken in total, the picture that emerges shows nothing less than an attempt to take America back to days of segregation and Jim Crow except this time the marauders are wearing suits and ties and carry briefcases rather than wearing white hoods and sheets and burning crosses. Even more disturbing is their willingness to subvert the non-partisan nature of the nation’s top law enforcement institution, the Department of Justice and commit the resources of the Federal government to the systematic disenfranchisement of American citizens.
The Myth Of Voter Fraud and Attacks on ACORN
The threat of voter suppression "by propagating the myth of voter fraud" was thoroughly outlined by writer Art Levine at The American Prospect Tuesday: "Using various tactics -- including media smears, bogus lawsuits, restrictive new voting laws and policies, and flimsy prosecutions -- Republican operatives, election officials, and the GOP-controlled Justice Department have limited voting access and gone after voter-registration groups such as ACORN [Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now]."
"The organization has been a favorite target of Republicans promoting the myth of widespread voter fraud because of its success in registering Democratic-leaning minority voters since 2004, according to reports by McClatchy Newspapers, The American Prospect, and other outlets," Levine wrote in the Huffington Post on the community organization, which advocates for low-income families and partners with Project Vote in conducting voter registration drives.
Such efforts by ACORN and other organizations have suffered from voter registration drive restrictions enacted after partisans made bogus claims of voter fraud, including one in New Mexico where ACORN alone dropped their state registration rate from 35,000 new voters in 2004 to just 2,000 in 2006. That same year, former U.S. attorney for New Mexico, David Iglesias concluded there was not enough evidence of voter fraud in the state to proceed with indictments. As a result of his findings (or lack thereof), he was fired in a move that triggered exposure of the systematic politicization of the Justice Department.
The real reason for raising the specter of voter fraud was delineated in clear and comprehensive detail by Levine, from the Huffington Post article, in what amounts to a case study of voter suppression from a 2006 Congressional race in Dallas, Texas.
The Dallas incident, it turns out, perfectly symbolizes the no-holds-barred Republican politics of voter fraud. The intimidating flier was part of a brazen vote-suppression and smear campaign designed to undermine a Democratic candidate, Harriet Miller, in a tight local race in 2006 to challenge Texas House Rep. Tony Goolsby in a racially mixed North Dallas district.
The frightening and deceptive mailer, highlighted with ACORN's trademark red and black colors, was sent to thousands of black residents a few days before the election: "Beware: A national political group suspected of voter fraud [i.e., ACORN] is currently working in your neighborhood to bring people to the polls on election day...Don't be a victim of voter fraud -- it could result in jail time for you."
The flier appeared to have its intended effect of intimidating some black voters. Lawrence Jones, a 63-year-old retiree and an active ACORN member, vividly recalls how it affected registered voters and other ACORN members. "They were dumbfounded and shocked," he says. It caused some members to doubt the group's integrity, while other residents, he says, "just feared to vote." He adds, "A lot of people said they don't think ACORN is powerful enough to protect them -- I'm not going to fool with the federal government."
That anonymous mailer followed a spate of public attacks, ads, and mailers by the Goolsby campaign -- and even a letter to the local district attorney by the county Republican chairman -- all accusing Miller of engaging in voter fraud during her first campaign against Goolsby in 2004. The Republican smears, now the subject of a pending defamation lawsuit aimed at Goolsby and other local Republicans, also claimed she had illegally "retained the services of ACORN," while tarring the organization with flimsy claims that it deliberately engaged in voter fraud.
The district attorney never responded to the Dallas GOP's allegations, but the local CBS affiliate, CBS 11 News, jumped on the story to ballyhoo the bogus charges filed by Republican County Chairman Kenn George with the D.A.
The real fraud involved George's inflammatory letter to the prosecutor, which blatantly misrepresented election returns from 2004 in order to file the false voter fraud complaint against Miller. The letter claimed that as a Democrat running for a state House seat, she suspiciously won more votes than the Democratic candidate for Congress in black districts, when, in fact, there was no Democratic congressional candidate opposing the Republican, just an obscure independent.
Corruption and Politicization at the Department of Justice
In the wake of the scandal opened up with inquiries into the firing of David Iglesias, which eventually cost Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez his job, the full scale of the politicization and corruption at the Department of Justice came into view.
Congressional oversight hearings examined the Department's role in voter suppression activities, including allegations of voter fraud, voter caging, and voter intimidation. Representative John Conyers, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has tackled the voter caging issue and has started hearings on this and related issues through his Committee and its various sub-committees.
Hearings held recently in front of one of those House Judiciary subcommittees revealed how the Department, through the Federal Bureau of Investigation, "failed to investigate illegal mailers sent to African-Americans in Dallas" that threatened criminal punishments if they registered to vote through ACORN in the run-up to a 2006 Congressional election, Levine wrote.
"The FBI's decision not to investigate, critics say, is the latest sign that politicization appears to have compromised the nominally non-partisan law enforcement agency," Levine wrote. "That intimidation is a violation of the Voting Rights Act," said "former 21-year veteran of the Civil Rights Division" and election law expert, Gerry Hebert. Levine further notes that "President Bush's Justice Department hasn't brought a single prosecution or lawsuit in more than seven years on behalf of any African-American voters who faced direct voter intimidation threats and challenges – despite receiving, by some estimates, roughly 12,000 criminal civil rights complaints of all kinds annually." But the VRA is not the only federal law the Department failed to enforce as partisan political operatives such as Hans von Spakovsky took over key parts of the Department’s voting rights enforcement apparatus.
"Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s Voting Section has not enforced other federal laws, such as the requirement that state welfare offices offer public aid recipients a chance to register to vote," wrote Steve Rosenfeld in the Fall 2007 issue of Social Policy, referring to Section 7 of the National Voter Registration Act. Instead, the Department has had a heavy hand at pushing detrimental voter purges, a procedure loosely mandated by another NVRA section. At a House hearing on equal enforcement of NVRA Tuesday, Project Vote deputy director, Michael Slater testified that "All Americans deserve an equal opportunity to register to vote and participate in our democracy...Many states, however, are undermining that promise and furthering inequalities."
Levine recounted the number of voters disenfranchised as a result of these purges and voter caging policies:
"In Ohio in 2006, 303,000 voters were purged in three major urban counties, while the Brennan Center reported that Pennsylvania's rigid database rules, later loosened, had excluded up to 30 percent of eligible registrants. Karl Rove aide Tim Griffin played a major role in state GOP voter 'caging' operations (that is, challenging the eligibility of registered voters) in such states as Ohio and Florida. These schemes, Project Vote reports, challenged the right of 77,000 mostly minority voters to cast ballots between 2004 and 2006, under the pretext that non-forwardable letters sent by GOP activists to their addresses were returned as undelivered."
The Myth of Voter Fraud and Voter Disenfranchisement Through Voter ID Laws
The Department has been complicit in partisan accusations of widespread voter fraud used as a pretext to legalize voter suppression tactics, especially voter identification laws. "Yet voter fraud, in fact, is so rare that even an intensive, four-year anti-fraud initiative by the Justice Department couldn't even find one person in the country to charge with impersonating another voter – out of nearly 215 million votes cast in federal elections," Levine wrote in the Huffington Post.
Despite this lack of evidence, hysterical accusations of "voter fraud" inspired nearly 30 states to consider bills requiring photo identification or proof of citizenship requirements since 2004. The Department of Justice, again through the machinations of von Spakovsky, approved one of the worst instances of these laws in Georgia, which was subsequently overturned by the courts. A slightly less draconian version of the law is now in effect. However, the worst version of these laws went into effect in Indiana, where it was promptly challenged. Upheld by a Federal appeals court, the law is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which seems to be considering dubious claims of voter fraud as reason enough to keep the law on the books.
"Alarmingly, the insubstantiality of the claims of pervasive voter fraud may not deter the U.S. Supreme Court from upholding Indiana's restrictive voter-ID law -- which, according to a new University of Washington study, could disenfranchise the more than 20 percent of the state's African American voters who lack the ID required by Indiana's law," Levine wrote.
The most alarming aspect of this possible decision is its ability to affect turnout in 2008. "Democrats seemingly haven't yet grasped the political importance of fighting these restrictive policies, though they could prove a major impediment to minority voting...," concludes Levine.
Action on Election Day Is Too Late
Both Levine and Rosenfeld expose these brazen, partisan attempts to shape the electorate and corrupt non-partisan governmental agencies by the targeting of civic participation programs, non-enforcement of voter protection laws, and steadfast determination to pursue voter fraud cases. Yet, the American public and some lawmakers appear to be none the wiser. "Looking toward the 2008 election, it appears the purges- as well as the new voter ID laws, restrictions on voter registration drives and stricter rules for counting provisional ballots – could be a new and legal way to accomplish a longstanding GOP electoral tactic Rosenfeld wrote, a tactic of shaping the electorate for partisan electoral advantage.
Project Vote tracks a range of legislation in 21 states related to voting rights and election administration. If you are concerned about what is happening in your state, you may go to ElectionLegislation.org to find out more information. Registration is required.
Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)
DOJ Watch. Project Vote.
The Politics of Voter Fraud. Lorraine Minnite.
Unequal Access: Neglecting the National Voter Registration Act, 1995-2007. Douglas R. Hess and Scott Novakowski.
House Members Grill Justice Dept. Official Over NVRA Enforcement. Voting Matters Blog.
Whitehouse Tackles 'Nefarious' Voter Caging. No, not that White House. Voting Matters Blog.
Senators Spar over the Myth of Voter Fraud. Voting Matters Blog.
In Other News:
Missouri registers fewer poor to vote – Kansas City Star
Felon Voting Rights
Political confusion: Removal letter confuses law-abiding voters – Columbus Ledger-Enquirer [Georgia]
House Approves Restoring Voting Rights For Some Felons– Associated Press
Strictness a sticking point in voter ID bill: Democrats urge a softer stance to avoid veto from gov.- The Hutchinson News [Kansas]
State legislators discuss voter id – WDAM-TV [Miss.]