Hill Wades Into Voter Suppression

Posted October 20, 2004 at 6:41pm

Earlier this month, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) offered the Voter Protection Act of 2004. But for Cummings, the measure’s slim chance of passage this year is beside the point.

The legislation — which would enable prosecution of “any individual, group, or organization that tries to mislead, intimidate, misrepresent or otherwise interfere with anyone exercising the right to vote” — is intended as a signal to sponsors of voter suppression that they will be held accountable.

In the days leading up to Nov. 2, Cummings is just one of many Congressional Democrats participating in an aggressive, multifaceted, national effort to bring attention to alleged voter-suppression efforts, both past and present.

The message has been trumpeted in recent days by everyone from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y) to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Clinton recently pressed President Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), to publicly condemn voter-intimidation efforts, and Conyers and other Members of the House Judiciary Committee last week asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate allegations of an “orchestrated plan” in several states “to deny citizens, registered as members of non-Republican parties, their right to vote.”

Late last week, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the ranking member on the House Administration Committee, called for a series of hearings on “election irregularities” after press reports in several states of “incidents that have the potential to negatively affect the entire electoral process.”

In a statement, Larson pointed to the “erroneous purging of voters from the rolls in Florida, and the rejection of voter registration forms in that state because of overly restrictive technical rules that disproportionately impact minority voters,” as well as problems in the way provisional ballots are being counted in Missouri.

GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, have fired back with their own charges of voter fraud — a problem they say is rampant in certain states this election cycle and which could undermine the electoral process — and Democratic underhandedness.

In particular, Republicans feel Democrats have gone too far with a copy of a get-out-the-vote manual issued by the Democratic National Committee that urged “pre-emptive strikes” on voter intimidation.

“If no signs of intimidation techniques have emerged yet, launch a ‘pre-emptive strike,’” the manual stated, noting that such efforts are “particularly well-suited to states in which there have been tried in the past [sic].”

The manual suggests issuing press releases that review voter-suppression tactics used in the past, priming “minority leadership” to discuss the issue with the media and warning newspapers about advertising that contains falsehoods.

In a statement issued last week by the Ohio Republican Party, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, said that “the integrity of our electoral process is clearly at stake in this election.”

Ney, whose panel has jurisdiction over election-related matters, attributes the threat to independent 527 groups that have been registering Democrats in the Buckeye State.

“Groups such as [Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now], [America Coming Together] and Project Vote are all under investigation, and at least eight counties have referred potentially fraudulent registration forms to local authorities,” Ney stated. “The allegations range from registering a dead man to an entire neighborhood filing for absentee ballots.”

One GOP House aide pointed to similar issues in Florida, where registration forms are being turned in unsigned or with “false” addresses.

“Yet, when election officials say they can’t accept some of these forms [such as] those with no signatures or false addresses‚ the Democrats are turning around and accusing the Republicans of voter suppression,” the staffer said.

Democrats believe they have good reason to worry.

“These concerns are not unwarranted,” Larson said in a statement he entered into the Oct. 6 Congressional Record, which cited an instance in 2003 in Philadelphia where “voters in African-American areas were systematically challenged by men carrying clipboards, driving a fleet of some 300 sedans with magnetic signs designed to look like law enforcement insignia.”

Larson also pointed to an incident during South Dakota’s June 2004 special election, in which “Native American voters were prevented from voting after they were challenged to provide photo IDs, which they were not required to present under state or federal law.”

Both examples were included in the September report “The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today,” released by the NAACP and the People for the American Way Foundation.

Peter Kelley, a spokesman for Citizens Against Un-American Voter Intimidation, said there is nothing far-fetched or wrong with warning voters about potential hazards, particularly in light of the 2000 election debacle in Florida.

Moreover, he said, there tends to be a “prevailing assumption among” impoverished and minority voters that their vote might not matter.

“It doesn’t take much to discourage someone from voting if they don’t think their vote is going to count anyway,” Kelley said, adding that “the signs can be subtle.” He cited instances of Hispanic voters feeling afraid to cast votes after seeing green vans resembling INS trucks parked near polling places.

This year, in parts of the Southwest, Kelley’s group is trying to recruit owners of “low-rider” cars, which the group considers non-threatening in certain Hispanic neighborhoods, to drive around and “counter this type of intimidation at the polls.”

Other Democratic-leaning groups are also waging efforts to try to counter voter suppression tactics.

The American Federation of Government Employees, for instance, is running radio messages in several states encouraging people not to let a repeat of 2000 occur.

“Before you vote, make sure you know your rights. If your right to vote is challenged, you have the right to cast a provisional ballot,” the female announcer says in the ad. “Don’t allow yourself to be turned away at the polls, or on your way to the polls. Contact the citizens who are monitoring this election for fairness to help or get help.”

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, Right to Vote and Demos released a report analyzing how 15 states have handled the purging of people from voter rolls and how a “patchwork of flawed and inconsistent voting systems could deprive millions of Americans the right to vote.”

The report found that purge lists are vulnerable to inaccuracies; that none of states surveyed had any specific criteria in place to verify that a person with a felony conviction is actually the one being purged from the voter rolls; and that only four states surveyed address the issue of due process by statute.

But some GOP lawmakers counter that practices such as not requiring photo identification at the polls fundamentally contributes to voter fraud. They say Congress ought to require states to change their rules.

In a September “Dear Colleague” letter, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) touted legislation he has offered that would require anyone registering to vote to provide legal photo identification to the appropriate state authority — an idea that he said received significant support from his constituents.

Citing preliminary results of a survey of his constituents — at that point, fewer than 1 percent of 653,000 constituents had replied — Hyde said the results showed that, “overwhelmingly, voters are willing to provide proof of citizenship when registering to vote and to bring current legal photo ID with them to the polling places in order to prevent illegal voting.”

In any case, more states than ever before will require voters to present identification this year, at least in certain instances.

To comply with mandates of the Help America Vote Act, all states will require first-time voters to display an ID at the polling place if they registered by mail. In addition, 17 states will require all voters to provide an ID before casting a ballot.