Published on Wednesday, September 22, 2004 by Reuters
Millions Blocked from Voting in U.S. Election
by Alan Elsner
WASHINGTON - Millions of U.S. citizens, including a disproportionate number of black voters, will be blocked from voting in the Nov. 2 presidential election because of legal barriers, faulty procedures or dirty tricks, according to civil rights and legal experts.
The largest category of those legally disenfranchised consists of almost 5 million former felons who have served prison sentences and been deprived of the right to vote under laws that have roots in the post-Civil War 19th century and were aimed at preventing black Americans from voting.
But millions of other votes in the 2000 presidential election were lost due to clerical and administrative errors while civil rights organizations have cataloged numerous tactics aimed at suppressing black voter turnout. Polls consistently find that black Americans overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.
"There are individuals and officials who are actively trying to stop people from voting who they think will vote against their party and that nearly always means stopping black people from voting Democratic," said Mary Frances Berry, head of the U.S. Commission on Human Rights.
Vicky Beasley, a field officer for People for the American Way, listed some of the ways voters have been "discouraged" from voting.
"In elections in Baltimore in 2002 and in Georgia last year, black voters were sent fliers saying anyone who hadn't paid utility bills or had outstanding parking tickets or were behind on their rent would be arrested at polling stations. It happens in every election cycle," she said.
In a mayoral election in Philadelphia last year, people pretending to be plainclothes police officers stood outside some polling stations asking people to identify themselves. There have also been reports of mysterious people videotaping people waiting in line to vote in black neighborhoods.
Minority voters may be deterred from voting simply by election officials demanding to see drivers' licenses before handing them a ballot, according to Spencer Overton, who teaches law at George Washington University. The federal government does not require people to produce a photo identification unless they are first-time voters who registered by mail.
"African Americans are four to five times less likely than whites to have a photo ID," Overton said at a recent briefing on minority disenfranchisement.
Courtenay Strickland of the Americans Civil Liberties Union testified to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last week that at a primary election in Florida last month, many people were wrongly turned away when they could not produce identification.
BLACKS' BALLOTS REJECTED
The commission, in a report earlier this year, said that in Florida, where President Bush won a bitterly disputed election in 2000 by 537 votes, black voters had been 10 times more likely than non-black voters to have their ballots rejected and were often prevented from voting because their names were erroneously purged from registration lists.
Additionally, Florida is one of 14 states that prohibit ex-felons from voting. Seven percent of the electorate but 16 percent of black voters in that state are disenfranchised.
In other swing states, 4.6 percent of voters in Iowa, but 25 percent of blacks, were disenfranchised in 2000 as ex-felons. In Nevada, it was 4.8 percent of all voters but 17 percent of blacks; in New Mexico, 6.2 percent of all voters but 25 percent of blacks.
In total, 13 percent of all black men are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, according to the Commission on Civil Rights.
"This has a huge effect on elections but also on black communities which see their political clout diluted. No one has yet explained to me how letting ex-felons who have served their sentences into polling booths hurts anyone," said Jessie Allen of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which seeks to ensure fair multiracial elections, recently reported that registrars across the country often claimed not to have received voter registration forms or rejected them for technical reasons that could have been corrected easily before voting day if the applicant had known there was a problem.
Beasley said that many voters who had registered recently in swing states were likely to find their names would not be on the rolls when they showed up on Election Day.
"There is very widespread delay in the swing states because there have been massive registration drives among minorities and those applications are not being processed quickly enough," she said.
Copyright © 2004 Reuters Ltd.