WASHINGTON – With political analysts agreeing that voter turnout, especially of minority and youth voters, will likely determine the outcome of next Tuesday’s presidential election, civil and human rights groups are pressing the Republican National Committee (RNC) to call off plans aimed at discouraging people from casting ballots.
At a press conference held in front of RNC headquarters here Thursday, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the country’s largest civil and human-rights coalition, demanded that RNC chairman Ed Gillespie ensure that the party does nothing to suppress the vote or try to intimidate voters, particularly in minority communities.
“In state after state, Republican officials and operatives are working to deny American citizens the right to vote,” charged LCCR executive director Wade Henderson. “We’re today to ask the RNC Chairman to put a stop to these activities.”
With the election just four days away and the polls showing a statistical tie between Republican President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, many veteran observers believe that outcome will depend on voter turnout.
Civil rights groups led by Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Executive Director Wade Henderson (at microphone) hold a news conference in front of the National Headquarters of the Republican National Committee in Washington, October 28, 2004. The news conference was called to stop the practice 'voter suppression and intimidation activities directed against minority voters.' REUTERS/Larry Downing
Some 105 million voters cast ballots in 2000 in which the Democrat, then-Vice President Al Gore, actually defeated Bush in the popular vote only to lose the electoral count as a result of a controversial decision on the vote count in Florida by a 5-4 majority by the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the Republican secretary of state at the time, Rep. Katherine Harris, certified a Bush victory in Florida by a mere 500-some votes, tens of thousands of eligible voters, mainly African Americans, were either disenfranchised or unable to have their votes counted as a result of malfunctioning voting machines. African Americans were found to have voted for Gore by a greater than eight-to-one margin.
Analysts expect that the turnout next Tuesday turnout will exceed 2000’s by a significant margin. According to Charlie Cook, often referred to as “the pollster’s pollster,” if turnout is less than 115 million, Bush is likely to prevail; more than could well result in a Kerry victory.
According to recent surveys, eight of ten African Americans support Kerry; among Latinos, the margin is estimated as somewhat greater than six in ten. Among voters aged between 18 and 29, Kerry also does well with about 60 percent support. On the other hand, the same groups are those that historically have participated the least in major elections.
Republicans have long tried to suppress minority turnout for precisely because of their presumed allegiance to Democrats; indeed, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was nominated to the Court by Richard Nixon in 1971, participated in challenges of minority voters 40 years ago when he was a Republican activist in Arizona. But the party is believed to have mobilized tens of thousands of attorneys and poll-watchers for that purpose this year, particularly in so-called battleground states, such as Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio.
Last week, LCCR sent letters to both Gillespie and his Democratic counterpart, Terry McAuliffe, expressing concern about published reports regarding plans to mount aggressive challenges to voters Tuesday. The letter cited an article published in ‘U.S. News & World Report’ in which Michigan State Rep. and Bush campaign official John Papageorge was quoted as saying that Republicans could lose the state “if we do not suppress the Detroit vote.” Detroit has one of the highest concentrations of African Americans of any U.S. big city.
While the Democratic National Committee (DNC) replied in writing and met with LCCR officials, Gillespie and the RNC failed to respond, Henderson said at Thursday’s press conference. The Republicans have said that their sole interest is to prevent “vote fraud.”
Over the weekend, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the Ohio Republican party has already challenged the validity of over 35,000 new voter registrations in the state, while Wisconsin Republicans announced plans to initiative what it called “background checks” on newly registered voters. In addition, reports have surfaced of Republican plans to mount aggressive challenges against the credentials of voters in “urban areas” where minority voters are predominant.
The British Broadcasting Company has also disclosed a memo to top Republican officials in Florida identifying voters in predominantly black precincts for possible challenge.
Such efforts, according to Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington Bureau for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a member of the LCCR coalition, amount to intimidation. “They are designed to induce fear on the part of newly registered voters, particularly in minority communities,” she said, adding that the RNC should “work with us to empower minority communities, not deny them their fundamental rights.”
“Sometimes, there is a think line between enforcement of election law and voter intimidation,” said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a grassroots Latino group. “Selective access to the polls, arbitrary voter purges, and speculative complaints …will diminish or weaken the very process we are trying to energize.”
Adding to these concerns are the facts that the secretaries of state, usually the chief election official at the state level, in four battleground states – Michigan, Missouri, Florida, and Ohio – have taken top campaign posts for Bush and have been accused of manipulating state election laws to restrict voter access on behalf of Republicans.
In Michigan, Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land, who is co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign there has been criticized by a federal judge for restricting access to “provisional ballots” by voters unsure of their precinct and failing to take action against voter intimidation efforts in heavily Democratic areas.
In Missouri, Secretary of State Matt Blunt, who is also running for governor and serves as Bush campaign chair, has also restricted access to provisional ballots, authorized an insecure voting system, and used federal funds to promote himself in public-service ads.
Glenda Hood, Florida’s secretary of state, was accused of leading the effort to apply a controversial purge list to disenfranchise black voters and former felons. More recently, she also moved to restrict access to provisional ballots and intervened in a court case to ensure that independent Ralph Nader appeared on the ballot.
Finally, Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s secretary state and another co-chair of the Bush campaign in that state, has, among other moves, insisted that registration applications that are not posted on the correct weight paper are to be cancelled, also restricted access to provisional ballots, and issued confusing directives regarding the right of ex-felons to vote.
“In light of the widespread disenfranchisement of minority voters in 2000, it is more important than ever that this November’s election proceed smoothly and equitably,” said Henderson.
Those concerns were also echoed Thursday when an independent group of international election observers sponsored by California-based Global Exchange complained that election officials in two Ohio and three Florida counties have refused requests by the delegation to observe at polling cites and tabulation centers.
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