Dispatch from Denver: Protecting the Vote
DENVER - There will be efforts to disenfranchise
African Americans and other minorities in the upcoming presidential
elections, but advocacy groups are already on the ground helping ensure
that every eligible American who wants to vote, gets to vote.
recent years, Americans have seen many top officials put into office
with margins of a few thousand votes (Sen. John Tester), a few hundred
votes (Pres. George W. Bush), and in some cases just a few votes (Rep.
Joe Courtney). It has never been more evident that every vote matters,
and coordinated efforts to suppress votes from certain demographic
groups can effectively thwart the U.S. system of democracy, which only
functions properly when the will of the majority of citizens is
expressed -- through elections.
Efforts to keep voters away from the polls, however, are not a new phenomenon. So explains People for the American Way
(PFAW), one of the many nonprofit, nonpartisan groups working to
promote democracy and justice for all people in the United States:
"In every national American election since Reconstruction, every
election since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, voters --
particularly African American voters and other minorities -- have faced
calculated and determined efforts at intimidation and suppression. The
bloody days of violence and retribution following the Civil War and
Reconstruction are gone. The poll taxes, literacy tests, and physical
violence of the Jim Crow era have disappeared. Today, more subtle,
cynical, and creative tactics have taken their place."
In a 2004 report, "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Suppression in America," PFAW outlined many of those "more subtle" efforts to keep targeted groups of people away from the polls in recent years.
In Florida, armed police officers questioned elderly African
American voters in their homes prior to the 2004 election. Many saw
this as an attempt to intimidate the African American community in the
area and keep them away from the upcoming polls.
Florida's efforts to purge voting rolls of ineligible voters also
infamously disenfranchised thousands of eligible voters in 2000 -- the
year George W. Bush won that state, and thus the national election, by
less than 600 votes.
Systematic campaigns of vote "challenging" at election centers in
majority-black districts have intimidated voters and slowed down lines
at polling places, which ultimately drives away voters who may not be
able to take more than 30 or 60 minutes away from work or family
Polling centers in minority communities have in some cases been
provided with too few voting machines or poll workers, which also keeps
lines long and turnout low.
Several states have instituted identification requirements, which
disproportionately disenfranchise poor and minority citizens who might
not have a drivers' license or other ID.
And disinformation campaigns have blatantly misled minority
communities about the dates of elections and locations of polling
Combinations of these tactics have been extremely successful in
driving specific groups of people away from polling places on election
day -- particularly those groups that may be intimidated by law
enforcement, have little time to wait in line to vote, or are not
totally aware of their voting rights, say civil rights activists.
Civil rights advocates here in Denver this week for the Democratic
National Convention (DNC) outlined efforts taking place to help ensure
African American and other minority communities are not kept away from
the polls this November and in future elections.
The ultimate goal, explained Jonah Goldman of the National Campaign for Fair Elections,
is two-fold: to pass a comprehensive voter protection law in the U.S.
Congress and also to educate voters nationwide about their rights.
Goldman was speaking at a forum sponsored by the Internet activist group ColorofChange.org in The Big Tent, the independent media and activist hub just steps away from the main Convention proceedings.
"Universal and permanent [voter] registration is the bold new idea. We
can do that in the next Congress," said Goldman, noting that his group
receives about 200,000 phone calls about voting problems on every major
election day, and about half of those problems are related to voters'
registrations. If the Internal Revenue Service can keep careful tabs on
all Americans to collect taxes, there's no reason the U.S. government
can't build the infrastructure to ensure everyone is registered
properly and ensured the right to vote, Goldman said.
The "Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act" was
introduced in January 2007 by Senators Barack Obama, the presumptive
Democratic nominee for president, and Charles Schumer.
The bill, according to PFAW,
"would criminalize egregious deceptive practices that keep voters away
from the ballot box. It would provide immediate accountability before
the election and encourage citizen participation by making it easier to
report voter intimidation tactics and seek justice through the courts.
And it would require the attorney general to investigate every reported
problem and make the findings public."
The problem, Goldman noted, is generating the political will to pass
voting reform legislation. Voting rights are not the "core issue" of
any constituency, so there is not a strong, coordinated movement to
influence Congresspeople to take action, as there is for the
environmental or women's rights movements, he explained.
Stephen Bradberry, of the Louisiana chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now
(ACORN), agrees, and believes more needs to be done to encourage
Americans across the country to become more politically involved in all
phases of their lives.
"There's a rush to register ahead of an election and then they fall
back and let whatever happens happen. We need to get people involved in
more organizations -- all the way from the DNC and ACORN down to a
bridge club, because it gets them more engaged, and more politicized."
A more politicized populace is more likely to know its rights and demand them, he said.
In the meantime, Goldman's group, PFAW, and others are mobilizing thousands of "Election Protection"
volunteers across the country to help combat voter intimidation and
other suppression tactics on election day. Their 866-OUR-VOTE hotline
is providing information for individuals and groups who have questions
about their rights.
"People are focusing more on this, talking about this at more times of
year. Through groups like ColorOfChange we are getting word out," said
But with the election growing nearer, their cause becomes more urgent and imminent by the day.
"Voters need to be educated about their rights and the laws. But we
need as much help as possible in educating voters," said Goldman.
This article is part of OneWorld.net's continuing coverage of Campaign '08,
where you can find more on where the candidates stand on the issues,
what everyday Americans are saying about what matters to them, and
share your thoughts on the political system, the campaigns, the
candidates, and your rights.