Voter Suppression Becomes Biggest Election ‘Issue’

by Benjamin Dangl and Brendan Coyne


The NewStandard

With polls showing President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry in a statistical dead heat just days before the election and groups from across -- and outside -- the political spectrum watching so-called "battleground states" anxiously, each development in the complex story of alleged voter suppression and fraud has led to new accusations and counter-accusations regarding the fairness of the election process. The number of charges that various election watchers have flung in recent months is seemingly endless, and can only be expected to grow as polling day approaches and passes.

Florida's 'Caging List'

News surfaced Tuesday evening that the Bush campaign's Florida office has a list of the names and addresses of 1,886 voters in and around Jacksonville, Florida, a predominately black city inside Duval County, where official voter registration figures show Democrats have a nearly 50,000 person edge over Republicans.

In an October 26 broadcast of the BBC's Newsnight, investigative journalist Greg Palast reported that Florida Bush/Cheney campaign officials are keeping a spreadsheet they call a "caging list.". The broadcast included portions of an interview with Ion Sancho, the Leon County election supervisor who headed up statewide recount efforts on the orders of the Florida Supreme Court back in 2000. Sancho has raised the possibility that the "caging list" will be used to challenge the eligibility of voters at the polls, an action permitted by an arcane law passed in 1895.

During an interview with The NewStandard, Sancho called the legislation "a holdover Jim Crow law" and said that challenges based solely on the Republicans' spreadsheet won't be deemed credible in his county.

"I have adopted a series of policies that would see that the procedure is not used in a discriminatory way," Sancho told TNS. "Spurious challenges without merit are obstructions. If someone does it once, they'll be warned. The second time, they'll get thrown out." Similar policies should be in place across the state by the weekend, Sancho added.

Mindy Tucker Fletcher, a senior advisor to the Bush/Cheney Florida campaign, told the BBC that the list is part of the normal process of campaigning and represented no threat of intimidation. In a letter to the news outlet posted on the BBC website, Fletcher questions Palast's motives and defends the list.

Fletcher argued that "caging is a commonly used term in the political process by which someone opens a large amount of mail and logs it into a database." She added that the list was based on "returned mail that came from a mailing … sent to new registrants" and was intended only to update the Republican National Committee's mailing records.

When contacted for comment on the list, Bush/Cheney Florida campaign spokesperson Nick Bader said he had no knowledge of the list or the story. Bader promised to respond, but has yet to do so as of press time.

Elsewhere in Florida

This "caging list" revelation is just the most recent report of alleged election-related irregularities in Florida. Democracy activists have initiated numerous lawsuits charging election supervisors in the state with voter disenfranchisement. Among the plaintiffs are People for the American Way, the American Federation of State, and the AFL-CIO, all of which registered thousands of new voters in Florida.

Recently, the Florida State Supreme court ruled that voters who cast provisional ballots at the wrong precinct will not be counted on election day. The group of labor unions who sued over the ballot law said it wrongfully disenfranchises those who do not know their polling place, especially since some may have moved after redistricting or a hurricane.

In another lawsuit filed in mid-October, voting rights groups and labor unions seek to stop the disenfranchisement of more than 10,000 voters who filed incomplete registration forms. They accused the state of excessively restrictive regulations that especially inhibit minority voters, the New York Times reports.

Secretary of State Glenda Hood recommended throwing out registration forms on which registrants failed to check a box indicating their citizenship, even after registrants had signed an oath at the bottom swearing they were citizens. The suit also charges that incomplete forms filed before the October 4 deadline were not processed in time, and therefore the registrants were not notified that their forms were flawed, according to the Times.

In Miami-Dade County, nearly 7,000 registrants were disqualified for failing to check other boxes indicating they were not convicted felons or mentally incapacitated. According to the Times, the plaintiffs maintain that checking the three boxes is not legally required. Elections supervisors said the incomplete forms came mostly from Democratic advocacy groups.

According to the Florida Sun-Sentinel, up to 58,000 people may not have received their absentee ballots in Broward County, home to many election irregularities since 2000. County Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes announced Wednesday that her office will send out replacement ballots.

For many advocates, Florida is ground zero in the battle for voting rights in the 21st Century. According to People for the American Way, "What we have seen in Florida is one of the most aggressive efforts in the country to deny people their most basic civil right: the right to vote. Tens of thousands of applications are incomplete and languishing in elections offices. The bottom line is this: In a year when voter registration efforts have been vigorous, some registrars have not been able to keep up and they don't want the public to know they are shirking their legal responsibility."

Beyond the Sunshine State

But Florida is not the only state where troubles have arisen. Reports from Louisiana, Ohio and Kentucky demonstrate problems with processes used to inform ex-felons of their voting rights. Arizona, Pennsylvania and Michigan, among other states, have received a good deal of attention over issues ranging from the weight of registration card stock to identification requirements to allegations of voter suppression.

Some states are requiring that voters furnish photo ID in order to vote, a constraint that is expected to limit voter turnout. This issue has flared especially in states with high numbers of Native American residents. "This photo ID requirement was very much a concern of Republicans on capital hill," Raj Goyle, the Senior Domestic Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress stated. He said that the photo ID requirement disenfranchises certain groups of people, especially poor people and people of color.

When discussing how the new photo ID requirement disenfranchises Native American voters, Jesse Clausen, who has been active in voter registration drives in South Dakota, told The Progressive: "Indian people living in poverty might have higher priority on other things than spending $8 to get their driver's license." Clausen pointed out that many people on the reservations don't have cars.

Clausen said that during an election held on June 1, "People would go in and say, 'Well, I don't have an ID,' and [poll workers] would let it be known that if they didn't have an ID, they should turn around and leave."

Also according to The Progressive, Republicans in South Dakota introduced legislation that requires those who vote by absentee ballot to get it notarized. Opponents say the law is directed at suppressing the Native American vote; there are often few notaries on reservations. The new restrictions could tip the vote against Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who is running in an especially close senatorial race in the state.

"They decided, we got to do something to slow down the Indian vote," said Alfred Bone Shirt, a plaintiff in one of the five recent voting rights lawsuits the ACLU has filed in the state. "The bottom line of it all is racism."

Identification requirements aren't the only barrier faced by impoverished and minority groups. According to Monifa Bandelis, the National Field Director of The Right To Vote Campaign, a convict and ex-convict advocacy organization, ex-felons and those currently serving time are often unaware of their voting rights. While Florida and a handful of other states deny felons voting rights for life, others restore the right upon release or never remove it at all. "We see this happening across the country. When felons are purged from the voter registrations, they are not being notified that they can register again," she said.

And in Ohio, as a result of Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell's failure to notify convicted felons of their voting rights, nearly 100,000 potential voters may not be casting a ballot this year. In Summit County, Ohio the board of elections notified felons that their voter registrations would be cancelled but failed to state that felons are eligible to register again upon release from jail. The effect was confusion among thousands of voters who believe they are ineligible to vote, when they in fact are eligible, reported AlterNet.

But the problem is not limited to a failure to spread crucial information; in some cases state or local governments actively attempt to prevent former or current inmates from voting. In Kentucky, Governor Ernie Fletcher is requiring written essays from convicted felons in order to restore their right to vote, and in Louisiana the registrar of voters for Orleans Parish refused to distribute absentee ballots to eligible voters in jail, according to the Right to Vote Campaign.

"This goes back to the Jim Crow Laws," Bandelis told The NewStandard. "It's just another barrier to democracy for people who are seen as second class citizens. These people may not be literate, or may not have access to education. It's a barrier, especially for poor people who end up in the criminal justice system."

Other problems may be more onerous. Suppression of minority voters through legal voter challenges and illegal intimidation have been reported in recent elections and registration drives. According to a study by People for the American Way, in Philadelphia during the 2003 elections, voters in African American areas were challenged by men with clipboards, driving some 300 sedans with magnetic signs that looked like law enforcement insignia.

On September 7, weeks before Ohio's registration deadline, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell said that voter registrations on regular 20-40 pound computer paper would not be considered by the board of elections, according to the New York Times. He stated that all registrations must be on far less common 80-pound card stock. Relenting to pressure, Blackwell later rescinded his demands and validated the lighter weight registration forms.

Challenging the Right to Vote

Incidents of vote challenges, like those anticipated by Palast's "cage list" story, have already been reported around the country. The Michigan Republican Party has sought at least 1,000 poll watchers, according to the Detroit Free Press. The paper reports that the state Democratic Party is planning much the same.. Similar reports come from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Columbus Dispatch and New York Times.

While many of the observers are volunteers, state Republican Parties are reportedly offering money or travel and housing accommodation to people willing to act as poll observers. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pennsylvania GOP has offered vote challengers pay. And the New York Times reported a similar finding in Ohio, where state Republican officials reported recruiting 3,600 poll watchers before the deadline to register such observers passed.

In addition, Republican Party officials in Pennsylvania allegedly purchased the names and addresses of 130,000 new voters and the Wisconsin GOP is reported to have obtained information on 100,000 new voter registrants, information party officials are expected to use for background checks and vote challenges, according to media reports and Edward Hailes, senior attorney of the Advancement Project, a Washington, DC-based organization that advocates for racial equality.

"Despite earlier requests from the civil rights community, the Republican National Committee has failed to put an end to Republican-initiated plans to aggressively target for challenges at the polls during the November 2nd general election," Hailes said. "Based on publicly available information, it is clear that Republican officials and candidates have recruited an unparalleled number of poll watchers for the November election, relying on little-used laws that are based on statutes stemming from the Jim Crow era."

In July 2004, black Republican officials in Kentucky asked the state GOP party chairman to renounce plans to place vote challengers in African-American precincts in upcoming elections, the AP reports. Earlier this week, Jack Robinson IV, GOP party chairman for Jefferson County ceded to those demands, according to an AP follow-up. The status of other counties remains unclear.

And on July 16, the Detroit Free Press quoted John Pappageorge, a Republican state representative from Troy, Michigan, who said, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election cycle." Over Eighty-one percent of the population in Detroit is African American, according to recent US Census reports.

The Associated Press reports that Florida Department of Law Enforcement has set up a task force to investigate charges of fraud, including over 4,000 forms in which the registration had been illegally switched to Republican. In Leon County 3,000 forms reportedly turned out to be photocopies with switched registrations, and in Alachua County one man turned in 1,200 forms with new Republican registrants, only to have election officials find the party affiliation had been illegally changed.

According to AP and other media reports, switching voter registrations may be just one tactic some are using. An organization called Voter Outreach of America is currently under investigation in Nevada and Oregon for allegedly instructing employees to only register Republicans and shredding those forms on which new registrants claimed other party affiliations.

Voter Outreach of America is owned by Sproul and Associates, a firm headed by the former chief of the Arizona Republican Party, Nathan Sproul. His firm received over $500,000 in consulting fees and almost as much in voter registration payments from the Republican National Party this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

If Florida in 2000 is where it all began, then Ohio in 2004 may very well be where it all ends. In addition to providing ex-felons with misinformation, allowing polling place voter challenges and changing registration rules shortly before the deadline, Ohio has been at the center of a legal controversy over pre-election voter challenges. The furor was prematurely and partially halted Wednesday when a federal judge in Cincinnati temporarily halted challenges at six election boards, reports the New York Times.

Republicans had lodged challenges against 35,000 newly-registered voters in Ohio and, according to the Times article, plan to challenge as many as possible in person if hearings do not go forward.

Pro-democracy activists have organized an unprecedented campaign to challenge the challengers and fight against voter suppression. Monitors and legal observers will be present at thousands of polling sites to advocate for anyone confronted by vote challengers or by polling place workers enforcing undue restrictions on would-be voters.

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© 2004 The NewStandard. See reprint policy.

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