Voter Suppression Becomes Biggest Election
by Benjamin Dangl and Brendan Coyne
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
for more articles by Dangl
© 2004 The NewStandard. See
Click here to go home