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Echoes of Rosa Parks? Some Local Officials Say No To New Anti-Voter Laws

A handful of election officials in Pennsylvania, Florida and Colorado are rebelling against new laws and rules that could create barriers to voting this fall.
 
 
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It is not quite Lexington and Concord, but a handful of local election officials in this year’s swing states are doing something revolutionary for their profession: saying that they will not implement new laws and policies that could impede voters in November.

“I wanted to publicly acknowledge that as a judge of elections in Precinct 1 of Colwyn Borough that I will not comply with the new voting laws as they are unconstitutional,” Christopher L. Broach Sr., a Democrat, wrote to the Philadelphia media last week, referring to Pennsylvania’s new voter photo ID law as a lawsuit seeking to overturn it concluded a week of hearings before a state appeals court.

Pennsylvania state-level officials said that local polling place judges like Broach could face penalties for not following the ID law, to which the locally elected polling place judge replied, “I’m utterly concerned, but so was Rosa Parks when she decided to sit down on a bus when the law said she shouldn’t.”

But it’s not just Democrats who are drawing lines against voter suppression this fall—even though Democratic voting blocks are the target of Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law, according to a GOP senator’s boasts that were captured on camera.

Jane Golas, a Republican inspector of elections from Radnor Township, also near Philadelphia, told her local media that it was hypocritical to demand photo ID from polling place voters but not from people who voted by mail.

“There is a move by people to suppress the vote in the city of Philadelphia,” Golas said. “We never had an issue with people coming in to fraudulently vote.”

The prospect of civil disobedience by local election officials is a new feature of 2012’s electoral landscape, where Republican majority legislatures and governors in nearly a dozen states have created new barriers to voting by complicating various aspects of the process, from registering people on the street to getting a ballot.  

“It’s really a reaction against states to make it more difficult for legal voters to vote. It’s un-American. And that’s why you are getting reactions from people that don’t normally react in this manner,” said Ion Sancho, Supervisor of Elections in Leon County, Florida, who was part of a bi-partisan effort to stop a statewide GOP-led voter purge this June.

“Election officials are pretty much the least assertive politicians imaginable,” he said. “They are not wave-makers. You really have to go beyond the pale before we say no.”

But in Florida, efforts by that state’s Tea Party Republican Governor, Rick Scott, to remove what he alleged were 180,000 non-citizens among the state’s 11 million registered voters, crossed that line for the county officials who run Florida elections.

“I am not doing any further voter purge until after November 2012,” declared Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall, a Republican, in June, when opposing Scott’s alleged non-citizen purge.

Other Florida election supervisors who are Republicans said that they would not use unreliable data to remove legal voters, as the Scott administration initially wanted. These officials now say that there is little likelihood that a new federal citizenship database will be used to screen voter rolls for non-citizens before the fall election. They say rules for using that data plus training officials to do so will not happen fast—making the purge more of a propaganda tool by the state’s GOP leaders.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, where right-wing Secretary of State Scott Gessler also wants to use the same federal database to screen for what he keeps claiming are upwards of 5,000 non-citizens on his state’s voter rolls—a claim disproved by the Denver Post—at least one county official has also expressed skepticism about using the list to purge voters.

Election officials typically are cut from a different cloth than their state’s top politicians. They are first and foremost civil servants, not political animals, who feel that the right to vote is fundamental and hard-won—with constitutional amendments over the decades and a civil rights movement that expanded the franchise—and that those gains must be protected. They know that voting is a complex process—where mistakes can be made, often by poll workers on Election Day, and they tend to resent efforts to complicate or politicize the process.

Moreover, in Florida, experienced administrators recall the 2000 presidential election.   

“Those of us who were here in 2000 remember the effect that inaccurate felons lists, another database, what it did—and it is still roiling the state today, some 12 years later,” Sancho said, explaining their rebellion against the state’s executive branch. “We’re simply not going to go through that again.” As Deborah Clark, the Pinellas County Election Supervisor and a Republican, said, “We will not use unreliable data.”

In Florida, and to a smaller degree in Pennsylvania and Colorado, the handful of local election officials who are saying no to voter suppression is a striking but important development in 2012’s electoral landscape. It suggests that the officials who have the responsibility to make the process work have had enough with partisan games. 

“I run into people all the time who thank me for what I am doing to protect their vote,” said Sancho, who is running unopposed for a seventh term as election supervisor. “The fact that the citizens support me on this issue emboldens me.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).