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10 Dirty Tricks to Keep Americans from Voting and Swing an Election

Here are the most common legal and illegal paths to keeping Americans from the ballot box.

The following story first appeared in Mother Jones. Click here to subscribe to Mother Jones Magazine.

America has come a long way from the days of Jim Crow segregation, but our voting system is far from perfect, and even today there are organizations committed to preventing legitimate voters from excercising the franchise. Here are ten of the most common legal and illegal paths to keeping Americans from the ballot box:

Voter Caging

Voter caging is the process of sending mail to the addresses of registered voters with the intent of challenging their votes if the mail goes undelivered and the voter still shows up at the polls. It still happens, but the most famous instance occurred in 1981, when Republicans sent thousands of letters to black and Latino voters in New Jersey, hoping to block as many as possible of these likely Democratic voters from voting. As a result of that stunt, the Republican National Committee entered into a consent decree with the Democratic National Committee agreeing not to engage in voter caging unless a court says it's ok. They leave it to third-party conservative groups now.

Lying Fliers

Dropping fliers with erroneous or deceptive information about voting may not be effective, according to voting law expert Rick Hasen, but it certainly happens a lot. Fliers in Virginia in 2008 told Democrats to vote on the wrong day, while fliers distributed in black neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2004 told residents they couldn't vote if anyone in their family had been convicted of a crime. Election dirty tricksters are getting with the times, however—the 2008 election saw erreoneous election information distributed through emails to students at George Mason University. "Those things are very hard to investigate," says Penda D. Hair, co-director of the voting rights group The Advancement Project. "They’re usually anonymous, so we don't have good data on what the impact is on people."

Reprehensible Robocalls

When a lying flier just isn't good enough, there's always the deceptive robocall to Democratic-leaning districts giving people  false election information or urging them to stay home. Last year Paul Schurick, the former campaign manager of the ex-Republican governor of Maryland, Bob Ehrlich,  was convicted of ordering 2010 robocalls aimed at black voters implying they could stay home and "relax" because the Democratic candidate, Martin O'Malley, had already won. 


Felon Disenfranchisement

Many laws barring those convicted of crimes even after release emerged during Reconstruction as a way to  disenfranchise newly freed blacks. Though defenders of such laws now justify them on race-neutral grounds, an estimated 2.2 million of the nearly six million Americans barred from voting because of prior felony convictions are black. Those are the kind of disenfranchisement numbers misleading fliers or robocalls can't buy, which is exactly why newly elected Republican governors in Florida, Virginia and Iowa moved quickly to reinstate voting restrictions on the formerly incarcerated after taking office in 2010.

Voter ID Laws

The impact of voter ID laws is still unclear, but the intent is not. Republicans pushing voter ID laws  sometimes write them so as to exclude forms of ID carried by Democratic-leaning constituencies (like student ID) while allowing those more likely to be carried by Republican voters (gun licenses). The Brennan Center, a left-leaning legal advocacy group,   estimates that as many as eleven percent of Americans lack government-issued photo ID. There's no mystery among Republicans as to whom these individuals are more likely to vote for: A Pennsylvania stage legislator  openly bragged that the state's voter ID law (since halted by the courts) would deliver the state to Mitt Romney. Though many of these laws have been delayed or struck down,  some poll workers are still demanding government issued photo ID anyway.

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