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What if Republican shenanigans tip the election? Many members of the media are looking at the dangers voting machines may pose to the integrity of the national election. Others are wondering whether voters may be disenfranchised by use of faulty felon lists, as happened in Florida in 2000. But there is another danger: Republicans may use a variety of tactics to suppress the vote of racial minorities in swing states. These tactics could determine control of the White House or the Senate.
In August, the Zogby International poll raised the number of battleground states from sixteen to twenty. In those states, notes John Zogby, "the pounding has been relentless."
Zogby was referring to negative ads, but the sanctity of the vote is also taking a pounding. In some states, Republicans are threatening to conduct widespread vote challenges in heavily minority areas. In others, recent events suggest that poll workers may wrongly turn away voters. In still others, new laws passed or enforced by Republicans have erected hurdles to trip up the minority vote. And on Election Day itself, say advocates, Republicans may direct numerous tricks at Democratic districts in an effort to confuse or frighten voters.
Here's a rundown of what's happening in several swing states.
On the ballot in Arizona this November is a Republican-authored referendum called Protect Arizona Now or Proposition 200, which would do several things, including requiring proof of citizenship for anyone registering to vote. Steve Gallardo, a Democratic state legislator from Arizona, worries about what some supporters of that initiative might do. "There's a lot of rumors... that they want to stand out in front of polling places and report voters-anyone they feel is here illegally and is voting in our elections," he says. "Our fear is they're going to intimidate Arizona citizens, U.S. citizens who are brown-skinned. Imagine going up to the poll and seeing a man standing there with a gun and asking if you're a citizen. Are you not going to turn away?"
The Arizona attorney general's office acknowledges that it has heard similar rumors.
Does Protect Arizona Now plan to make an appearance at the polls? "I really don't know what we're going to do," says Kathy McKee, the founder of Protect Arizona Now. She says she's worried about fraud.
"In our state, a person can register to vote from a computer in their home, mail in their registration, and they have not shown their face in public, much less their identity," says McKee. Lots of people, she says, are "coming across our borders illegally and getting jobs, which is a felony. Why would they hesitate to vote?" McKee and other Protect Arizona Now members say that voter fraud is already high in the state and is bound to rise in the close election. The voter registration drives targeting the state have piqued their anger. "There are several groups from around the country that have just besieged Arizona," says McKee. "Project Vote Smart, which really disappointed me. The infamous Southwest Voter Registration Project, Moving America Forward, New American Freedom Summer, the Urban Institute. They have been in this state only targeting Hispanic voters. That's the most racist thing I've ever heard."
On September 7, primary day, two gentlemen came to Tucson Precinct 30, says a poll worker there named Ross (who does not want his last name mentioned). "They were both very intimidating and forceful looking," he says. "They said they were checking polls to see if illegal aliens were voting. They said their organization's name was Truth in Action." The men, says Ross, told him they believed that "Mexicans are coming to vote because it's really easy."
"They were making the runs on all kinds of polls," says Aurora Duron, AFL-CIO Tucson coordinator of the My Vote-My Right Campaign.
Russ Dove is editor of tianews.com, the website of Truth in Action, which supports Protect Arizona Now. He says he visited five polls on September 7. As a door-to-door campaigner for Proposition 200, Dove says he heard "verbal evidence from individuals on the street who said, 'Yes, illegal immigrants are voting.' " Dove says he is "bent on discovering" how many are doing so.
On the day I contact Dove, he is a little out of sorts. The AFL-CIO, he says, has accused him of intimidating voters. "Why would someone who supports the Constitution and wants to exercise his rights as a citizen intimidate U.S. citizens?" he asks. "What they're saying is that they know there are illegals voting."
On primary day, Dove says he sported "a black T-shirt with 'U.S. Constitutional Enforcement' on the back" and the image of a badge on the front. "I wear a tool belt," he says. On primary day, that belt carried tools, a camera, and a video recorder. Dove says he used the camera to take "some photographs of the polling places." He used the video recorder to film "all the conversations I had." Dove says that more people want to monitor polls in November. "After the AFL-CIO threw their fit," he says, people started wanting to get involved. "They said, 'Let's get the T-shirts printed up and let's go," he says.
"The only people we will bother are people who are in violation of the law," says Dove. For instance, if he sees "a busload of Hispanic individuals who didn't speak English and who voted," he plans to follow that bus to make sure they aren't voting more than once.
The state that started it all in 2000 is no stranger to controversy this election. In July, The Miami Herald revealed that the state issued faulty felon purge lists containing the names of 48,000 people it said were ineligible to vote. Among these were 2,100 who actually were eligible voters. Many of these people were African American Democrats. The list of 48,000 also contained only sixty-one Hispanic names. (Because of Florida's large Cuban population, the Hispanic vote in Florida is predominantly Republican. The Florida African American vote, on the other hand, tends to be heavily Democratic.)
In mid-August, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert revealed that the state was investigating get-out-the-vote drives among blacks in Orlando by sending armed police officers into the homes of citizens who had filed absentee ballots. Most of these citizens were African American, and many were elderly.
And in Florida's late August primary, representatives from People for the American Way saw poll workers turn back registered voters who neglected to bring their IDs. "Under Florida law," noted The New York Times, "registered voters can vote without showing identification."
But there's a lot more going on in the state, according to Alma Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the Voter Protection Coalition in Florida and special counsel to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "We keep hoping that they've learned from 2000," but early indications are that they haven't, she says. "When some of our members have gone to early voting or to register to vote, they're being asked if they're citizens of the United States." Gonzalez says she has heard from "about half a dozen people, all of them in South Florida," who approached the polls as part of the early election only to be asked their citizenship. And it's not poll watchers who are asking, says Gonzalez. It's "the poll workers, the duly deputized election officials."
Registered voters, Gonzalez points out, have already attested to their citizenship in their registration forms. "They cannot ask you your citizenship at the polling place. It's unlawful," says Gonzalez. "When that question is asked of you" based on your skin color or the fact that you have an accent, "it is not intended to ensure that you're complying with the law. It's intended to suppress voters." And, even though public attention to the faulty felon voter purge lists led the Florida government to say belatedly that it would not use them this time, the word has traveled slowly. "We are still getting reports from people when they go to vote in different parts of the state," says Gonzalez. "Apparently, there are still inaccuracies."
Then there's the provisional ballot crisis. In Florida in 2000, many people who attempted to vote found that they were not on the rolls, even though they had registered. This is the reasoning behind the provisional ballot requirement in the federal Help America Vote Act. If a voter is wrongly removed from the rolls in the future, he or she should be able to file a provisional ballot. Most states interpret this part of the act as allowing provisional ballots as long as the voter files them in the correct county. Florida is a little different. Rather than the correct county, voters must submit their provisional ballots to the correct precinct. "This will disenfranchise thousands and thousands of voters," says Gonzalez.
So the AFL-CIO is suing Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood, along with two election supervisors from areas of Florida that have seen some of the largest population increases, and some of the most marked changes in precinct lines. The precinct requirements "impermissibly abridge the right to vote," the AFL says.
How intentional is all this on the part of Florida officials? "They're all intentional," Gonzalez says. "People didn't do these things in their sleep." Then she qualifies the point, saying the real question is, are they intentionally trying to suppress voter turnout? "I'm not going to make that allegation," she says. "I know what the result is." And, she points out, under the Voting Rights Act, the issue is not whether you intended to disenfranchise people, but what is the result. "These election schemes and the conduct of these officials are undermining" the rights of people to vote.
Michigan is the state that Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, mentions as a potential trouble spot. 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." Detroit is 83 percent African American.
Pappageorge later told the Associated Press that he was not advocating suppression of the black vote but that "you get it [the Detroit vote] down with a good message."
Cecelie Counts, AFL-CIO director of civil, human, and women's rights, says she thinks Pappageorge was acknowledging the truth the first time around. "That is the political reality in most of these swing states," she says. Democrats "can't win Ohio or Michigan or Pennsylvania without the African American vote, without a tremendous African American vote." And, she says, by using census numbers, Republican strategists "can pinpoint places" where minority voters are likely to influence an election. "They know it's Detroit. They know it's Kansas City and St. Louis. They know it's Las Vegas."
In late April, the Republican Party of Michigan announced that it hoped to recruit 1,000 poll watchers to monitor elections. The party told the Detroit Free Press that it planned to assign 300 of those to Oakland County, home of Pontiac, which is heavily minority. Why? The Republicans claimed that they had evidence that some people there had voted up to four times under different names. But even Republican Oakland County Clerk G. William Caddell doubted the allegation. "Last night was the first I'd heard of any problems," Caddell told the paper. "I want to be a good party person, but I haven't heard about this, and none of my local clerks have reported problems."
"We know there is going to be an aggressive effort to have poll watchers" across the country, including in Pontiac, says Greenbaum. "A poll watcher can be very intimidating." He says poll workers can confront voters with questions like, "What's your name?" or "What are you doing here?" or imply that the voters shouldn't be voting.
At issue is whether the poll watchers "are making accusations" that are based on real reasons or whether they're trying to slow down the lines "and impede voters, so less polling gets done," says Greenbaum.
Michigan is no stranger to aggressive poll watchers. In the 1999 election, a group calling itself Citizens for a Better Hamtramck went to the polling centers in Hamtramck, Michigan, and approached people who appeared to be Arab. "As people were standing outside waiting to vote, this group took it upon itself to ask people to prove they were citizens," says Laila Al-Qatami, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "They were asking voters to step aside and say an oath of citizenship, even if they were capable of producing a U.S. passport." The group, says Al-Qatami, humiliated people, prohibited people from entering and voting and broke the law. The U.S. government filed a lawsuit that claimed violations of the Voting Rights Act. As part of an agreement resolving the suit, the U.S. Justice Department sent election monitors to Hamtramck between 2000 and 2003.
The secretary of state of Missouri, Matt Blunt, is running for governor on the Republican Party ticket. "This gentleman has a vested interest in suppressing the black voter turnout in this state," says John Hickey, executive director of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition.
"That is a ridiculous statement," says Spence Jackson, spokesperson for Blunt. "It is directly because of Matt Blunt's leadership that we have provisional balloting in our state." Because of Blunt, says Jackson, "thousands of voters have been given the opportunity to vote when they otherwise would not have had it." Provisional ballots allow voters who lack IDs, or whose names don't appear on the rolls, to cast votes. But the version Blunt introduced, concedes Jackson, requires that voters file any provisional ballots in the correct precinct-a demand that prompted a lawsuit from the Democratic Party and some citizens of Kansas City.
The suit claims that the new federal Help America Vote Act supersedes the older state law. It also alleges that toll-free help lines were so jammed during the August primary that many voters were unable to find out their correct polling site.
Other ominous problems cropped up that day. "In Democratic districts, which also happened to be predominantly African American, there were polls that opened late, like 10 a.m. instead of 7 a.m., which is a real problem for working people," says Counts of the AFL-CIO. "The hours weren't extended during the evening." Counts also says that "people who showed up without ID were turned away from the polls and not given /provisional ballots," even though that's what the law required.
The ID requirement, says Hickey, is a new law aimed at the black vote. It requires voters "to present the picture ID, unless the election official recognizes you." Where are they going to recognize you? asks Hickey. In small towns and rural areas, which, he points out, are majority white. In urban areas, says Hickey, it's more likely that poll workers won't recognize you, especially in areas that are poor and where people move frequently. "That means you need a picture ID in the city and not the country. The city's black. The country's white."
The new law amounts to "a sophisticated effort to suppress the vote," says Hickey. And he says the Republicans have given thought to this strategy. "OK, if we can shave off 1,000 black votes here and 500 black votes there, that's how" we're going to win. "It is disproportionately excluding poor and minority voters, and that is exactly why the Republicans passed that law after they took over the legislature."
In late August, Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, met with the registrars from the Reno and Las Vegas areas. Peck says the registrar of Washoe County, which includes Reno, "noted that he had received calls" from people identifying themselves as members of the Republican Party. These Republicans, according to Peck, said "they intended to be out at polling places to challenge voters."
The registrar of Washoe County is Daniel Burk. "An official of the Republican Party" came to his office one day with a small group, he says. The official asked how to launch a "full-scale program for challenging voters who come to the polls." Burk says he informed the Republicans that vote challenges should be used narrowly, when one voter with personal knowledge of another calls attention to a problem.
"One said, 'Well, we were thinking of a wider scale use of it. We were thinking of challenging lots of voters,' " says Burk. It was the way they looked at each other, he says. "I began to wonder, what are they up to? I just told them I wouldn't tolerate it. The process isn't designed for one party challenging another."
Burk worked as a registrar in Oregon for eighteen years before he came to his position in Nevada seven years ago. "I have never in all those twenty-five years had a person challenge another person," he says.
The revelations, says Peck, are "consistent with reports people are getting all around the country. Republicans have a national strategy of going out and challenging voters" come November 2. "Our concerns are utterly nonpartisan," says Peck. "It's the integrity and fairness of the election." Although Nevada law does allow for voter challenges when a challenger has personal information about a voter's citizenship or place of residence, "it becomes problematic when people are using this strategically, in a partisan way." For instance, he says, "it would certainly be improper if they picked out the names of Latinos."
Juventino Camarena, a field representative for the Painters Union, is registering voters and keeping an eye out on voter protection issues as part of the My Vote-My Right campaign of the AFL-CIO. He is worried. "The people have been thinking what happened in Florida couldn't happen in Nevada," Camarena says. "Now, we're seeing little tactics here and little tactics there. There are all kinds of ways to confuse a person so bad that he takes it to his heart that it's so difficult, and I'm doing it for what? I've seen it in Mexico since I was a little kid. That's why I took it to heart to stop it. They're suppressing the right of the voter."
In August, a group comprised mostly of Republicans filed a suit claiming that people who were registering for the first time through a third party voter registration group, such as ACORN, should have to show IDs when they voted. The group said it was worried about voter fraud. Democrats said the Republicans were trying to disenfranchise voters.
"The plaintiffs are not able to demonstrate any fraud whatsoever," Luis Stelzner, an attorney, said while arguing against the ID requirement, according to the Associated Press. "The only thing we've heard from them is a vague fear of fraud." (Two plaintiffs in the suit who said that they were concerned about voter registration fraud admitted that they knew of no instances of the crime.) On September 7, Robert Thompson, a state district judge, refused to issue an injunction to force people to show IDs at the polls. "The eleventh-hour request by the plaintiffs creates a risk of substantially disrupting the public voting process, which far outweighs any potential harm to the plaintiffs," wrote Thompson in his decision.
The fraud allegations may be the least of the problems. Reyna Juarez, the administrative director of Revisioning New Mexico, a social justice organization connected to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, says that in 2000 her organization received reports that the immigration patrol showed up near some New Mexican polling sites. "Down south, they have the migra trucks that sit outside and scare people away," she says. "Not necessarily right outside the polls but in the neighborhood of the polls, so you see these enormous lime-green trucks."
South Dakota is hardly a swing state in the common sense, since George W. Bush is set to win here by a landslide. But the state is seeing a rough Senatorial race. The Republicans have targeted Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle for removal. And one tool is a new law that requires all voters to show ID at the polls and get all absentee ballots notarized.
During the 2002 election, Democratic Senator Tim Johnson won his seat by only 524 votes. He had strong Native American support. Republicans weren't happy about that. "In South Dakota, the common tactic is to allege voter fraud," particularly when the Democrats win, says Bryan Sells, staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "Usually it's called 'Indian voter fraud.' In fact, I can't recall a case of someone alleging 'non-Indian voter fraud.' The idea is, whether true or not, you create the sense" that Native American voters are not to be trusted.
After investigating fifty charges of fraud following that 2002 election, State Attorney General Mark Barnett, a Republican, said, "There was no widespread fraud and the election results are valid. No one stole the election."
Nonetheless, Republicans introduced legislation that Sells characterizes as "voter suppression." The legislation requires South Dakotans to show a picture ID in order to vote or else write up an affidavit. And, if they vote by absentee ballot, they need to get it notarized. The legislation, he says, will make it "harder to vote at the polls, harder to register, and harder to vote by absentee ballot," especially for people on reservations. "I don't know if you've ever been to a reservation, but there aren't a lot of notaries around."
Among Native Americans in South Dakota, there is a widespread belief that the legislation is aimed at them. "They decided, we got to do something to slow down the Indian vote," says 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." Jesse Clausen, who has been active in many voter registration drives, puts it another way. "In the summer of 2003, the South Dakota State Senate passed new laws to keep Native American people from voting," Clausen says. "Indian people living in poverty might have higher priority on other things than spending $8 to get their driver's license." Clausen points out that many people on the reservations don't have cars.
During a special election held on June 1, the effect of the new law on the Native American vote started to show. "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," says Clausen.
Poll workers weren't supposed to do that. According to the law, they were supposed to give voters who lacked IDs an affidavit. Once signed, the affidavit would allow people to vote. Jason Schulte, executive director of the Democratic Party of South Dakota, says that, "mostly on or near reservations," people who forgot to bring their IDs "were not told about the affidavit scenario." Daschle himself says he "heard from countless voters who experienced difficulty when attempting to vote."
"Indians were disproportionately affected by the ID requirement," says Sells, adding that there were just more hurdles for Native Americans to leap.
Is this intentional on the part of the Republicans? Sells doesn't hesitate. "Yeah," he says. "In South Dakota, anyway. I don't for a minute suggest that Republicans have the suppression market cornered, but that's how it operates in South Dakota."
Additional efforts to suppress the vote are bound to happen in the last week of the campaign and on Election Day itself. Then, it will be almost impossible to remedy the situation.
Jim Gardner, communications director for the Missouri Democratic Party, describes some of the tactics that he says have happened in his state during past elections: "Videotaping people as they're coming into the polling place. Parking near a polling place in a Crown Victoria with a couple of guys in dark suits.... A whisper campaign that everyone trying to vote who has outstanding traffic tickets will be arrested." Gardner, who says the party had reports of such occurrences in 2000, says the Missouri Democrats have also heard stories in past elections of people handing out flyers in Democratic precincts that say, "Don't forget to vote on Wednesday, November 4," when the election is Tuesday, November 3.
If groups start trying to suppress the vote a month out from the election, says Greenbaum of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, "it gives people like us plenty of opportunity to react." Whereas, if voter suppression happens just before or the day of the election, "it's actually more likely to be effective." Greenbaum's organization faxed me a series of signs that have appeared in Democratic precincts on or near election day. One sign, which appeared in Baltimore in 2002, is entirely in capital letters. "URGENT NOTICE," it reads. "COME OUT TO VOTE ON NOVEMBER 6th. BEFORE YOU COME TO VOTE MAKE SURE YOU PAY YOUR
- PARKING TICKETS
- MOTOR VEHICLE TICKETS
- OVERDUE RENT
AND MOST IMPORTANT
A second sign, this one from 1996, uses a tiny font to inform prospective voters that they may get into trouble when they walk into the booth. "Thanks to advances in computer technology Voting Machines can now be equipped with computers inside. The computers can be connected to a phone line to Federal State, and Local government agencies to instantly check if a voter is:
- A NON-CITIZEN
- Wanted on Criminal or Traffic Warrants or Parole or Probation violations
- Is behind on child support payments
- Is cheating on Welfare, Food Stamps, AFDC, Section 8 or Medicaid by earning money 'off the books'
- Has defaulted on government-backed student loans
- Has failed to file income taxes for two or more years."
In late August, People for the American Way and the NAACP released a report entitled, "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today." "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," says the report. However, it describes recent voter suppression tactics as "more subtle, cynical, and creative" than "the poll taxes, literacy tests, and physical violence of the Jim Crow era."
Jim Crow is still casting a very long shadow.
Anne-Marie Cusac is an investigative reporter at The Progressive.