Jim Crow is Alive and Well

Editor's Note: Ralph G. Neas is president of People For the American Way, which fights to uphold 50 years of legal and social justice progress.

While it would be comforting to think that the last vestiges of voter intimidation and suppression were swept away by the passage and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, frequent and disturbing incidents in the past few years prove otherwise.

The bloody days of violence and retribution following the Civil War and Reconstruction are gone. The poll taxes, literacy tests and physical violence of the Jim Crow era have disappeared. Today, more subtle, cynical and creative tactics have taken their places.

Voter intimidation and suppression are not problems limited to the South. They are not the province of a single political party, although patterns of intimidation have changed as the party allegiances of minorities, particularly African-Americans, have shifted over the years. They have served to create doubt about the equality of our democracy and cynicism at home and abroad.

Events in recent years show that some hope to undermine the acheivements of the Voting Rights Act. In 2000 in Florida, thousands of voters whose names mistakenly appeared on a flawed list of felons were purged from the state's voter rolls. Despite the ensuing outcry and litigation, the state has not yet restored the rights of many of those voters. In fact, officials prepared to purge an additional 40,000 names for the 2004 election until the new list was made public by court order and its flaws exposed.

In 2002 in Baltimore, anonymous fliers were posted in some African-American neighborhoods with the heading "URGENT NOTICE." The flier listed the wrong date for Election Day and warned that parking tickets and overdue rent should be paid before voting. In Louisiana, flyers were distributed in African-American communities telling voters they could go to the polls on Tuesday, Dec. 10th – three days after a runoff Senate election was held.

Another instance of this disturbing trend occurred in 2003 when voters in African-American neighborhoods in Philadelphia were systematically challenged by men carrying clipboards, driving a fleet of some 300 sedans with magnetic signs designed to look like law enforcement insignia. Also in 2003, in Louisville, Kentucky, Jefferson County Republicans placed challengers at as many as 59 voting precincts in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. This August, a group of Republicans that includes two African-American candidates called for the resignation of the Jefferson County Republican chairman over plans to place challengers at the same precincts this November.

This year in Texas, students at a majority black college were challenged by a local district attorney's absurd claim that they were not eligible to vote in the county where the school is located. It happened in Waller County – the same county where 26 years earlier a federal court order was required to prevent the local registrar from discriminating against the students.

With widespread predictions of a close national election, and an unprecedented wave of new voter registrations, unscrupulous political operatives will look for any advantage, including suppression and intimidation. As in the past, minority voters will be the most likely targets of dirty tricks at the polls.

People For the American Way Foundation and its partners in the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition are recruiting volunteers through electionvolunteer.org and training them to staff voter assistance hotlines and serve as poll monitors. They will look for signs of voter intimidation and suppression and help voters overcome barriers on Election Day.

Together we can help ensure that every vote is counted.

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