Voter Intimidation May Plague Election Day 2007

Human Rights

Tough new voter identification laws, fervent anti-immigrant rhetoric, officials who won't follow federal election law, challenges to college student voter registrations, electronic voting machine failures -- these are problems that voting rights groups and Democrats will be monitoring as a handful of states vote on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

"No election is ever run perfectly," said David Becker, People for the American Way's Democracy Campaign director, which is staffing a national hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, that will be active on Tuesday to help voters if they run into problems at their polls. "Even if elections are run responsibly, things happen. ... We have to be vigilant."

As always in odd-numbered years, there are a handful of state and local races around the country. While not as high-profile as races for Congress or president, these contests can experience numerous voter suppression tactics and deceptive election practices. Some political observers say obstacles that will surface today may be a precursor for 2008.

"It's high time that everybody understood that good election practices is good policy," said Jack Young, Virginia Democratic Lawyers Council co-chair, who is organizing his party's election monitoring in that state as it elects a new legislature. "The Democratic Party's effort is 'Promote the vote.' This is part of the same effort to get Democratic voters to the polls, see that they vote and that their votes are counted."

"This stuff of Republicans trying to jam phone lines, or telling people to vote on Wednesday, is un-American," he said, referring to tactics used by the GOP partisans in New Hampshire in 2002 and in Ohio in 2004. "Chris LaCivita, who did the Swift Boats against Kerry, and New Hampshire, is in Virginia. We will be watching him."

Voting rights activists and attorneys say they will be monitoring possible problems in more than a half-dozen states. Some, such as the impact of new voter ID laws, have the potential to affect hundreds of thousands of people. Others, such as forcing college students to prove their voter registration information is correct, may affect hundreds.

Among the states and possible problems being monitored are:

Georgia: the Atlanta Journal-Constitutionhas reported that more than 160,000 voters could cast ballots that later will be disqualified because those voters lack one of several forms of required photo ID. These voters tend to be the youngest and oldest voters, who often don't have driver's licenses, or low-income voters who don't own cars. The paper reported that half of these 160,000 voters are in the Atlanta region, while the rest reside in southwestern rural counties. Under the state's tough voter ID law, these voters would get a provisional ballot on Tuesday but would have to return to their county election office and present additional identification for their vote to be counted.

Georgia: More than 900 college students at Georgia Southern University, in Bulloch County, may see their voter registrations challenged by "a new citizens group formed to challenge newly registered students," according to PFAW's Becker. "They are targeting people who are least capable of providing the kinds of documents they will need," he said. "Students will have to prove they are eligible, instead of those people who are challenging them prove they [the students] are not eligible."

Michigan: The Detroit Free Presshas reported that state officials estimate 340,000 of the state's 7.2 million voters don't have a state photo ID or driver's license, which will complicate their efforts to vote. Unlike Georgia, however, Michigan residents can sign an affidavit swearing they are the person on the voter roll and receive a ballot. The Detroit branch of the NAACP has called the new law, which goes into effect for the first time Tuesday, "another version of a poll tax" that seeks to intimidate and deter voters.

Indiana: The state will hold municipal elections on Tuesday. Its new voter ID law, considered the toughest in the county will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court later this fall. As a result, proponents and opponents will be looking for impacts on voting that might be cited in the high court litigation. That eventual ruling could enshrine or ban the spate of new tough voter ID laws, in states such as Indiana and Georgia.

Indiana: Some counties have consolidated local precincts into "vote centers," or multiprecinct polling places. While proponents say this will help both parties bring voters to the polls and help with tallying votes, in other states -- notably Ohio in 2004 -- the centers lead to delays and lower turnout, especially when poll workers could not find names on newly consolidated voter lists. Electronic voting critics also say these centers pose a greater risk for insider tampering with vote counts.

Kentucky: Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who faces a tough re-election contest, has banned provisional ballots -- which were created under the federal Help America Vote Act after the Florida presidential election debacle in 2000. These ballots are given to people whose names are not on voter rolls but who say they are registered. They are then checked and counted if the registrations are valid.

Grayson said HAVA only regulated federal elections -- not state contests -- which means he is not required to offer that option to voters. "Grayson technically does not have to provide provisional ballots in a nonfederal election," PFAW's Becker said, adding that most states -- including Virginia and New Jersey that are voting on Tuesday -- will offer voters provisional ballots, even though there are no federal races.

Maryland: Gaithersburg, a city in Montgomery County, will not be providing bilingual ballot materials, which is required under Section 203 of the federal Voting Rights Act. County election officials cited the same rationale as Kentucky's Grayson -- their local election doesn't fall under federal review. However, local politics have seen heated debates on immigration and immigrant rights in recent years, and the anti-illegal immigrant group, the Minutemen, have a Maryland presence. Democrats say not providing the election materials, especially in Spanish, could suppress turnout.

Virginia: The state also has legislative elections and much of the campaign rhetoric has targeted illegal immigration and public benefits. That factor, when taken against a rising legal Latino population base, creates a "climate for intimidation," according the Virginia Democratic Lawyers Council's Jack Young. "The rhetoric is all an attempt to suppress the vote."

Young cited three main concerns for Tuesday's vote: efforts to challenge voters' citizenship, possibly bullying of voters to show ID that's not required, and poll workers who are prone to giving voters provisional ballots instead of looking up voters' names.

"The most pernicious has been efforts by conservatives and the GOP to deny the vote to citizens because of the color of their skin or the pronunciation of their last name," he said. Voters who are challenged should sign declarations that you are a qualified voter. Our answer is to sign an affirmation to you are who you say you are."

Electronic voting: In some cities and counties, voters will be using electronic voting systems that are known to have problems, such as a possibility of losing tallied votes on computer memory cards. While pre-election tests and audits have shown some systems to be more problem-prone than others, it is hard to predict where trouble will surface.

Beyond helping people vote on Tuesday, groups like PFAW will be looking for problems or trends that might surface in 2008's presidential election.

"When there are tight elections, like in Kentucky or Virginia, we will be looking for harbingers of what could happen in 2008, in terms of voter suppression and deceptive practices," said Becker. "When voter suppressors get desperate to hold onto power, they do more brazen things."

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