Features » October 23, 2012
Fighting Voter Suppression
The battle for a basic civil right continues to rage.
Thanks to the “voting fraud” scare drummed up by the Right, Republican partisans will be waiting on the sidelines “poll watching.”
On October 2, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson blocked the state’s voter ID law from being put into effect for this November’s election. He was concerned the law would disenfranchise voters—a possibility the state couldn’t deny. But Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the lead sponsor of the bill and a member of the rightwing American Legislative Exchange Council—the force behind many such state laws saw the judge’s decision as “skewed in favor of the lazy who refuse to exercise the necessary work ethic to meet the commonsense requirements to obtain an acceptable photo ID.”
Metcalfe believes people didn’t want to comply with the law because they’re shiftless. That theory flies in the face of the evidence civil rights lawyers produced in the voter ID hearings: more than 50 cases of people who tried to get an ID to vote, but through no fault of their own—lack of birth certificate, discrepancies in the state’s voter registration records—weren’t able to.
Metcalfe hasn’t been the only elected official to make this kind of statement. In Florida, where the formerly incarcerated continue to be disenfranchised, new voting rules have restricted voter registration drives. State Sen. Mike Bennett, who backed the restrictions, said, “I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should not be easy.”
And Matthew Vadum of the conservative Capital Research Center wrote just a year ago, “Registering them [low-income people] to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country—which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.”
We can speculate as to who, exactly, Vadum has in mind when he refers to these “nonproductive segments,” but the larger point is that it’s not true. Community journalists involved in Voting Rights Watch 2012 (full disclosure: I am the lead reporter) have documented numerous cases in which low-income, elderly and disabled people, who were already working overtime to make ends meet, are faced with the additional burden of complying with new voting laws.
Unlike the “lazy” work-shirkers of Rep. Metcalfe’s fantasies, plenty of people were working to get identification for both themselves and others to vote in Pennsylvania before the law was blocked. The PA Voter ID Coalition harnessed volunteers and community organizations to help people get IDs. Many groups have exhausted budgets and funds normally used for registration and regular get-out-the-vote efforts in order to bus people to ID centers, stand in line with them to make sure they get IDs, and then take them home. In one case, Eulalia Ramos Carrero, originally of Puerto Rico, had to wait for her birth certificate to be mailed from her home territory, and then was still denied after she failed to produce two proofs of residence (which was required at the time for a free state-issued voter ID card).
In the Pennsylvania court, civil rights lawyers from the ACLU told the story of Nadine Marsh, an elderly woman, who made repeated inquiries to the state’s department of transportation about what would qualify as a legitimate proof of residence. Marsh lived with her caretaker granddaughter, so she had no bills in her own name. She also didn’t drive. Meanwhile, the closest ID center was a 40-minute drive away. When she first made the journey, driven there by her granddaughter, she couldn’t get an ID because the photo center wasn’t open. At the conclusion of the Pennsylvania court hearing on September 29, she still had not been granted a voter ID—five weeks out from the election.
Pennsylvania survived that ID battle, and many of the other strict voter ID laws hastily passed in the last two years by Republican legislatures have been delayed or summarily struck down. But at least half of the states in the nation require some form of ID, photo or non-photo, to vote. In the past few months, voter ID laws were passed in New Hampshire and Virginia—although in the latter, a broad range of IDs are acceptable, including utility bills and library cards.
And thanks to the “voting fraud” scare drummed up by the Right, and amplified by the Tea Party, Republican partisans will be waiting on the sidelines “poll watching” and challenging any would-be voter they suspect to be an “illegal voter” or “illegal alien.”
In the lead-up to the election, the Texas- based True the Vote and a whole host of affiliated Tea Party groups around the U.S. have been loudly crying “voter fraud” and fingering “illegal immigrants” and the formerly incarcerated as the chief culprits. These “suspect” groups fall largely within Latino and black populations, opening up the potential for rampant racial profiling at the polls.
In 24 states, a would-be voter can be challenged by any poll watcher who suspects they are up to fraudulent activity. In Illinois, a state with no voter ID requirement, an election law allows poll watchers to challenge voters’ eligibility and demand two forms of ID.
Voters in Wisconsin and Texas have filed complaints against True the Vote-trained poll watchers, claiming intimidation. Other True the Vote-trained groups are scouring voter registration databases looking for people to challenge before they even get to vote. In an investigative report for Voting Rights Watch, I found that one of True the Vote’s organizers in South Carolina is a neo-Confederate who continues to champion the Dixie cause.
It’s not that people who are fighting voter ID laws aren’t hard-working; it’s that there are too many other people working hard to make sure certain segments of the electorate don’t vote. Thanks to advocates from the Advancement Project, Color of Change, ACLU, NAACP, SEIU, MALDEF and other social-justice groups, voter ID laws have been thrown out in Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Mississippi. Other restrictive voter laws concerning early voting, purging and voter registration were defeated in Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Iowa.
It was fitting that Pennsylvania Judge Simpson’s ruling came on October 2, the same day that, in 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the first African- American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall’s work in getting civil rights laws and the Voting Rights Act enforced made today’s voting rights advocacy possible. Let’s just hope the legions trying to protect the vote are enough.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
New Orleans-based investigative journalist Brentin Mock is the lead reporter for Voting Rights Watch 2012, a joint project of TheNation.com and Colorines.com that explores the racial impact and dimensions of voter suppression tactics. Follow Brentin at @bmockaveli.