Party Hacks

Election chiefs trim voter rolls to benefit GOP

BY Hans Johnson

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It’s the kind of preaching so common in conservative circles that it slips past the public. In May, a Minnesota state official told a prayer group in May, the “five words” that are “probably most destructive” in the nation today are “separation of church and state.”

Such an assertion by a public servant would have drawn shrugs were it not from Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, whose duty is impartial administration of elections. And her remarks might have escaped wider attention had she not later justified them, claiming victim status for right-wing Christians: “There are a lot of good church people who don’t think they can be involved in government.”

Kiffmeyer’s defense of greater church involvement in the democratic process appears curious in light of rules she proposed that would have had precisely the opposite effect on most Minnesotans. Kiffmeyer recently decided that in order to vote in November every would-be voter in the state must show an ID reflecting an “exact match” to the file of names, driver’s license numbers and dates of birth circulated by her office. Such rules would have the effect of robbing the vote from thousands of state residents, including those who encounter errors in the information about them on Kiffmeyer’s official list.

Minnesotans are not alone in facing gaps in electoral integrity from schemes like those concocted in 2000 by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. A nationwide review reveals a disturbing pattern in closely contested states of Republican office-holders with close ties to the Bush-Cheney campaign: Remove eligible voters from official rolls and erect barriers to new or young voters and minorities who vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

An administrative law judge nixed Kiffmeyer’s required ID matching in a ruling on July 22 but did not dismantle a second barrier she erected. Many county officials say her cumbersome voter-registration form deters would-be applicants. In St. Paul’s Ramsey County alone, more than a third of 6,500 completed forms submitted earlier this year contained errors and were rejected.

Instead of allowing a clearer, easier form after learning of such problems, Kiffmeyer, cribbing a line from the Bush reelection playbook, demanded continuity amid a crisis she helped create. “We are in midstream in an election cycle,” she told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “We have an application out there … and we’ll continue to use that.”

In placing hurdles before voters, conservatives are nothing if not consistent.

Missouri has been a hotbed of election intrigue since November 2000 when a high turnout of African-American voters embarrassed then-Sen. John Ashcroft, who narrowly lost to the deceased Mel Carnahan. Since then, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) has pushed for and won provisions in the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) that stiffened ID requirements involving new registrants and voters across the nation. Matt Blunt, the GOP secretary of state, also faced pressure from his right-wing base to tighten ballot access.

Missouri conservatives hoped their strategy of policing access to the ballot would bear fruit in the August 3 primary, the state’s first major election since implementing HAVA. Instead, it was Bond who felt the perils of aggressive purging of state voter lists. His name was struck from records in his hometown of Mexico, where he has voted for 40 years, and he had to produce a photo ID and voter identification card in order to vote for himself.

Bond’s experience may be Exhibit A in a larger case. Litigation seems likely after dozens of St. Louis residents had to seek assistance from NAACP volunteers to get a ballot from election monitors who didn’t find them on rosters. One woman, who had recently changed apartments within the same building, faced rejection at her polling place even though she was registered at the address.

In New Hampshire, Republicans have made a pastime of resisting young voters in college towns. Students in the university town of Durham turned out to vote in 2002, only to receive a handout from election proctors laced with scare tactics, including the warning that they could jeopardize their financial aid by voting at an address other than their permanent home.

The strategy successfully diminished turnout, and Democrats felt the sting. The GOP took full control of state government, rolling from parity in the state senate to a rollicking 18-to-6 majority. In the next session on strict party-line votes, they promptly pushed through a sweeping bill to limit access to voting and toughen sanctions for fraud.

This spring, the state’s Republican House Speaker Gene Chandler put a razor-fine point on the motives behind the law. “It is simply not right to allow college students to have any say in our elections in New Hampshire,” he told a public forum. “We need to control that.”

Other episodes show that Harris’ Florida exploits were only the beginning.

  • In Michigan, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land doubles as the state chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign. In this capacity, she gives fundraising pitches for Bush and shows her penchant for strategic arithmetic. “If we all signed up 17 new voters and worked 17 hours for our president,” she told a gathering in Holland, “Bush will win Michigan.”
       Land continues to enforce a 2000 law that has effectively barred thousands of college students from voting. The Detroit Free Press reported in 2002 that in its first two years, the law dissuaded thousands of student voters from registering near campus, cutting voter rolls by 10 percent in East Lansing and 8 percent in Ann Arbor. The law already has claimed one high-profile casualty: Democrat Dianne Byrum lost her race for Congress to conservative Mike Rogers by 88 votes in a district that included the liberal college town of East Lansing. As a state legislator, Rogers was both sponsor of the law and its foremost beneficiary.
  • In Colorado, Secretary of State Donetta Davidson faces embarrassment over her leadership in the Elections Center, a nominally nonpartisan state office that has accepted donations from e-voting companies at the same time it touted their machinery. She also backed the scheme, shot down in state court, to allow partisan redrawing of congressional districts in 2003.
  • In South Dakota, Secretary of State Chris Nelson is facing lawsuits from Lakota tribes for posting erroneous warning signs at polling places during the June 1 special election for Congress.
       Jacqueline Johnson of the National Congress of American Indians told the New York Times that several ballot locations displayed signs reading “No ID, no vote.” Many would-be voters went home feeling intimidated by election monitors who did not inform them of their right to complete an affidavit, which, even with no ID, would allow them to cast a ballot. (HAVA allows for provisional ballots for voters who don’t provide ID or fill out an affidavit, these are much more likely to be disqualified than regular ballots.)
       The ploy apparently worked. Fewer Lakota turned out to vote than in 2002, when counties with high percentages of Indians saw participation rates soar in a Senate brawl in which the White House jumped in to oust Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson. In a dramatic 11th-hour turn, those counties were among the last to report their totals, and their margins reversed a small lead for Republican John Thune and gave Johnson a narrow win.
  • In Ohio, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has gone several extra miles to endorse a federal constitutional amendment to ban marriage for same-sex couples. In July, before a failed cloture vote doomed the GOP proposal, Blackwell flew to Washington to rally senators—despite his duty in the Buckeye State to impartially oversee the validation of signatures on petitions submitted to place a question before voters this fall about amending the state constitution to ban gay marriage.
  • In Florida, GOP mischief with voting rolls is making perhaps the most glaring mockery of fair play and open government. Harris’ successor Glenda Hood remains embroiled in fallout from her bid to pare 47,000 supposed felons from the state voter lists. Recent disclosures show that Hood’s list wrongly excluded hundreds of Latino felons, who, in Florida, often back GOP candidates, while it included hundreds of African-American felons who had won restoration of their voting rights. Newspapers investigated and spotted the list’s inherent partisan bias after a judge ordered the list be made public, and Governor Jeb Bush retracted it.

Many voters, like St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler, found their amazement commingled with anger. “They do not get to stand there week after week, all self-righteous, declaring that anybody who questions their list is a fool,” Troxler wrote in July. Does this mean, he asked, that Jeb Bush is “gonna get our $2 million back or fire somebody?”

Like hawks who soften when loved ones get in harm’s way, even the most brazen advocates of election barriers sing a different tune after facing Election Day stop signs. After his brush with exclusion from the voter rolls, Kit Bond told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I tell you what. Voting is not easy.”

Hans Johnson, a contributing editor of In These Times, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a columnist and commentator on labor, religion and trends in state and national politics.

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