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Protect the Vote Locally | The Nation

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Protect the Vote Locally

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Just as cities have adopted environmental and wage laws that exceed federal standards, maybe it's time for local initiatives protecting the integrity of the vote. We've been seeing electoral abuses and manipulations since the Bush Administration took power. So we need to insure the Democrats make national electoral protection a priority. But we can also act on a local level.

About the Author

Paul Rogat Loeb
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear...

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It's been a frustrating time since November 2008. Our challenge is not to bemoan our disappointments but to continue to engage with the political process.

Even in a seemingly lost cause, one person may unknowingly inspire another.

Though the Democratic surge took back the Senate and House, some ugly actions quite likely shifted several close Congressional races. The poster race for this election's abuses, appropriately, is in Florida--Katherine Harris's old Congressional district of Sarasota. Whether through manipulation or error, electronic voting machines in that district logged 18,000 fewer votes in this neck-and-neck race than for governor or senator, and fewer than wholly uncontroversial down-ballot races like the Sarasota Public Hospital Board. Whatever the causes, these votes disappeared in a county that Democrat Christine Jennings carried by 53 percent, and would have likely allowed her to defeat Republican Vern Buchanan.

Harris's district saw more than just voting machine problems. In the Jennings/Buchanan election, as in more than fifty key races throughout the country, Republicans telephoned voters again and again with automated "robocalls" that led with the name of the Democratic candidate, and then followed with scurrilous attacks. Because voters tend to hang up on these harassing calls as soon as they begin, or delete them from answering systems, many assumed they were coming from the Democrats, and some may have switched their votes in anger. Volunteers all over the country heard people say they were so furious at the presumed source of this harassment they'd never vote for Democratic candidates. As a Venice, Florida, man wrote to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, "So Christine Jennings lost by 368 votes. I think I can tell her why. She should sit at home and have the telephone ring twice a day, at lunch and dinner time, for two or three weeks, and then decide if she should vote for the person doing the calling."

In Maryland the Democrats won, but Republicans reportedly bused in homeless men from Philadelphia to hand out fliers in black neighborhoods featuring photographs of former Congressman Kweisi Mfume and Prince Georges County executive Jack Johnson. "Ehrlich-Steele Democrats," proclaimed the flier, and announced: "These Are OUR Choices," as if Mfume and Johnson had endorsed Republican gubernatorial and senatorial candidates Robert Ehrlich and Michael Steele. Since both Mfume and Johnson unequivocally supported their fellow Democrats, it was a blatant lie, as were the accompanying fliers headlined "Democratic Sample Ballot" with boxes checked in red promoting Ehrlich and Steele.

These weren't the only abuses. Republican-linked calls in various states gave misleading information on polling locations or told legitimate voters that they were registered in other states and would be arrested if they voted. A letter to Latino voters in Orange County, California, threatened jail to all immigrants who voted, ignoring that many were naturalized citizens. In Tucson, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund photographed armed men attempting to prevent Hispanic voters from entering polling places. In Texas, a federal judge stopped Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott from prosecuting thirteen largely elderly Democrats who placed sealed absentee ballots from their friends in mailboxes. The abuses probably weren't on the level of 2000 or 2004, in part because of major coordinated voter protection efforts where citizens monitored the polls and had lawyers on call for instant intervention. But they were substantial enough to have probably diminished the margin of victory.

To prevent similar future abuses, Illinois Senator Barack Obama's Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act would make it a felony to deliberately give misleading information on the time, date or location of elections, or about voter eligibility. New Jersey Congressman and former Princeton physicist Rush Holt has offered the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, which mandates a verifiable paper trail for all election machines, requires random audits to insure ballots are properly counted and bans wireless connections to make machines less vulnerable to hacking. Holt's bill had the support of a majority of House members even before the midterm election, and should have an irrefutable additional argument with the meltdown of the machines in the Jennings/Buchanan race--not to mention the inability of Republicans to do comprehensive recounts in states like Virginia, where most machines lacked a paper trail. An even stronger alternative would be Dennis Kucinich's HB 6200, which would require paper ballots to be hand-counted at the precinct level.

The Democrats need to do all they can to pass this legislation. They also need to insure that new state and federal voter identification laws don't disenfranchise poor and minority voters, as frequently seems to be their intent, and that abuses like the misleading robocalls carry the maximum possible penalties--which might mean outlawing robocalls of all kinds. In the process, they can hold public hearings on the entire Republican legacy of purged voters, tossed provisional ballots and voting machines pulled from key Democratic districts. If the Republicans filibuster or Bush vetoes these laws, citizens need to insure the Democrats keep pressing the issue.

But just as local minimum wage and environmental ordinances often surpass federal standards, local election standards can be made stronger than national efforts to protect the vote. Because most of the areas targeted by voter suppression attempts are urban and minority communities, Democratic mayors, county executives and governors already control many of the key jurisdictions. They just need to act on the power that they have.

Where useful local laws already exist, elected officials can use them to hold the perpetrators of these abuses accountable. The New Hampshire Attorney General's office has already threatened the National Republican Congressional Committee with prosecution under a state law mandating $5,000 fines for each prerecorded call to anyone on the national do-not-call list. Activists now need to convince the state to prosecute the NRCC for the 200,000 illegal calls they made before finally stopping--a suit that, if successful, would potentially bankrupt the NRCC. Former Bush-Cheney New England coordinator James Tobin has already been convicted for his role in an illegal phone-jamming operation during the 2002 New Hampshire Senate campaign. Other states may be able to sue the NRCC and their allies as well. Perhaps former Congressman Mfume and County Executive Johnson could even sue the Republican creators of the leaflets that featured their pictures--arguing that this reckless disregard for the truth defames their good name by implying they endorse politicians whose policies they oppose. Whether or not these suits succeed, they'd keep these profoundly antidemocratic actions in the public eye.

Passing tough new local laws to protect the vote could create an immediate check against voter suppression in a situation where the Bush Administration is unlikely to prosecute its own political allies. If such laws were enacted before 2008, they could prove a major deterrent to the abuses we've seen in the past several elections, insuring their perpetrators could be prosecuted no matter who won at the national level. We still need strong national laws to safeguard elections in Republican-controlled states--Florida, for instance, has continued its voter purges and has instituted draconian procedures and penalties that have made it virtually impossible for groups like the League of Women Voters to begin major registration drives.

But even in these situations, local initiatives can mitigate disenfranchisement. In the most recent election, California's since-defeated Republican Secretary of State Bruce McPherson tried to reject 40 percent of new registrants, primarily Democratic-leaning Hispanics, by claiming they didn't match state databases. In response, the office of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa contacted those purged, verified their information and got almost all of them back on the rolls. Local Florida officials in Miami, Tampa and Orlando could have done the same when Governor Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris gave Bush his 2000 victory by knocking out 94,000 largely Democratic and minority voters for supposedly being disenfranchised felons--although a BBC follow-up found that 90 percent of those scrubbed were legitimate voters. Officials in Cleveland and Columbus might have countered Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's purging of 300,000 largely Democratic voters in 2004, his pulling of voting machines from key urban neighborhoods and his refusal to count ballots cast in the wrong precinct. Strong local laws and aggressive citizen oversight could prevent electoral manipulation even while the federal executive branch remains in the hands of the party that's benefited from its use.

Imagine if the Republicans risked jail for making misleading robocalls in Philadelphia or Cleveland, Houston, Miami or Albuquerque, or for telling citizens they'd be arrested for voting if they were behind on their rent. Imagine if they ran this risk whether or not the federal government intervened. The stronger the local laws, the more they could set a federal standard. The recent election has created a window of opportunity to protect the vote, for now and in the future. Linking national and local protection efforts could help insure that this actually happens.

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