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.
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.