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The Racial Politics Behind the Right Wing’s Poll-Watching | The Nation

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Voting Rights Watch

Voting Rights Watch

In-depth coverage of voter suppression efforts nationwide, in partnership with Colorlines.com.

The Racial Politics Behind the Right Wing’s Poll-Watching

Right now, there are only five states that have strict photo voter ID laws. Six more states have flexible photo ID laws that allow for a broader range of acceptable identification than the strict states. And then there are nineteen states that require some non-photo form of ID to vote. But if you live in Illinois, where there is no voter ID law at all, you might be alarmed to find out on Election Day that you still may have to produce ID to vote. Reason being, it is one of twenty-four states where your voting rights can be challenged by a poll watcher—any random person, really, who happens to be at your polling place—even if the watcher doesn’t have any evidence that you actually need to be challenged. And if you are challenged in Illinois, you have to produce two forms of ID to prove that you’re eligible to vote.

Last month, we published a story on a Tea Party group called True the Vote, which trades in voter ID law advocacy, voter registration challenges and poll watcher trainings. Challenging people who may have illegally registered to vote, and training people to observe poll activity are innocuous activities, but only when divorced from their racial history in the United States. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, “Voter Challengers” details that troublesome history while spelling out just how problematic such poll-watching activities can be, especially when administered by hyper-partisan and racially insensitive groups like True the Vote.

“This history of discriminatory voter challenges casts doubt on the fraud-prevention arguments traditionally used to justify these laws,” writes Nicolas Riley, author of the report. True the Vote, and their many allies, often cite voter fraud as the reason for militarizing the polls, but countless studies have shown that the notion of massive voter fraud is mostly bunk, as meticulously noted in this News 21 investigation.

Still, thirty-nine states allow private citizens to challenge voters at the polls. According to the Brennan study, election officials in those states are “under immense time pressure to decide challenges quickly in order to avoid voting delays.” True the Vote is aware of this, but they put it differently, saying at a recent poll watcher training that election officials are “under immense pressure to do the wrong thing”—namely let undocumented immigrants vote, and let people vote multiple times.

Scarier, of the thirty-nine states that allow random people to challenge voters inside polling places, only fifteen of them require the challengers to prove that the person they’re challenging isn’t an eligible voter. Which means that in twenty-four states people can wage all kinds of frivolous accusations—that a person is an “illegal alien,” or that they are using a dead person’s identity to vote—to burden if not intimidate voters. In these states, the poll challenger statutes can be abused and used for racial profiling, when not sending a chill effect to others who might be vulnerable for no other reason than having a Latino surname.

In those states, people can make up a reason to challenge a voter’s rights without any evidence backing them up, and do so with impunity. It’s the same as when people drum up charges of voter fraud to pass voter ID bills and go unpunished when it’s revealed that no such fraud exists. You can’t fabricate a police report by saying you were mugged if you weren’t; you can’t file a false claim saying you lost possessions in a disaster. In both cases, you face jail and fines for bearing false witness, but not if you fabricate voter fraud or voter ineligibility in many states.

The Brennan report points out that South Carolina and Virginia allow people to challenge voters even if it’s nothing but a whim. Consider that both South Carolina and Virginia both have passed voter ID laws. In South Carolina, that law is currently being challenged in a federal court, where it was discovered that the law’s author Representative Alan Clemmons made racist comments about black voters in an e-mail while discussing how to pass the legislation.

Both states have strong True the Vote connections. In South Carolina, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Cibby Krell, is a True the Vote volunteer with the Spartanburg Tea Party. In Virginia, the Virginia Voters Alliance is a group that trains Tea Party groups in challenging voters while pressuring Virginia election officials to engage in reckless purging processes.

It so happens that many of the states with lax regulations around poll watcher activities are states where True the Vote is most active. But in some of those states, True the Vote leaders—people who have trained thousands of Tea Party volunteers via webinars—don’t seem to know the state laws themselves. In a June interview with Erin Anderson, at the time a True the Vote regional director, I was told that “Wisconsin allows a poll watcher to make a challenge to a voter. Most states don’t have that [law]. Texas doesn’t have that for example.”

She was half right. Wisconsin does not allow election observers to challenge a voter. It does allow private citizens who are eligible to vote to challenge other voters, but only if the challenger provides evidence under oath that the person they are challenging is ineligible. In Texas, poll watchers may not challenge voters, as Anderson mentioned. But her group found out about Texas’ rule the hard way, after dozens of voter intimidation complaints were filed by black and Latino voters against True the Vote’s watchers after the 2010 elections.

In Wisconsin, where True the Vote also suffered voter intimidation complaints, the state’s Government Accountability Board strengthened its monitoring of poll monitors saying in July, “Being well informed is the best defense against complications at the polling place, including frivolous challenges to a voter’s eligibility. Observers may not speak to or intimidate voters. Poll workers do not have to put up with observers who bully them or question their actions,”

But having your rights challenged by True the Vote, and other groups like them, doesn’t necessarily always happen at the polls. Many voters rights are being challenged before the voting period even begins, because True the Vote volunteers are rummaging through databases looking for name and address irregularities. They then use those irregularities to pressure election administrators to purge voters with reckless abandon.

Just this week True the Vote and their Election Integrity 2012 partner Judicial Watch sued Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted for not purging more aggressively (this came after Husted dropped out of True the Vote’s Ohio state summit.) True the Vote volunteers are trained to spot and challenge names on voter registration rolls that might be ineligible based off of flawed data analyses. An example of the typical scare alert from True the Vote is found in one of their recent Tweets: “Voter Integrity Project Finds 30,000 Dead People on North Carolina Voter Rolls”. The Voter Integrity Project is a True the Vote chapter that has been harassing the state about purging, but there’s no there in this story. People die daily. It doesn’t mean that fraud is happening. It only means the voter rolls need to be updated.

Meanwhile, when the Voter Integrity Project attempted to have 500 voters purged from Wake County, North Carolina, rolls, the Brennan Center found that the majority of those were people of color. The attempt too closely mirrored a voter suppression tactic used in 1872 in Wake County to stop black people from voting. Similarly, when Florida’s Secretary of State and governor began a purge program, with huge support from True the Vote, it was mostly voters of color who were on the purge list.

These poll “challenging” and “watching” operations are not race-neutral. The nation has a history of white people taunting and haunting black and Latino voters that goes back centuries. Much of this racial history is recounted in Brennan’s “Voter Challengers” report, which tells how states like Florida, Ohio, Texas and Virginia created poll watcher rules precisely to suppress black and women voters, and also to enforce voting laws that disenfranchised these groups.

Keep that in mind when you read about the Code Red USA project, which rallies Tea Partiers from around the country to join a “conservative army” that will infiltrate battleground states in November for voter registration and “election integrity” efforts. Code Red says it has “partnered with True The Vote to maintain election integrity by training volunteers to be poll watchers and combat voter fraud.” Get ready to tumble.

—Brentin Mock

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