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Protecting Every Vote | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Protecting Every Vote

With the stakes so high, this election may well bring a massive surge in voter registration. Sadly, the potential for widespread voter disenfranchisement due to incompetence, fraud and outright intimidation is as high as it was in 2000.

Lessons were learned in the debacle of "Selection 2000," but government has done little to reform the process. In addition to the problems associated with butterfly ballots and "hanging chads," as many as three million Americans were disenfranchised by so-called voter registration "glitches." Applicants never got onto voting rolls; Voters were sent to the wrong polling places; some were given faulty information about ID requirements.

And, although these problems still haven't been corrected three months before the presidential election, there's hope because of the America's Families United Voter Protection Project (AFUVPP), one of several good organizations fighting effectively to avert another 2000 fiasco.

AFUVPP says that monumental roadblocks to voter registration and a clean election remain, including the failures of government agencies to process voter registration forms properly; purges of voters from the rolls; voters appearing at the wrong polling place by mistake; improper and confusing ID requirements; intimidation of voters, and problems with ballots and voting systems. Concrete examples abound: in St. Louis, Missouri, election officials told voter registration workers that of 30,000 applications submitted, two-thirds had been rejected. No reasons were given; the Voter Protection Project is investigating the matter. (Missouri's rolls were wildly inaccurate in 2000, sowing chaos on Election Day.) In another state, watchdog organizations can't verify that "applicants have been placed on the roles" because --astonishingly--the state has a statute prohibiting the copying of registration forms that can be matched against the lists of voter applicants!

There's also the problem of voter intimidation. In Louisiana in 2002, fliers were posted in one African-American community urging people to vote on Tuesday, December 10th even though Election Day was Sunday, December 8th. In Texas, a group of African-American students were told that they weren't eligible to vote in the county where they attended college. Forty years after Freedom Summer, voter registration drives continue to face hostility from local law enforcement and private attempts. AFUVPP points out one voter registration office which "was recently visited by a local sheriff, who inquired into irrelevant matters such as the project's funders and employees." These are only a few of dozens of roadblocks AFUVPP is currently addressing.

These problems--as prevalent and sinister as Florida's infamous butterfly ballots--threaten a fair outcome in November's presidential election and serve to mock and menace the promise of a free and fair election. Under our current jerry-built system, local election boards often get overwhelmed and election workers are underpaid and poorly trained; in many cases applicants aren't placed on the rolls due to sheer human incompetence. The AFU's Voter Protection Project is absolutely essential to ensure that every eligible voter has access to the polls, and that every vote cast in 2004 gets counted.

The folks at the Voter Protection Project understand that they can't wait until Election Day to take action. Therefore, to fix the problems in our system, the Project has already launched a sophisticated campaign in as many as 100 counties (and approximately 20 states). The AFUVPP is monitoring registration efforts to ensure applicants get on the rolls. When problems are reported, the AFUVPP works with and watches local officials to correct the mistake, and it "re-register[s] applicants where necessary." The Project will act to clarify the ID rules and processes, to address their implementation and to educatevoters. And AFUVPP is working with "local monitoring and advocacy coalitions" and lawyers to protect voting rights for all Americans.

The AFUVPP, in conjunction with AFU's registration workers and non-partisan voting rights coordinators, is scrutinizing those states that "purge"ex-felons from the rolls to ensure that people's rights aren't violated. It is monitoring electronic touch-screen voting machines (which 30 percent of voters will use on Election Day) to prevent any tampering and ensure a credible result. And finally, armed with lawyers, poll monitors and other volunteers, the AFUVPP will provide training, guidance and legal support to international election observers in six states to guard the process on Election Day.

In a recent interview, Penda D. Hair, the director of the AFUVPP, underscored the need to "start way before the election with voter registration" to avert another 2000 election debacle. "What happened in communities of color went well beyond chads and butterfly ballots," she said, adding that there was "suppression and lost votes," which had a "ripple effect" that undermined people's confidence in the result. Working with state and local leaders and organizations like ACORN and US Action, the AFUVPP is pleased "to have so many allies" in this broad-based civil rights struggle, but it also understands the hard slog ahead.

The NAACP's Julian Bond and People for the American Way's Ralph Neas recently warned: "The bloody days of violence and retribution following the Civil War and Reconstruction are gone. The poll taxes, literacy tests and physical violence of the Jim Crow era have disappeared. Today, more subtle, cynical and creative tactics have taken their place."

If you want to assist the AFUVPP in the fight against voter disenfranchisement, click here and see how you can make a difference. In 2004, the true lessons of the 2000 debacle--beyond butterflies and "chads" must not be forgotten. At stake, isn't simply our choice for America's next president, but also our faith in our nation's democracy.

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