Aura Bogado | The Nation

Aura Bogado

Aura Bogado

Racial justice, Native rights and immigration. 

Nevada Disenfranchises Its Poor Electorate

As we noted on Thursday, the issue of poverty was conspicuously missing from the first presidential candidates’ debate. While the term “middle class” was traded more than thirty times between Obama and Romney, neither candidate made any substantive claims about poverty. In a debate dominated by the topic of the economy, Obama couldn’t bring himself to say the words “poor” or “poverty” one time. “Middle class,” meanwhile, remains the term that is supposed to blanket everyone living in the United States—despite their income or wealth.

Not surprisingly, the poor are given little voice in this election. Unemployment numbers remain just that: numbers that obscure the reality of those living people surviving without income. At a time when median white household wealth is at more than $110,000, and median black household wealth is less than $5,000, the term middle class also blurs the racial distinctions of money.

Nevada, meanwhile, remains a swing state that will be key in helping to decide the election—but the poor may be losing their collective voice as voters there, too. Although the 1993 National Voter Registration Act obliges public service agencies to provide voter registration forms for their clients, a federal lawsuit alleged that Nevada failed to do so, thereby not allowing an opportunity for the state’s poor to register to vote.

Meet our Nevada-based community journalist, Kate Sedinger. She’s currently working on a Masters in social work at the University of Nevada, Reno, and interns at Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. In today’s dispatch, she explains why the poor in particular must be given the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the electoral process.

—Aura Bogado

Nevada Public Assistance Agencies Blunder in Registering Poor Voters

In a country where so many cling so tightly to the idea of the American Dream, classism remains one of the least acknowledged forms of discrimination. We want to believe success is contingent on hard work alone because that allows us to believe that monetary wealth is in our future, rather than acknowledge that unless we were born into wealth or we’re white, middle-class and educated, it likely isn’t. We want to believe that someday we’ll have no worries, life will be easy: we’ll be able to retire, to send our children to college without debt and to be lauded by society as proof that the American Dream can be a reality.

We all work hard. We put in the hours. We trade our time for a place to live and food to eat. We live with integrity. We set aside other priorities such as family, self-care and hobbies for work, believing success is inevitable, as if success follows hard work as B follows A. We are committed to believing, even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, that everyone can succeed in this country because we don’t have the structural blocks of other countries where wealth is determined by birth. We are all born equal, right?

The flip side of the myth of the American Dream is that those who don’t make it—those who, heaven forbid, use public assistance—just aren’t trying hard enough. This belief serves as a blanket of false security, allowing the belief that poverty is due to personal deficiencies rather than structural inequalities. By allowing us to believe if we just do the work, we’re safe.

Many of those who live in poverty are swept under the rug as having less intelligence, a weaker work ethic, faulty integrity and less drive. We may not consciously acknowledge this, but I wonder whether we as a society also believe the poor haven’t quite earned the same rights as those of us who don’t live in poverty.

Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Nevada public service agencies weren’t fulfilling their federally mandated responsibility to serve as voter registration sites. In my work in human services, I frequently interact with under-resourced individuals and have seen firsthand that the system is not set up to make their lives easy, nor is it designed to encourage their civic participation. Like it or not, this country does not count all citizens equally—how you count is directly tied to how much money you have, how much formal education you have, your skin color, your gender, your sexuality and various other arbitrary markers we enact to make sure those who have had the power and the privilege get to keep it.

The Las Vegas Sun reported in mid-September that a federal lawsuit had been brought against the state of Nevada by the National Council of La Raza and Nevada National Association for Advance of Colored People chapters, accusing state agencies of failing in their voter registration responsibilities. This accusation was based on findings that several government assistance agencies did not explicitly offer registration to their clients, some failed to maintain voter registration forms in the office and many didn’t have signs or other indicators informing client they could register at the agencies. Not one of the government assistance offices offered their clients instructions on how to register to vote.

Those who support making voting more difficult have suggested that the motivated will find a way to enact their civil right to vote, regardless of how difficult it is. But civil rights aren’t only for the highly motivated, and they aren’t about how many hoops you can jump through. They’re rights guaranteed to all.

The ability of those living in poverty to maintain shelter and to make sure their children have something to eat is very closely tied to the outcome of this election. The policies of the two parties vary drastically when it comes to maintaining the public benefits system, and it is no secret that the concept of entitlements, otherwise known as Medicaid, housing assistance, disability payments, food assistance and a myriad of other programs are being used as pawns in this political fight. The poor are the ones who will be most deeply impacted by public benefits policy decisions. For that reason alone, poor people must not only have opportunity to vote, but also a reasonable avenue through which to do so.

Though the La Raza/NAACP lawsuit has not yet been heard in court, in consideration of the impending registration cut-off all groups have agreed to move forward. Since July 31, 2012, up to 30,000 voter registration forms are being sent out monthly to those using public assistance in Nevada. In that time frame, 2,731 completed registrations have come into the Nevada voter registrar offices in Clark County (Las Vegas) and Washoe County (Reno) from these public assistance agencies. The combined counties represent about 85 percent of the state’s population. This is a clear demonstration that when we unite to publicly advocate for equality, we can be actors for positive change.

However, it’s not quite good enough. During the 2001–02 election cycle, Nevada public assistance agencies collected 40,000 registrations. In other years, these agencies have collected between 2,883 and 13,200 forms. These numbers make the current cycle’s collection seem paltry. It seems that perhaps in those months when we weren’t actively registering those on public assistance, we lost ground we may not be able to reclaim in this election cycle.

A democracy is only as good as the percentage of people who participate. If we want to believe that we live in a nation of equality, we must enact policies that not only protect the equality we have built but also ensure those policies are followed. Doing this isn’t anyone’s responsibility but our own.

—Kate Sedinger

For more on the right’s effort to disenfranchise voters, read Brentin Mock on True The Vote’s potentially illegal vote watching activities

The Ballot and the Bible: How Voting Can Be a Sacred Act

One the most powerful speakers during the Democratic National Convention earlier this month was Representative John Lewis. The Georgia Congressman recalled being in North Carolina more than forty years ago on a Freedom Ride to challenge segregation in the South. He explained that as he and a fellow rider attempted to enter a white waiting room, an angry mob beat the men and left them lying in a pool of blood.

Many delegates cried when they heard Lewis explain how, following President Obama’s election, one of the men from that angry mob apologized; Lewis accepted his apology and forgave him. Addressing the delegates as “brothers and sisters,” Lewis talked about the sanctity of voting, and how that right is being threatened by suppression schemes.

Many people agree with Lewis that voting is a sacred act, and some are organizing their religious communities—their brothers and sisters—to defend what’s previous. One of them is Nelson Pierce Jr. A doctoral candidate in the Micah program at New York Theological Seminary, he’s also the pastor of Beloved Community Church Cincinnati, and the lead organizer with The AMOS Project. As Nelson explains, for him, voting rights are a matter of faith.

—Aura Bogado

Voting Rights: A Matter of Faith

In 1984, the Reverend Jesse Jackson declared his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the president of the United States. I was 6 at the time, but I remember my parents’ anguished conversation over the dinner table. Both of my parents had been involved at different levels of the civil rights struggle in the United States. My father was one of the first African-Americans to attend what was then Louisiana State University in New Orleans. My mother had been involved with the Black Panther Party in Detroit. By 1984, all of that was a lifetime ago to them. They had met and married in the late 1970s, both of them eager to build a life and raise a family; they had become deeply reconnected to their Christian faith, both of them taking on positions of leadership within the church. And, perhaps most surprisingly, they both had become Republicans.

At the time, my parents were part of the religious right that was growing all over the United States. They believed that the morals and tenets of the Christian faith were embodied by the Republican Party. They also were strong supporters of the work that Rev. Jackson had done, both in the civil rights movement, and with corporations. They felt that Rev. Jackson could best speak to the needs and hopes of people who had been marginalized, not just by racism but by sexism and classism as well. Should they vote for their faith or should they vote for their community?

I grew up believing in that same tension. At one point in my life, I rejected my community responsibility as an attempt to fully own my faith. During another point in my life, I put my faith on the back burner to fully present in my community’s struggles. At best, I thought that these were two trains that ran on separate tracks. It may have been convenient to do civic engagement with the community out of a church, but I did not see it as a part of the life of the church.

I was operating in this “separate track” mindset when I started seminary. On the first day of my Old Testament class, my professor began with the following text, and it was like I read the Bible for the first time when I came upon Exodus 3:7-8a:

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey[…].

In Egypt, God was concerned because the government became unjust. God became active because the people were crying. So God sent Moses to change Pharaoh’s labor policy. God worked on behalf of those who had the greatest need. Later, when the children of the people whom God set free from Egypt were forming their own society, they would be warned to remember that their parents were once vulnerable, and that they should always provide for the vulnerable, because God cares about what happens to the vulnerable.

Ohio’s 2004 election process was the source of national ridicule. Long lines forced many people to make a choice between voting and going to work on time, or voting and picking up their children on time from school or daycare. Machines broke down, causing already long lines to be still for hours at a time. In addition, many people were told that they were not eligible to vote, much to their surprise and dismay. As I saw reports of what was happening, and I heard the frustration and disbelief of United States citizens and Ohio residents who were kept from the voting process, I could not help but imagine that the same God who called Moses to speak to Pharaoh was not pleased with what was happening in Ohio.

As it turned out, God was not the only one not pleased. The external pressure by the media and voting rights organizations helped create internal pressure by the state government. A bipartisan effort to reform the voting process got underway, and by 2008 many positive changes occurred. Among these changes were the advent of early, in-person voting and the expansion of vote-by-mail or absentee voting. These reforms made it possible for our state and nation to live up to its responsibility of hearing the voices of all of its citizens.

The sad news is that it was not long before the positive changes began to slowly erode. The in-person early voting hours were cut back in 2010, again in 2011 and, most surprisingly, even further in 2012. I believe that this is the reason so many clergy from across Ohio have been engaged in conversations with the Boards of Elections over voting hours. I believe that this is why fifty clergy representing different cities and denominational traditions gathered as a part of Ohio Prophetic Voices to meet the Secretary of State Jon Husted about his decision to cut the early, in-person hours back from what they had been in 2008. It is not simply because we have access to so many people, and it is not just because we care about the people. I am in this fight because of what my parents did not realize as they debated across the dinner table: that there is no distinction, let alone a difference, between the claims of my faith and civic engagement within the community. I am in this fight because I believe that God is concerned about what happens to the most vulnerable in our society, and I want to help our elected officials to be concerned about the very same thing that God is concerned about.

—Nelson Pierce Jr.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wanna Protect Your Vote? There’s an App for That

Voter suppression continues to threaten participation on Election Day. But communities of color are fighting back and urging people to pledge and vote in November. As vigilante poll watchers prepare to challenge votes in unprecedented numbers, groups like Video the Vote are training everyday people to document what happens—they’ll then find a media partner to broadcast those videos. Meanwhile, more and more social media apps are encouraging people of color and youth to register and pledge to vote. Our community journalist Maegan E. Ortiz highlights some of the best apps on this week’s voting rights roundup.   —Aura Bogado

Using Tech to Push Back Against Voter Suppression
September 25 is National Voter Registration Day and National Voter Education Day. With new voters and young voters, especially people of color, positioned to play a critical role in the November presidential election, it’s no wonder that there are attempts all over the country to try to suppress the exercise of that power. Pushing back against efforts to squash the vote acknowledges the differing ways communities of color are using technology to encourage to either register or pledge to get to the polls on November 12. Here is just a sampling of websites, apps and smartphone tools being rolled out to encourage maximum participation within and across various racial and ethnic groups:

Native Vote
Political engagement goes beyond black and white. In the 2008 presidential elections, 34 percent of the total Native American population over age 18 was eligible but not registered to vote. Native Vote, an initiative of the National Congress of American Indians, is a national nonpartisan effort to mobilize the America-Indian and Alaskan-Native vote. The groups are hosting Get Out the Vote trainings across the country, and webinars focusing on using phone-banking and social networking to spread the word within Native communities. On their website, users can register to vote and access a toolkit, including an election observer guide, posters and trivia.

18 Million Rising
Pushing back against model minority stereotypes that often leave out the diverse United States Asian-American population, 18 Million Rising was founded to promote the civic engagement of the approximately 18 million Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, representing nearly 6 percent of the total population. 18MR wants to change the fact that only 55 percent of Asian-American citizens of voting age are registered to vote—the lowest rate of all demographics—by giving people the opportunity to register to vote on their website. Once registered, users can sign a pledge to vote.

Color of Change
From one simple, user-friendly page, Color of Change is trying to make black history with every vote. On that one page, people can register to vote, get a reminder of reasons to re-register, sign a pledge to vote and track how race is being used in the 2012 race.

Nuestra Elección! / Vote New Mexico
Tapping into Spanish language and bilingual would-be voters is a collaboration among groups like Southwest Organizing Project’s Campaign for a Better New Mexico, New Mexico Vote Matters, Progress New Mexico Education Fund and Presente.org. Nuestra Elección! informs people about voter suppression efforts in New Mexico, and allows users to print a voter registration form to mail in. If you are already a registered voter, filling out a simple online form will get you an e-mail reminder to vote.

Voto Latino
Like many of the other resources listed, Voto Latino has a tool to register to vote. Voto Latino is also using a unique Facebook app that provides access to exclusive music, connects with celebrities and shares voting info and election news. They are also reaching out to college campuses with a little friendly competition among various Latino sororities and fraternities.

Rock the Vote
Beyond registering people to vote online, Rock the Vote is putting the power in the hands of individuals by inviting them to become Voter Registration Partners. Being a Partner enables individuals to create customizable voter registration tools on their websites, blogs, Facebook page or even MySpace profile. That way, people can register their readers, friends, family or whoever is part of their defined community. Already registered? You can also use the site to find your local polling place and sign up for election reminders. Rock the Vote also recently launched a #WeWill hashtag as part of their campaign that urges youth to participate at the ballot box despite efforts to stop them. This campaign includes an online sign on pledge.

866 Our Vote
With people of color as the fastest demographic of smartphone adopters, it makes sense to use an app to inform and protect a demographic that is also being targeted for voter suppression. The Election Protection Smartphone App, deployed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, National Association of Latino Appointed and Elected Officials Education Fund, New Organizing Institute, Rock the Vote and Verified Voting Foundation provides English and Spanish language resources that allows users to register, verify their registration, look up their polling place, review voting rules and regulations for their state, and see what type of machine they vote on. Want to report a problem or get an answer to a voting-related question? Contact Election Protection via phone or e-mail.

—Maegan E. Ortiz

Voting’s Outcasts: Why One in Five Blacks in Kentucky Can’t Cast a Ballot

One of every thirteen African-Americans are already disenfranchised, and it’s not because of voter ID laws, voter purges or cut-offs to early voting but because they’re caught up in the criminal justice system. According to a new study released this summer by the Sentencing Project, in 2010, 5.85 million otherwise eligible voters were disenfranchised because they’re current or former felons. Of these, a full 75 percent were already out on parole or probation or had already completed their complete sentence. Nationwide, nearly 8 percent of African-Americans have lost their right to vote, compared to nearly 2 percent for non-African-Americans—illustrating the lasting effects of a racially biased criminal justice system.

Kentucky is one state that makes it nearly impossible for former felons to vote, and a grassroots group there has been challenging this form of disenfranchisement. If the numbers nationwide are dismal, it’s even worse in Kentucky, where nearly a quarter million people have lost their right to cast a ballot.

Meet Meta Mendel-Reyes. She’s on the Steering Committee of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide, grassroots social justice organization that seeks to restore the right of former felons to vote. She explains that former felons who have already served their time are subjected to an onerous process to attempt to get their voting rights restored—but even that process doesn’t guarantee they’ll be able to cast a ballot.

—Aura Bogado

Go to Jail, Lose Your Vote

Rev. Damon Horton wasn’t always a minister. More than a decade ago, he was a gang member, and a dealer who was arrested in 2003 and 2004 for drug trafficking. He was convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. While Horton was incarcerated, he felt the call to the ministry. After completing 20 percent of his sentence, he was released on parole in 2006. Soon after, he married, started a family and became a minister. Yet despite turning his life around, there is one act of citizenship closed to him: he is not allowed to vote. “I can pay taxes again,” Horton says, “but I can’t vote or have a real voice in the government.”

And Horton is not alone. More than one in five African-Americans in Kentucky can’t vote because they have been convicted of a felony. In most states, after people have served their time, they are given their voting rights back. Not in Kentucky, where more than 243,000 residents have lost the right to participate in democracy.

Under the state constitution, former felons have to petition the governor in order to have their rights restored. It’s a tricky process that takes time and doesn’t guarantee a result, partly because each governor sets up his or her own procedure during his or her tenure.

Under current Governor Steve Breshear, former felons have to wait until they have served out all their prison time, probation and parole. Then, they have to get the signature of a probation or police officer, and have that notarized. Then, their paperwork gets kicked around a bit between Corrections, the local Commonwealth Attorney and the governor. If everything goes well, the applicant can get the right to vote back in as little as sixty days.

But the Commonwealth Attorney has a lot of leeway. Some give back rights easily, while others approve only a few. Making the process even more complicated is the fact that many elections officials and corrections staff don’t know the process themselves. According to Dave Newton, KFTC organizer, “Many former felons don’t even realize that they can get their voting rights back.”

Restoration of voting rights is not only a matter of democracy. Former felons who vote are half as likely to recidivate than former felons who don’t vote. It makes sense—when a former felon feels like part of the community, he or she is less likely to act out against that community.

Under the state constitution, former felons have to petition the governor for a pardon in order to have their voting rights restored. This makes Kentucky one of the four most difficult states, along with Virginia, Florida and Iowa, for former felons to regain their full citizenship rights.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide, multi-issue, grassroots organization has been leading the fight to restore voting rights to former felons like Reverend Horton. House Bill 70, introduced earlier this year, would allow Kentucky voters to decide whether to grant automatic restoration of voting rights to most former felons once they have paid their debt to society (the law would exclude former felons convicted of treason, murder, sex crimes or bribery). Although the bill has passed overwhelmingly in the House, it has been stalled in the State Senate, largely due to the efforts of one hostile Committee Chairman. Sympathetic legislators plan to introduce it again in 2013.

State Senator Gerald Neal, a longtime supporter of the restoration of voting rights, eloquently asked, “Why would you give them a life sentence from democracy? It makes no sense. It’s inconsistent with our system of democracy.”

Kentucky effectively targets African-Americans, other people of color and low-income folks who will be unable to cast a ballot because of a past conviction for which they have already served their time. With an upcoming election that threatens to disenfranchise people through voter ID laws, let’s not forget the millions of former felons who have already been kept from voting.

Meta Mendel-Reyes

For more on race and the ballot box, read Voting Rights Watch’s piece on Pennsylvania court case.

This Week's Voting Rights Victories: Colorado and Florida Halt Their Voter Purges

As we approach Election Day, the push back against voter suppression efforts is paying off. Innovative social media based registration schemes, coupled with legal victories may encourage more voters to participate in November. And while voting rights advocates remain “cautiously optimistic” about Pennsylvania’s voter ID Supreme Court heading, other states already have reason to celebrate legal victories. Here are some of this week’s voting rights updates—including some major triumphs.

New Tool Targets New Mexico’s Latino and Youth Voters
Our community journalist in New Mexico, Goerge Lujan, writes that his organization, the SouthWest Organizing Project, has partnered with other groups to reach out to potential new voters:

Groups in New Mexico are launching Nuestra Elección, a campaign to reach the more than 200,000 eligible, non-registered citizens in the state, to register to vote in the upcoming election. SouthWest Organizing Project, Progress Now New Mexico, New Mexico Vote Matters, and Presente.org are presenting an online registration tool that targets Latinos and youth, two groups that can make a huge difference in our elections when they get involved.

Victory for Former Felons in Virginia
The Advancement Project has been working to restore voting rights to former felons in Virginia who have already served their time. This week, Secretary of Commonwealth Janet Kelly agreed to make sure that all former felon applications received by August 15 will be processed by the voter registration deadline of October 15. This will likely result in the restoration of voting rights for hundreds of people by Election Day.

Colorado Quits its Dubious Voter Purge
Colorado’s Secretary of State Scott Gessler has turned back on his plan to purge voters, just weeks before Election Day. The Department of Homeland security maintains what’s called the SAVE database, used to identify non-citizens’ eligibility for public assistance. As we reported in July, the department agreed to allow Florida and several other states access to the database to potentially purge voter rolls. Gessler, who previously issued 4,000 letters challenging voters’ citizenship, says that his office is running out of time, and will allow county clerks to challenge voters’ eligibility instead.

Florida Halts its Voter Purge, Too
The Advancement Project is also celebrating another victory in Florida this week. In exchange for plaintiffs dropping their discrimination claim in Arcia v. Detzner, Florida will restore its voter list to include anyone whom the Supervisor of Election cannon confirm as non-citizens. Florida Secretary of State Kent Detzner had sent letters in April, erroneously informing voters they were not eligible—Florida has now agreed to send letters confirming these voters’ right to cast a ballot. It appears that Florida’s voter purge saga may finally be coming to an end, and thousands of eligible voters will be able to participate in November.

Philadelphia Groups Scramble to Help Residents Get Voter ID

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday to make a final decision on the state’s voter ID law—and the case has drawn so much attention that a live stream has been established to watch it. But the battle over Philadelphia’s voter ID isn’t just being fought inside a courtroom: grassroots as well as national groups are organizing to get people the identification they need in order to cast a ballot on Election Day. But it’s not easy. These groups have registered voters in the past, but navigating the requirements necessary to obtain ID requires serious resources that may not be readily available, especially in a bad economy.

Our Philadelphia-based community journalist, James Cersonsky, has been spending time at the local department of transportation, with canvassers, and with organizers who conduct registration clinics and trainings. He reports that while people and aren’t waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision to mobilize, they’re finding it hard to do the work of getting eligible voters the ID they need.

—Aura Bogado

Pennsylvania’s Two-Month Warning

As the courtroom battle over Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law rages on, voting rights activists are racing against time to undermine the spirit of what they say is a law that will disenfranchise otherwise eligible voters. “We’re trying to make sure that we are empowering as many folks on the streets, as often as we can,” says John Jordan, director of civic engagement for the Pennsylvania NAACP. Like many civil rights advocates caught in the voter ID scramble, however, Jordan is only as powerful as his volunteers. “Four years ago we were paying canvassers to do voter registration work,” he says. Now, tasked with informing voters about ID requirements in addition registering them, his organization is “pleading and begging” for volunteers in the effort to get IDs in the hands of voters.

Winded from a clinic in Harrisburg the night before, Jordan suits up on a hot Thursday morning for a meeting with forty senior women at the Bethel Deliverance International Church in Wyncote, a Philadelphia suburb. He tells them that you can be fined up to $1,000 or locked up for two years if you lie on the “affirmation form” stating that you don’t have another eligible ID and need the state-issued voter ID. The audience is outraged.

Amanda Kinton, 75, has lived her entire life in Philadelphia and used to be a poll worker. Previously reluctant to volunteer, she and Jordan launch into a lively post-meeting repartee. “I’ll have to make the time,” she says. Phone calls, doors—“whatever, however.”

Later that day, Jordan, who moved from Birmingham at 17, stands at the Widener Library in North Philly next to a picture of hoses and dogs in Alabama, captioned “How far will they go to deny the vote?” He’s joined by deputy city commissioner Dennis Lee and a host of city workers who, similarly, dart from one presentation to the next. The commissioner’s office has supplied volunteers with voter lists to check name-by-name for ID and is working with ClearChannel to broadcast voting info at Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) stations.

Of the sixty in attendance at the library, nearly half sport orange T-shirts from the Stop and Surrender Recovery Education Center. “People don’t think we want better because of the things that go on,” says Earl, 38, a recovering addict. For his teammates, he says, voting is as fundamental as going to work.

With ongoing state social service cuts, recovery houses, domestic violence centers, and homeless shelters are double-bound by more clients and fewer resources.

“We’re working with our providers to say voter registration is important, but everybody is scrambling,” says Jennine Miller, associate director of education and advocacy for Project HOME, a Philly-based homeless service provider. “They really need to be infusing funding and have a place to tell people about voting,” adds Terrance Meacham, an organizer with the largely volunteer-based Philadelphia Unemployment Project.

At a bustling ShopRite the following Saturday, Karen Lee of the NAACP-allied National Action Network (NAN) tables a few feet away from South Philly Organizing for America volunteers. Lee, 59, is more involved now than in 2008. “Just seeing the decline—the decline in optimism, the disparity of treatment. I’m an optimist to a fault,” she says. Through NAN’s Criminal Justice committee, Lee has visited correctional facilities to work with another group of vulnerable voters: people incarcerated for misdemeanors or awaiting trial on felony charges.

At the switchboard of many of these efforts is the nonpartisan Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, which comprises more than 170 groups.

“It’s most often seen as a Democrat-versus-Republican problem, but in some ways it’s more of a class problem,” says Zack Stalberg, the president of the coalition. “People with a certain amount of means have the right identification and they’re used to showing it.” Nonetheless, the coalition has recruited nearly 500 volunteers for door-to-door canvassing, phone-banking, and 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline coverage. The hotline, Stalberg says, fields hundreds of calls every day.

One of the coalition’s main functions is to direct voters to constituent groups that can serve them best. In the case of Latino voters, an ad hoc sub-coalition has emerged. “The law is a sad attempt to make legitimate voters undocumented,” says Will Gonzalez, executive director of Ceiba. The silver lining, he says, is that voter ID has brought together the Latino community. When I ask him which groups he’s referring to, he hesitates for fear of not including each one.

The voter ID crisis is so diffuse that it would be impossible to do justice to the constellation of groups and communities fighting on the ground. As of early August, although 99 percent of registered voters believed they had the necessary ID, only 86 percent of those did—and only a third were aware of the law. Many urgently want one but have to jump through hoops to get it.

Inside Philly’s downtown PennDOT office on August 29, hundreds wait patiently for a muffled voice to call their number in queue. Some are there to get new license plates, others, paperwork willing, to get the state’s new voting-only photo ID.

Eulalia Ramos Carrero, a Puerto Rican native, has been there for three hours. First, she had to wait for a month to get a new birth certificate mailed up from her grandmother, in accordance with a 2010 law passed by the Puerto Rican government. Earlier this morning, the PennDOT staff sent her home because she had only one of two required proofs of residence.

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) legal team are dotted in yellow across the room to help people with documentation. “It makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong,” says Austin Thompson, a young DC-based worker organizer, of the strict but hazy ID requirements.

On the sidewalk outside PennDOT, “Voter suppression is human oppression!” emanates from a sea of SEIU purple. Richard Snowden, an Obama voter in 2008, storms out of PennDOT incredulous that his registration can’t be found—making him unable to get the ID. Sara Mullen, the state ACLU’s associate director, whips out the Election Protection app on her phone and discovers a glitch in Snowden’s registration data.

“Robo calls aren’t going to do it,” Mullen says. “You need in-person contact.” Like the NAACP, the ACLU runs an elaborate ground game to go along with its bread-and-butter legal efforts: recruiting volunteers to drive people to PennDOT stations; collaborating with the League of Women Voters and other groups to train law students on birth certificates and Social Security cards; calling Latino voters—one of the groups most affected by the law throughout the Lehigh Valley; canvassing full-time in Pittsburgh; and holding voter ID clinics in Scranton, Allentown, Harrisburg and Erie.

A recent headline in the Philadelphia Daily News read, “Best way to deal with voter-ID ruling? Get one.” If you can handle demoralizing visits to PennDOT, befuddling documentation and eligibility requirements and a voting system that the state has effectively outsourced to cash-strapped local governments and nonprofits that could otherwise be devoting their time to voter registration, you may be in luck.

—James Cersonsky

New Video Aims to Mobilize Rural Native Youth to Register to Vote

Sixty-six percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives who were eligible to register to vote in 2008 did so. The other 34 percent—more than 1 million people—did not. There’s a concerted effort to register Native voters in 2012, and make an big impact on Election Day.

Meet Voting Rights Watch’s newest community journalist, Hillary Abe. He works for College Horizons, a national nonprofit focused on facilitating the higher education of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian youth. Hillary is also an accomplished videographer and aspiring filmmaker. He recently shot and directed a short video in Northern Arizona geared towards mobilizing rural Native youth to vote. Check out and share his video, and expect to see more from him about the Native vote this election season.

—Aura Bogado

Can the 1911 United Super PAC Register a Million Voters for Obama?

When two historically black fraternities celebrated their hundredth anniversary, the members asked themselves what they could do to show their appreciation to the community that had supported them for a past century—and they decided they could help people re-elect Barack Obama. That’s what Sinclair Skinner tells me, as he leans back at the driver’s seat on the massive 1911 United bus. Sinclair, the group’s treasurer, says that because fraternities are limited by their 501C(7) status, members wanted to take advantage of the Citizens United ruling to get out the vote. So they formed a Super PAC.

The bus is making its rounds in predominantly black neighborhoods in the seven swing states of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Colorado. For Sinclair and the half-dozen people on the bus, the goal is to recruit 1,000 volunteers to get 100 people to register, and vote to re-elect Barack Obama. The Super PAC has a modest budget: some $90,000 have been raised so far, and that counts for about half of what 1911 United hopes to raise before the election. We caught up with Sinclair Skinner as the bus made its round in the

Undocubus: A Journey From Arizona to the DNC [Video]

In an action against President Obama’s immigration policies, ten undocumented immigrants were arrested for civil disobedience in front of the gates to the Democratic National Convention yesterday evening. The ten arrestees were riders on Undocubus, which made its way cross-country to Charlotte after leaving from Phoenix more than a month ago. After their arrest, immigration authorities questioned them in jail—but following an all-night call-in and petition campaign, all ten were released this morning.

Aura Bogado boarded Undocubus last week in Knoxville, Tennessee, and rode through the South to Charlotte, North Carolina, to report for Colorlines.com and The Nation. In this reporter’s notebook, she documents what it’s like to witness a modern-day ride for freedom and justice.

'Undocumented and Unfraid': UndocuBus Riders Lead by Example

Yesterday, I wrote about the way that religious communities are supporting UndocuBus as it make its way towards Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention. But the riders are also connecting with undocumented workers and students who personally know the perils of living in the South without papers. Here’s a dispatch from Asheville, North Carolina, where UndocuBus has staged rallies and actions against anti-immigrant enforcement.

If you look closely at Carlos Mendoza’s wrists, you can’t help but notice the scars that cover them, straight up through his arms. The 46-year-old father of three fell from a second-story roof in 2006, and when he arrived in the emergency room, he was told both his hands might have to be amputated.

After an initial emergency surgery saved his hands, the hospital learned he was uninsured. When administrators asked to call his boss to see about covering the costs of additional surgeries, the company Mendoza worked for told the hospital they had never heard of him. After several phone calls, the boss told administrators that Mendoza was a contractor, and that although they would donate $500 for the medical care, his company wasn’t legally bound to help him. In total, Mendoza’s bills added up to about $40,000—and his hands’ limited mobility meant that it was unlikely that he would ever return to work.

Mendoza, of course, was not a contractor, but a construction worker earning just $13 an hour to build and rebuild homes in Jackson County, North Carolina. But, because he’s undocumented, Mendoza feared he had little recourse—until he heard about the Workers’ Center in the town of Marion. Mendoza soon learned about his rights as a worker, and for the next three and a half years, he fought his former employer to pay the medical costs associated with his fall on the job. Because he learned from the bottom up until he won his case, he became an asset to the Worker’s Center, and now works there, making sure that all workers in the local community know what their rights are—regardless of their immigration status.

Mendoza was one of about ninety people who attended a protest last night with UndocuBus riders at a local restaurant called Shogun Buffet. Last November, an ICE raid resulted in the deportation of twelve workers there, and many in the local community say the restaurant worked with authorities to coordinate the raid. As patrons left the restaurant, and as others stopped by to see the crowd, they learned about the way these deportations separate families. Mendoza, along with dozens of other undocumented workers have been spending time with UndocuBus riders, making community in their shared experience. One local told me that even when authorities don’t listen to her, meeting UndocuBus riders helped her understand that she wasn’t alone.

The riders returned to Asheville’s Unitarian Universalist Church, where they spent the night before heading out of Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe’s office this morning. Sheriff Ashe has been holding checkpoints, and locals say they are targeted because of the color of their skin. After a small group of UndocuBus riders entered the Sheriff’s office lobby, they were told he would not meet with them—so some thirty people lined up at the administrator’s desk, stated their name and city, their undocumented status, and also asked to meet with the Sheriff. They also began calling the sheriff, and took to Twitter to urge followers to do the same. The riders and local community members eventually packed the lobby, held a press conference, and carried out a series of chants before they left. In a caravan, the group headed over to Colima Restaurant in Sylva, which treated them to a generous lunch.

Sheriff Ashe never came out to meet with the riders and locals, and he never returned phone calls—including my press call. But it would be impossible to conclude that the action was a waste of time: people who sometimes stay at home for fear of being pulled over (and are sometimes deported as a result) met others like them, participated in a public action that revealed their status, and began appropriating the almost contagious idea of rejecting fear.

Tomorrow, one UndocuBus delegation heads to Raleigh to hold a workshop with the local community. The rest of the riders are headed to Charlotte for the DNC. Although protests at national conventions are nothing new, this will mark the first time ever that a large group of undocumented people will assert their own claims.

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