In-depth coverage of voter suppression efforts nationwide, in partnership with Colorlines.com.
UPDATE 3:45 p.m.: Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. said that the new hearing to determine if Pennsylvania's photo voter ID law is constitutional will likely resume next summer with the intent to wrap it up by August, anticipating an appeal. Meanwhile, the judge is still deliberating whether he should extend the temporary injunction that blocked law for last month's election to also cover a May 2013 primary in the state. Judge Simpson said there may be a hearing to decide whether to extend the injunciton for May.
If you thought the voter ID saga was over, you’re unfortunately mistaken. The states that have been trying to push photo voter ID laws have not let up, and they are wasting no time with continuing to place restrictions on the vote. Pennsylvania and Mississippi took steps today to cement a voter ID future for upcoming elections. Meanwhile, Alaska is now in fresh pursuit of a photo voter ID law, even though voter fraud—the problem such laws portend to address—was not an issue in last month’s elections.
A quick look at how each of these states are plunging forward with the voter ID agenda:
Pennsylvania A state court temporarily blocked the photo voter ID law Governor Tom Corbett signed into law earlier this year, inactive only for November’s election though. This was the law that state Representative Daryl Metcalf said was going to deliver the state to Mitt Romney, and that “lazy” people didn’t deserve to vote if they couldn’t comply with it. The judge allowed the law to work for any election afterward, though, pending the outcome of a full trial on the constitutional merits of the law. A status conference was held today to determine when civil rights lawyers will return to court to argue with the state for a permanent ruling on if the law can stay in effect. ACLU attorney Vic Walczak told a Philly TV station, “The best result would be to extend the injunction until the courts can consider the heavy-duty constitutional issues involved here at an appropriate pace, rather than on a rocket docket.”
Mississippi Given this state is a covered jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, the photo voter ID law it passed last year must be precleared by the US Department of Justice to make sure it has neither a discriminatory purpose nor effect. It was not cleared in time for November’s election because DOJ needed further review. Today, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann released the findings of an exit poll study that said 98 percent of voters have the photo ID needed to comply with the law. The survey polled 6,000 Mississippians on this past Election Day, asking them if they have one of the eight types of ID required of the law. Black voters represented 38 percent of those polled, and 84 percent of them answered that they had a driver’s license, compared with 97 percent of white voters. Overall, 97 percent of black voters had one of the eight IDs, compared to 99 percent of white voters. Of the 2 percent the study determined had no ID, over two-thirds of those were black.
Alaska African-Americans weren’t the only people who had to suffer through literacy tests to vote. When Congress finally extended citizenship to all American Indians in 1924, Alaska’s legislature responded by instituting an English-only literacy test requirement to vote, which lasted until 1975 when the Voting Rights Act made the state a Section 5 covered jurisdiction and abolished the tests. This week, Alaska joins Nevada, another state that has discriminated against its indigenous population, in proposing a photo voter ID law for the next election. Alaska also happens to be one of roughly a dozen states that has filed an amicus brief to overturn Section 5 in the upcoming US Supreme Court review of the Voting Rights Act. An Anchorage Daily-News editorial called the proposal “unnecessary” and wrote, “Adding a photo ID requirement will put on extra burden on those voters who live in remote parts of the state, where common sense already waives photo requirements for ID like driver’s licenses, and on others who may not have photo ID.”
Legislators have pretended that photo voter ID laws are needed to protect from voter fraud, but at a Pew Center conference recently GOP consultant Scott Tranter revealed their true intentions, when he said, “A lot of us are campaign officials—or campaign professionals—and we want to do everything we can to help our side. Sometimes we think that’s voter ID, sometimes we think that’s longer lines—whatever it may be.”
One of the most popular post-election narratives remains that voter suppression efforts were soundly defeated. While the concept is essentially true, it says very little about how voting rights will fare in the near future—or how activists are continuing the work they began to preserve voting rights. Many voter ID measures, cut-offs to early voting and excessive voter purges were blocked or weakened at the state level in 2012, but lawmakers are aiming to propose new measures in 2013.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has announced that it will hear a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 next year. That’s in addition to Arizona v. InterTribal Council of Arizona, which stems from a rule that demands voters demonstrate proof of citizenship when registering to vote. The two cases, which hinge on the Court’s interpretation of federal legislation that bars discrimination and its interpretation of what’s known as the Motor Voter Act, could make sweeping changes to the ways voting rights are—or are not—protected. Those stakes aren’t lost on community groups around the nation that hope to continue their voting rights work, even without the spotlight of a presidential election.
Last Friday morning, a coalition of community, faith-based and civic leaders gathered together at a local North Philly pizza joint that doubles as a breakfast diner. The group has been meeting together since early this year, when it became clear that lawmakers wanted to push through a controversial voter ID measure.
That law was temporarily halted before the general election, but the coalition is preparing to hold a major news conference this week, when it will announce how it’s going to fight to have a permanent injunction set against voter ID. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday to decide the dates for arguments.
Just as the group was working through breakfast, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced a six-person fact-finding team that will focus on the election process, including the confusion over the temporary injunction, which caused some poll workers to erroneously demand photo identification from voters despite the court ruling that the ID wasn’t necessary.
At breakfast, the coalition—which has yet to name itself—includes key members of national civil rights groups, black churches and a prominent city commissioner’s office. While they’ve all engaged together in previous years around election issues, it’s become clear that the push against voter suppression has a more permanent place in their work moving forward. As they sat around a group of small tables sipping coffee refills, there was a certainty that the communities they represent recognize the threat that Pennsylvania’s ID law created for voters. Robert Shine, who heads the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, says that November 6 proved that people want to be engaged.
“Not only were people angry,” explains Shine, “but people wanted to be a part of democracy’s process.”
And that’s true. For all the work that community groups, lawmakers and legal advocates did around voting rights, it was voters themselves who refused to be dissuaded from casting their ballots. The obstacle, it seems, is how to continue to engage voters now that the election is over.
“We need to put everyone on notice, it’s critical to keep voters engaged,” adds Paula Peebles, who chairs Pennsylvania’s Nation Action Network.
Peebles, as well as the seven other people at the table, identify that moving forward means not only strategizing about how to help defend voting rights in court; it means making them relevant to voters outside of the election cycle.
Across town in Philly’s Center City, Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, acknowledges the same dilemma. Kaplan, who leads the Committee of Seventy election watchdog group, is a lot more frank about the reality that people’s attention to voting rights plummets after general elections. Her organization brought together the 150 or so groups that encompassed what came to be know as the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition to fight the law. But now, rather than emphasizing that the voter ID law shouldn’t have been passed to begin with, the Committee of Seventy is concentrating on educating voters about the kind of identification they will need to cast a ballot if the law stands—and how to obtain one.
“We’re operating on the assumption that voter ID will be in place for the May 2013 primary,” says Kaplan.
What might seem like disjointed post-election tactics centered on Philadelphia also presents a vast array of opportunities for activists to get involved. “We cannot rest on our laurels,” warns Lee Rowland, who works with the Brennan Center.
Like many national advocacy groups, the Brennan Center works with people who are looking to volunteer their time to protect voting rights. Rowland’s advice for how to get started is simple. “Just get involved,” she says.
That involvement can include attending local and state government hearings, reaching out to a local board of election, working with a local voting rights group or coalition, and helping craft messages that appeal to more young people.
The Advancement Project, meanwhile, also suggests a focus on the local. When the organization was founded in 1999, its approach was novel: do the work of advocacy and relationship building in the off-election years that simply can’t be done during busy election seasons. Managing Director Eddie Hailes says the group is already focused on the critical legal advocacy needed in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia. But like the Brennan Center, it expects to see more proposals in the coming months that will threaten voting rights. Which is why Hailes urges local voting rights advocates to start engaging their election officials now.
“Sometimes we’ll know who the mayor is, who’s on the city council, and so forth, but not the official who oversees elections,” says Hailes. Hailes suggests local activists draw out what their local election officials are doing and what kinds of reforms they may be considering in 2013. Voter groups can even schedule meetings to get to know them. Developing a relationship with local elections officials means that by the time the next election comes around, a given activist will have a better idea of what to expect.
The coming year will present local, state, and national challenges to the way we understand voting rights. People who want to become involved in the fight against voter suppression already have plenty of options on where to start.
In the previous Voting Rights Watch post, Brentin Mock writes, “Voting Rights Icon Lawrence Guyot’s Death Animates a Fight Over the Future.”
Few people have taken as many fists and gun butts to the head, kicks to the gut and hours of torturous treatment as Lawrence Guyot, an original civil rights soldier who continued struggling all the way up to his death on November 23, at the age of 73.
In the early 1960s, he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as a native son of Mississippi, and became the director of the Freedom Summer Project in Hattiesburg. He also was a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that courageously worked to change the state’s Democratic Party from exclusively white to inclusive of African-Americans. For his work in registering black people to vote alongside freedom fighters such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorie Ladner, Medgar Evers and June Johnson, he was bloodied and beaten by white police, sometimes within a hair of death.
The blood he shed, and his organizing around voter registration, is the clay from which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was formed. Guyot was engaged to the end, and brought himself to vote one last time in this November’s elections, as he was battling diabetes and heart disease. Avis Thomas-Lester, executive editor of the black DC newspaper The Afro wrote in his obituary for Guyot:
After moving to Washington D.C., he continued to lobby for voting rights, becoming one of the foremost experts on the topic and a staunch believer that Blacks needed to be vigilant to ensure that their voting rights weren’t compromised. He watched in consternation and concern as state after state moved, by Republican machinations, to limit access to the polls for the November 2012 election and was elated that Obama was reelected despite them.
After Guyot’s death, Constitutional Accountability Center’s Doug Kendall and Emily Phelps wrote a post about why the Supreme Court should consider his legacy in their upcoming review of the Voting Rights Act. Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto pounced on CAC’s argument, accusing them of romanticizing Guyot’s death and suggesting that the civil rights struggles of the past are irrelevant to the voting rights matter before the Court today.
Taranto concluded, “Paying tribute to the heroes of the past is entirely fitting, but clinging to the policies of the past is reactionary.”
But these heroes aren’t of the past, Guyot was fighting for voting rights all the way up to his last days, experiencing the benefits of that work in this year’s election. VRA’s Section 5 is under attack precisely because of its relevance. It was used in this election to back down voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina that would have put hundreds of thousands of Latino and African-American voters at a disadvantage. It delayed a voter ID law in Mississippi to make certain it would not have a discriminatory effect there. This is not a policy of the past, it is ever-present.
As Kendall wrote in his response to Taranto, “On any faithful reading of our Constitution, Congress has the power of selecting the means of protecting one of our most cherished constitutional rights from racial discrimination.”
The Fifteenth Amendment says, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and, “The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Congress did that when they passed the act in 1965 and reauthorized it four more times, the most recent in 2006. In the case coming before the Supreme Court next year, Shelby County, Alabama, a covered jurisdiction under VRA’s Section 5, is arguing that Congress overstepped its constitutional authority in that last reauthorization, due to an admittedly flawed formula that determines which states should be covered.
Kendall says it’s clear that Congress is well within its constitutional powers, despite any flaws in the legislation, and that even if there are some problems with the act, that’s for Congress to fix, not the Court.
“What the Supreme Court shouldn’t do is nitpick Congress,” Kendall told me. “This is not the role of the Court. Congress is the fact-finder. The Court is not a body that’s institutionally capable of making factual findings behind legislation and it shouldn’t second-guess Congress without a really good reason.“
There are problems with the law, and Section 5 in particular. Congress should be looking at states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which aren’t covered by Section 5, to improve it. I wrote back in May that the law should be updated and expanded to include places like Florida (only five counties in the state are covered jurisdictions), which has been accumulating a terrible voting record over the last twelve years—that also goes for states like Tennessee, Colorado and Nevada that are headed in the wrong direction. However, such law expansions are not within the Court’s purview.
The Court can either leave VRA intact—and given Chief Justice John Roberts’ antagonism towards it, that seems unlikely—or, it can strike Section 5. In either event, its decision should be a trigger for Congress to come up with a new game plan.
Kendall wrote in his original post, “Mr. Guyot will not be in the courtroom as the Supreme Court takes up Shelby County, but his story should loom over the Court’s deliberations and should lead the Court to affirm, rather than strike down, this iconic and still essential law.”
So what would Guyot do? Or rather, what he say about VRA in its current form? Do we owe it to his legacy to iron out the wrinkles in the law he fought for, or would it be honorable enough to preserve it as is? We know that he supported marriage equality far before most of the nation did—an issue also presently before the Supreme Court. So he was a man who pointed the conversation about civil rights both forward and backward. His friend Denise Reed said of him in Highbrow magazine, “He connected the past with [the present], so people would learn from it, gain strength from it, not forget and keep in mind the relevance of his experience.”
For more coverage of voting rights, check out the Voting Rights Watch blog, a joint-project with The Nation and Colorlines.
Nevada boasted the nation’s highest turnout increase on Election Day, thanks to its innovative efforts to make voting more accessible. But less than a month later, Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, is now suggesting the use of voter ID—which could reverse his own efforts to expand democracy and mean a lower turnout in subsequent elections.
More than 1 million people voted in Nevada’s general election this year, up 4.5 percent from 2008. The Western state is a perennial battleground, and voters there have always sided with the eventual presidential winner in each of the past nine elections. In 2008, Latinos were credited with helping then-candidate Barack Obama take the presidency, and Latinos knew that registration and get out the vote efforts would also prove crucial this year.
As we reported in October, a Latina organizer who was registering voters outside of a Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles office was so badly intimidated that she dyed her hair blond in order to avoid more problems. It didn’t help. Elvira Díaz says she continued to be harassed, and was physically shoved and spat on by a Republican operative named Alex Bacchus, who also gestured his hands into the shape of a gun, aimed those hands at her and made gunshot sounds.
For his part, Nevada Secretary of State Miller helped streamline the registration process by allowing voters to register online. In 2010, Miller began using funds made available from the Help America Vote Act to create a new online registration system. Two years and about $250,000 later, voters in all seventeen Nevada counties could use online registration—similar systems are available in only ten other states. The move allowed people with Internet access to avoid being subject to intimidation for registering. Making registration conveniently available online helped drive Nevada’s turnout increase.
Early voting also helped. More than 600,000 people voted in the two weeks prior to Election Day, accounting for 61 percent of the total number of ballots cast. People in low income and predominately Latino neighborhoods complained of long waits, and some voters were asked for identification when none was required. Yet the push for registration and early voting meant that a whopping 80 percent of voters participated—and chose to re-elect President Obama.
But the otherwise smooth election did run into one major glitch as early voting closed. Roxanne Rubin, a registered Republican, was arrested on November 2, and charged with a felony for attempting to vote twice. According to a sworn affidavit used to support an arrest warrant, Rubin had voted at one location earlier in the week but was disturbed that she did not need to provide identification when she altered her signature. The criminal investigator in Rubin’s case “compared the signatures and noticed only subtle differences in the handwriting; specifically in the R’s.”
According to the affidavit, Rubin attempted to vote at a neighboring location about half an hour later because she “was dissatisfied with the process” of not having to show ID, and wanted to test whether she could vote twice. When she was told by poll workers that she could not cast an additional ballot because the system showed that she had already voted, Rubin got angry, and claimed the poll workers were “screwing up.” She also claimed she hadn’t already voted, but wanted to. Rubin knew full well that she could be arrested for attempting to vote twice—and she was.
Rubin belongs to the party that wants to put a stop to the nearly nonexistent problem of voter fraud by implementing voter ID laws. Aside from the irony of Rubin’s case, it illustrates that even if poll workers do demand identification, it doesn’t stop an individual from taking it upon themselves to attempt to vote twice. It also illustrates that, despite the fact that Nevada doesn’t ask for identification each time an individual votes, the state was effective in identifying and prosecuting voter fraud. It seems that Rubin was so desperate to uncover voter fraud that she had to engage in it in order to make it real. She has now joined the tiny camp of people who commit actual voter fraud. As a News21 investigation concluded, voter fraud is practically non-existent—but ID laws do disenfranchise voters.
Which is why Secretary of State Miller’s plan to now promote a form of photo voter ID has puzzled voting rights activists. Miller hasn’t proposed specific legislation, but he says he wants to start a type of electronic poll book that would be linked to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Those people who don’t have a DMV-issued driver’s license or identification would have their photos taken at their polling location, along with some other measures.
But it might not be as simple as it seems. Verifying identification, with the additional step of taking photographs and signing affidavits, would result in longer lines. Since people of color and Native Americans are often less likely to have DMV-issued cards, polling places with these populations would be more likely to have the long lines, which might deter people from casting a ballot.
“I have no idea why Secretary Miller is doing this,” said Leigh Chapman, a staff attorney with Advancement Project.
Chapman referenced a Las Vegas Sun article in which Ross conceded that voter fraud isn’t a widespread problem, but argued that “elections are about perception,” and that people needed system safeguards to “feel confident in the integrity of the process.”
The article goes on to quote Republican Assemblyman Ira Hansen, who has long backed voter ID, as saying that he “love[s] it when Democrats become conservative Republicans at least temporarily,” in reference to Miller’s proposal.
But Chapman is more concerned about Miller’s own comments. She said the people of Nevada know that the system already works—and the nation-leading increase in turnout this year shows it. Rather than inspire confidence, the new system would be costly and would disenfranchise voters, she added.
Republicans are still pointing to nonexistent voter fraud after the election. Brentin Mock reports.
On October 5, an e-mail circulated around Allegheny County from Patti Weaver, head of the Pittsburgh Tea Party Movement, that was a clarion call for volunteers to be poll watchers on Election Day. In that message Weaver included a caveat:
Be warned that some of the areas that need poll watchers are not in the nicest part of town. However, this is an excellent opportunity to serve your country.… We are working with the Republican Committees so that they can place people at the locations with the highest likelihood of fraud.
This was interesting because for years, Tea Party groups and True the Vote have sworn that they aren’t targeting minority neighborhoods in their poll work. They’ve been denying this not just to sound moral but because they know it could be found a violation of the Voting Rights Act. And if it is happening in coordination with the Republican Party, then it’s in violation of a longstanding legal consent decree that grew out of the party’s previous efforts to suppress black voters.
But in the post-election fog of finger-pointing on the right, True the Vote and Tea Party groups are directing blame for Mitt Romney’s loss to that very consent decree. They believe that Obama was fraudulently elected both this November and in 2008, and that the Republican Party is unfairly restricted from rooting out that fraud because of the consent decree.
The consent decree was put in place in 1982 because of alleged voter caging and intimidation of people of color by Republican Party operatives in New Jersey. The RNC agreed to allow federal courts to review any “ballot security” measures it planned, to make sure they didn’t target voters of color.
Under the decree, the RNC must “refrain from undertaking any ballot security activities in polling places of election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor in the decision to conduct, or the actual conduct of, such activities.” It was updated in 1987 to say that the RNC could not “use or appear to use, racial or ethnic criteria in connection with ballot integrity, ballot security or other efforts to prevent or remedy suspected vote fraud,” and that, “even poll watchers cannot use the fruits of pre-election ballot security efforts, such as voter challenge lists, without prior court approval.”
The party has had trouble following these rules. Federal courts found the RNC in violation of the consent decree in 1990 and again in 2004 in Ohio, where the GOP targeted black voting districts with voter challenge lists.
Republicans have tried to have the decree dismantled as recently as this year, but federal courts have refused, citing how demonstrably effective it’s been in stopping the Republican Party from intimidating voters.
So now the talk among Republican and Tea Party election volunteers (and often those people are the same) is that the consent decree is hamstringing them from doing the kind of voter fraud uprooting they need to be doing. Conservatives are circulating blogs that refer to a recent True the Vote webcast in which leader Catherine Engelbrecht speaks about a meeting she had with RNC chair Reince Preibus about voter fraud. Preibus tells her in the video there is nothing the party can do about fraud, due to the consent decree.
But as Weaver’s plotting in Pennsylvania illustrates, Republicans’ Tea Party surrogates haven’t been quite so concerned with the decree.
Weaver wouldn’t comment to me on what she meant by her “not the nicest part of town” and “locations with the highest likelihood of fraud” appeals. “It’s totally not about race,” she insisted. When I asked where her target areas were, she refused comment again, deferring instead to a guy named Bob Howard, a Tea Party activist working for the local Republican Party as a pollwatching trainer.
Progress Pittsburgh attended one of Howard’s trainings and learned how he told Tea Party activists to talk about their target areas: “historical places of fraud.” Some of those areas, like the Hill District, Homewood, Wilkinsburg and Penn Hills are unmistakably African American neighborhoods.
Before Election Day a number of civil rights groups including Advancement Project, the Pittsburgh A. Phillip Randolph Institute, Common Cause, SEIU and ACLU, sent a letter to DOJ urging them to monitor Weaver’s group and illuminated information that showed the majority of precincts the Pittsburgh Tea Party Movement were monitoring were African-American.
Weaver told me her group was not affiliated with True the Vote, but this article from a Pittsburgh local newspaper about True the Vote heavily references Weaver and her Pittsburgh Tea Party Movement. In April, at True the Vote’s national summit, they spoke openly about how areas that historically have the most voter fraud are communities of color, as argued by Stealing Elections author John Fund, who made that case at the summit, framing it as minorities are most likely to be victimized by voter fraud in their communities.
What’s the Remedy?
“If the RNC is involved in any way, directly or indirectly,” with True the Vote suppression work, “I would say that is a violation of the consent decree, because it prevents targeting on the basis of race, whether that’s intentionally or that’s the effect,” says Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which represented an African-American woman named Ebony Malone in the 2004 enforcement complaint against the RNC.
Citizens like Malone, however, can no longer bring legal challenges against the RNC if they find evidence of voter caging or targeted challenges; only the Democratic National Committee can do so. The DNC didn’t respond to request for comment on whether it plans to bring any such action against the RNC for this year’s elections.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings office tells me they are still investigating True the Vote and its affiliated groups to see if they have violated the law in targeting voters of color. True the Vote, the champions of transparency that they are, has declined to hand over any documents to Cummings. Meanwhile, Engelbrecht has insisted to people like Mike Huckabee that True the Vote has hundreds of thousands of complaints of voter irregularities and fraud from the Obama election. The True the Vote volunteers who were denied poll-watching certification in Ohio are making the case that this also was a sign of fraud.
Meanwhile, Weaver told me her plan for the future is to “continue doing what we have been doing, which is recruiting and training volunteers to poll watch those areas known for statistically high irregularities, where there are more votes being placed than actual voters registered, and anywhere there were reported issues of possible voter fraud.”
No areas with such reputations or histories actually exist in Pittsburgh or Allegheny County, but that fact has yet to deter Tea Party activists who insist there’s something fraudulent about people of color voting.
In our latest issue, Ari Berman writes that the GOP's war on voting is far from dead.
By the end of today, Arizona will have finally finished counting all of its ballots from the election that took place more than two weeks ago. More than a quarter of the roughly 2.2 million votes were cast as early or provisional ballots, and the delay in getting them all counted has stirred great controversy in state in which people of color have grown accustomed to dirty tricks. Some watchdogs charged that Latinos were being targeted for disenfranchisement, but as more and more of those ballot were tallied, it became increasingly apparent that all sorts of voters have had to wait for their ballots to be counted. Still, the last two weeks have illustrated that Arizona needs to revamp the way it conducts elections.
As The New York Times reported three days after the election, “several races remained a mystery” in Arizona for far too long. Although some candidates conceded defeat, their activist supporters didn’t always give up on the idea that a full ballot count could turn towards their candidate’s favor. The Senate race between Democrat Richard Carmona and Republican Jeff Flake and the race for Maricopa County Sheriff between Republican Joe Arpaio and Democrat Paul Penzone hung in the balance. The Republican candidates took both of these hard-fought races once counting for them was finally complete, confirming the result that was projected two weeks ago when polls officially closed.
That Latinos would have concerns about the process is to be expected. More than a month ago, the Maricopa County Elections Department misled some voters by printing the wrong election date on cards and book markers issued to Spanish-speaking voters. Just one week later, voters received a letter stating their signatures needed verification. When I called the number these voters were given, there was initially no answer or voicemail setup. Eventually, someone did pick up, but no one on the line spoke Spanish and I was told to call back “mañana”.
But when it comes to provisional ballots, it seems they were issued all over Arizona, and not just to Latinos. The Arizona secretary of state’s spokesperson, Matt Roberts, was quick to point out when we spoke yesterday that there was nothing unusual about the amount of time it’s taken to count all the ballots. Both Maricopa and Pima counties took two weeks to tally all the votes in 2004 and 2008 as well.
“It’s nothing new, so let’s get over that misconception,” he told me. And he’s right. According to the law, Arizona can take its time to make sure all its votes are counted, and it does. But that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for voters who might feel their ballots didn’t count for weeks after such an important election.
Arizona isn’t the only state that uses provisional ballots—although it does stand out because it takes the state so long to count them. In order to understand what happened in Arizona, it might help to understand what the rest of the country looks like when it comes to provisional ballots.
Under the Help America Vote Act, if a voter is determined to be ineligible to cast a ballot by poll workers, that voter still has the ability to cast a provisional ballot. The only states that don’t use provisional ballots are Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Dakota, where there exist no circumstances under which a voter would need to be issued a provisional ballot. Three of those states use same-day registration. The fourth, North Dakota, is the only state in the union that doesn’t have voter registration at all—voters simply show up and vote at the polls. All the remaining states use provisional ballots in some way.
Some states, including those with same-day registration, use provisional ballots sparingly and only as a last option. That’s because they can be tossed out for a variety of reasons—which also vary from state to state. But according to Arizona Secretary of State spokesperson Roberts, there have been some improvements in that regard. While about 29 percent of provisional ballots were tossed out in 2008, only about 19 percent will be tossed out in this year’s election.
Arizona stands out because, aside from regular ballots and provisional ballots, it issues what it calls “conditional provisional” ballots. Those conditional provisionals are issued when a voter doesn’t show sufficient identification. By filling out a conditional provisional ballot, the voter agrees to return within a few days to show proof of identification. Those who didn’t do so by last Wednesday had their ballot tossed out.
Roberts says that conditional provisional ballots are also down this year, with only about 1,000 or so cast in Maricopa County, in comparison to about 2,000 four years ago. No total numbers for conditional provisional ballots are yet available for the state as a whole, however.
The more common reason for which voters were issued provisional ballots was that people who were registered as early voters and lost or misplaced their early ballots were given provisional ballots when they showed up to vote in person. Others were issued provisional ballots if their names didn’t appear on the roster. It’s those missing names that worry advocates the most. Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney in the Advancement Project’s Voter Protection Program, says first-time voters are more likely to be those who did not appear on the roster.
“New Latino voters registered at a significantly higher rate, and that their names didn’t appear on the rolls places them at a bigger risk of not being counted in this election,” said Lieberman. If Roberts’ calculations are right, and 19 percent of provisional ballots were eliminated, that’s roughly about 33,000 votes—or 1.5 percent of Arizona’s total ballots.
But the 171,000 provisional ballots issued throughout the state on Election Day wasn’t the only problem. Out of the 631,000 or so votes that were still to be counted at the end of Election Day, more than two in three were early ballots. It’s those early ballots, or “late early ballots,” that caused the initial pileup because they were received in the last days leading into the election.
Late early ballots take a long time to count in Arizona. According to Roberts, each and every single signature on the outside of the ballot is compared and verified. Once the signature is approved to match with the one on file, the envelope containing the ballot goes through a second process, where the envelope is opened, unfolded, stacked and fed into the machine that tallies the votes. Still, it’s bracing that it took two weeks to go through 450,000 “late early” ballots—especially considering a similar process takes place on Election Day with many more ballots.
Roberts blames the voters. “If they’re filled out with nail polish and glitter pens, like some of them are, or with red ink that bleeds though, then it takes a lot longer,” he explained. Although he didn’t have a percentage or number for how many votes are cast in unreadable inks, Roberts says that ballots that cannot be read by the machine are sent to what’s called a Duplication Board, which is charged with making a copy of the ballot so that it can be read and tabulated by the machine.
Arizona received 1.7 million permanent early ballot requests—which counts for more than half of the state’s 3.1 million registered voters. That’s up about 10 percent from the previous election, and is expected to keep rising in upcoming elections. Arizona’s secretary of state has announced that he wants to create a new system by which provisional ballots are issued and early ballots are counted in place by 2014’s midterm election.
Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, helped launched a campaign to pressure the secretary of state to count every ballot. Aside from promoting the wrong election date for Spanish speaking voters, he says the backlog is unacceptable. Carmona says Bennett is taking a positive step, but wants a transparent review of what happened this year in order to avoid those problems in the future.
“If he’s serious about fixing the problem, then let’s have a full investigation first,” Carmona said.
It’s unlikely Arizona will launch that investigation, and the Department of Justice has not responded to a similar request to investigative voting irregularities. But Bennett has recognized the need to change what happens on Election Day and the the days that follow.
In our latest print issue, Ari Berman writes about The GOP's Voter Suppression Strategy."
A little over a week after the presidential election has ended, many voting rights watchers are reflecting on all that we learned through this year’s campaigns: what went right, what went wrong and the unresolved challenges that remain ahead. As for the overall takeaway, Advancement Project director Judith Browne-Dianis wraps it up nicely, saying, “The national conversation around voting rights was amplified like we haven’t seen since 1965.”
This year, more Americans arguably learned more about the voting process than any year in recent memory. Civil rights and election protection campaigns made people aware of things like the difference between a poll watcher and a poll observer; how people use data to purge voters; and what voters’ general rights are while standing in poll lines. On a more nuanced level, the discussion around voter ID laws gave Americans a greater understanding of not only how many people don’t have government-issued ID, but also the reasons why.
Probably most importantly, though, many Americans learned—or at least were reminded—about the history of our democracy, of how civil rights heroes helped the nation realize that democracy, by forcing an expansion of the electorate, which at core is an expansion of citizenship. “Americans began to recognize that democracy was under assault,” saysBrowne-Dianis of the past year. “And rather than concede to this partisan effort to restrict their vote as an insurmountable setback, they saw it as a challenge to be met.”
The effort to meet that challenge produced both victories and some remaining battles, but there are some specific lessons we can take away from each.
1. Data helps win elections, but it’s not everything.
The Obama campaign has well demonstrated how to identify and target new voters, while the Romney campaign has learned that data, like science, is actually necessary. But data only takes get-out-the-vote efforts so far, because someone has to actually get people to the polls. Black churches and NAACP chapters in Ohio and Florida turned out record-high black voters through their “Souls to the Polls” campaigns, by shuttling and busing people straight from church services to voting booths. These campaigns, which were enormously successful in 2008 as well, have been a primary target of those who insist, beyond all proof to the contrary, that voter fraud is a problem. Defending them—or, the early voting rules that enable them—proved crucial in 2012 to increasing the number of black people who participate in democracy.
Meanwhile, sometimes the data just failed to identify voters of color in the first place. In Minnesota, Hana Worku of Voices for Voting Rights told Colorlines that most of the voters they made contact with were not people circulating in voter databanks. Rather, they reached “voters in low-income and communities of color that would not have been contacted otherwise.” In Tampa, I spent time doing “Knock n’ Grabs”—going door-to-door asking people if they’ve voted, and if not, taking them to the polls—with NAACP organizers. They ended up shedding their canvassing lists and instead cruising the streets literally picking up voters off of stoops, porches and corners because they knew the people on the data sheets likely weren’t home.
2. Voters of color were invisible, to their advantage.
In some ways, the fact that voters of color weren’t turning up in databases was a good thing. It kept people who may not have had their best interests in mind from targeting them, while throwing off Republican pollsters who thought they had the election in the bag. Campaign aides to Mitt Romney have said their calculations about possibly winning Florida were thrown off because “they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola, Fla.,” which is predominantly Puerto Rican, Latino and African-American. In Maine, there was massive black voter turnout, but according to the Republican Party chair: “Nobody in town knew them.”
3. The need for early voting was evident.
Among the 2012 election’s legacies will be photos of long lines at polling locations across the nation, like a reprised version of “Eyes on the Prize.” It didn’t need to be that way. Proper targeting of resources and voting machines could have streamlined voting. In Tampa, the lines held up in part because there were eleven constitutional amendments on the ballots, some of which voters said were indecipherable. Long lines ruled the day in Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland as well. Our community journalist Hermelinda Cortes reported about how the lack of early and absentee voting opportunities hurt Virginia. Wrote Cortes: “The state doesn’t make it easy to vote early. Unlike other states, Virginia demands that early voters meet one of more than a dozen qualifications and sign a sworn statement.”
In Florida, election law expert Dan Smith studied the early-voting cutbacks from this year and concluded, “It appears that fewer days of early voting—especially the elimination of the final Sunday prior to Election Day—have led to fewer opportunities for some voters to turn out to vote. Moreover, it is certainly arguable based on the evidence presented here that the reduction of early voting days caused by House Bill 1355 has had a differential effect on racial and ethnic minorities in Florida, specifically blacks.”
4. Right-wing poll watchers played themselves.
Our Voting Rights Watch project sounded the alarm early on about the plans of poll-watching groups like True the Vote. Earlier this year, True the Vote said it would have an army of a million people to make voters feel like they were “driving and seeing the police follow” them. The Republican Party also launched efforts to marshal a massive poll watcher showing. But most of these efforts were deflated, mainly because media outlets and voting rights advocates put them on blast and thus drew close scrutiny. But they were also undone through their own incompetence.
Our reporter Aura Bogado, for instance, caught one poll watcher in Colorado reporting “high concentrations of people of color” in a voting location, as if that was against the law. In Ohio, poll watchers from True the Vote were banned from one county’s precincts because they didn’t register properly. In general, True the Vote aligned itself with so many right-wing extremists and racists that their nonpartisan claims were rendered pure folly. Meanwhile, poll watcher manuals from both True the Vote and the Republican Party showed false information. All of this significantly undermined their relationships with election officials and their credibility in the eyes of the news media.
5. Election Protection works.
Some people are saying that pre-election voter suppression threats were overhyped. Maybe. Or maybe there was enough of a counter-movement through Election Protection lawyers who were on the scene in such bulk that their presence thwarted voter harassment, or fended it off when it appeared. I personally saw Election Protection lawyers intervene when poll watchers got rambunctious, while also helping older people get through long lines and mitigate voter confusion, which was prevalent. Our community journalist Hillary Abe wrote about how one team not only helped deflect voter suppression efforts targeting Native Americans, but also how they mobilized this year to expand their political power, fighting off voter ID proposals in the process.
6. Grassroots organizers can turn out voters on shoestring budgets—but that’s not a good thing.
In Orlando, Miami and Tampa, I spent time with get-out-the-vote advocates who were working on the flimsiest of budgets, if they had budgets at all. Many of the organizers were themselves unemployed and doing volunteer work. I learned that this was also true elsewhere. In Minnesota, Hana Worku tells us that “organizers in communities of color were scrambling just to find materials, translation and funding to pay for their work, even part-time.” In Pittsburgh, organizer Celeste Taylor was somewhat positive about it, telling me, “It is so important to understand that the success of nonprofits, nonpartisan and effective community based organizing work is that they utilize a lot of volunteers, which includes folks like myself who were being paid for part-time work and worked nearly all the time—many twelve-to-eighteen-hour days! It was a huge sacrifice to earn so little and work so much, but the payoff was seeing how the people in our communities appreciated the information and turned out to vote!” True, but there’s no reason why putting in sixty-plus hours of work shouldn’t be adequately compensated. If it’s bad for Walmart, it’s bad for voter work.
7. People of color were self-motivated to vote, not just motivated by Obama.
As I wrote previously, people didn’t wait hours in line just to vote in the guy known for deporting the most immigrants or failing to make a dent in black unemployment. There was a deeper dedication at play. Our community journalist Noni Grant said that while in the field she asked several people why they felt it was important to vote. The overwhelming response was “black folks have fought and died for the right to vote.” The history of civil rights and voting rights in America is still within the active memory of many people of color, and so this was a civic-duty calling, especially in the face of such a vocal and overt suppression effort.
8. A lot of people didn’t vote, because they couldn’t, because of felonies.
In Florida and Virginia alone, felony disenfranchisement kept almost two million people from voting this November. And even though the process in Virginia for restoring rights to those with felonies was streamlined by the governor, it is still cumbersome enough that many weren’t able to apply for rights restoration in time. Rosana Cruz, of New Orleans–based Voices Of The Ex-offender wrote about this problem saying, “Nearly half a million people in the five Gulf states didn’t vote today, because as formerly incarcerated people, people on probation and parole, or currently incarcerated people, they’ve been denied that right. That number doesn’t count the Formerly Incarcerated People who don’t even know if they have the right to vote, because the laws blocking voting rights vary from state to state.”
9. Hundreds of thousands of votes still haven’t been counted.
In Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania, there are still outstanding ballots to be counted. Many voters in these states got to the polls only to find that their names were not listed, even though they were certainly registered. In Arizona, hundreds of thousands of people are wondering where their registration, or their vote went. In Philadelphia, it’s the same deal. Philadelphia City Paper has attempted to get to the bottom of what happened to the disappearing votes, and was not able to come up with anything. Like President Obama said, “We have to fix that.”
10. Gerrymandering and redistricting caused confusion.
This is probably the most under-reported story in the country. Following the 2010 Census, new voting district lines were drawn, which changed where many people go to vote. If you’ve moved since the Census came out, then there’s even more room for confusion. In Philadelphia, a lot of the mysterious vanishing voters are suspected to be a result of newly drawn lines and a failure by county commissioners to alert voters of their new voting districts.
Trupania Bonner, of Moving Forward Gulf Coast, Inc., was able to get communities in Louisiana not only educated about the redistricting process, but also taught them how to get involved in it. Says Bonner: “No one really understands what redistricting is, and how when gerrymandering occurs you see how the Southern Manifesto and those types of ideologies progress from that. So for us, we learned the process of redistricting and then also how to draw districts ourselves. We then bought the software used by legislators to do redistricting, and taught residents how to do it too. What all communities need to fully understand is how our rights are protected by learning and engaging in the census and redistricting process.”
Read Voting Rights Watch lead reporter Brentin Mock’s latest on “Why the Voting Rights Act Likely Won’t Survive Supreme Court Review”.
While the United States was grappling with whether or not to re-elect its first African-American president, Louisiana was wrestling over whether to appoint its first African-American Chief Justice for its State Supreme Court. Bernette Johnson's destiny was temporarily deferred when some of her fellow Supreme Court Justices and Gov. Bobby Jindal challenged her right to succeed retiring Chief Justice Catherine Kimball. Louisiana law dictates that the justice who's served the longest on the bench takes over as chief when the sitting one leaves. Johnson, the court's only black judge, took the bench in October of 1994, while Justice Jeffrey Victory came on in January 1995.
But Victory declared he had seniority, arguing Johnson's first few years on the bench didn't count because it was a special appointment made by a federal consent decree. Indeed, Johnson's Supreme Court seat was made available because the electoral districts at the time were drawn so that no black Louisianians would ever have the kind of plurality needed to elect a candidate who represented their interests. When you're black and live in a Southern state that venerates its Confederate heritage while leading the world in locking people up, voting for a judge kinda matters to you.
The consent decree carved out a special district where African Americans could elect a judge of their choice, which turned out to be Johnson who was granted all of the powers of a state Supreme Court justice, despite the unique appointment. Civil rights lawyers, including current Urban League president Marc Morial, pushed for that decree by way of the Voting Rights Act, which is violated when "it is shown that the political processes leading to nomination or election . . . are not equally open to participation by members of a protected class . . . in that its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice."
Johnson was ultimately granted her chief justice seat just a month ago, but the Voting Rights Act that served as her scaffold is insecure. A few days after President Obama was re-elected, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take up Shelby County, Ala. v Eric Holder, a challenge to VRA's Section 5, which Holder himself calls "our nation's most important civil rights statute."
What Shelby disagrees with is Section 5's "pre-clearance" power, which makes certain states and counties with histories of racial discrimination prove that no disenfranchisement will result from election policy changes. As I wrote earlier this year, Section 5 is a precautionary principle agent that forces election law-changers to prove a change isn't harmful before implementation, as opposed to letting the change happen unvetted and then dealing with any harm later.
Shelby is also arguing that the Section 5 formula they're subjected to is obsolete, given that it's mostly based off data from the 1960s. They believe they are being held to a stricter legal scrutiny than other counties and states that have worse voting problems, namely non-Section 5 covered jurisdictions. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, and it was extended four more times, the latest in 2006 when Congress extended it for 25 years. But Congress failed to update the Section 5 covered jurisdiction formula in that last extension, and hence the law in its current version is unconstitutional, argues Shelby, for impeding on states' rights. (For more on "states' rights" listen to this audio file of Republican "Southern Strategy" architect Lee Atwater.)
Regardless of what you think of that argument, all that matters is that it's being made before Chief Justice John Roberts' Supreme Court, which has shown no sympathy, if not shown flat-out resentment, for laws they believe support racial preferences. A Section 5 challenge was before the Roberts Court in 2009, but they chose not to rule on its constitutionality then. However, Roberts in his opinion stated that Section 5 "caused Members of this Court to express serious misgivings about" its constitutionality, mainly due to the decades-old coverage formula.
Despite Section 5's anachronistic formula, its application has been anything but oppressive. Covered jurisdictions can apply for a bailout -- a get out of Section 5 jail free card -- and many have been granted. The number of voting rules changes denied by the Department of Justice has been less than 1 percent of the total submitted. The past two years DOJ appeared to do a lot of blocking, but that's because an unprecedented number of voter law changes were passed in that time. Still, they cleared voter ID laws in Virginia and New Hampshire.
Journalists and voting rights advocates have made many good-spirited defenses of VRA recently, citing how Section 5 protected voters of color in Florida, Texas, Mississippi, and South Carolina from voting law changes that could have led to their disenfranchisement. My colleague Ari Berman wrote at The Nation that "only a Supreme Court wholly divorced from reality would review the record on voting rights ... and conclude that a key pillar of the law was no longer needed."
I understand the sentiment, but unfortunately that's not the case before SCOTUS, which, to be fair, is probably looking more closer at the reality than it's getting credit for. That reality is that a lot has changed since 1968 -- the last year upon which Section 5's data formula rests upon -- and Congress has failed to take that into consideration.
There have been important changes made to VRA since 1965, including the 1975 amendments that expanded the formula to include areas that discriminated against people who don't speak English, which is how Texas and five counties in Florida became covered jurisdictions. Most important, though, was the 1982 VRA amendment, which added the precautionary principle -- the "results test."
Roberts is not a fan of said test. When it was proposed by civil rights lawyers as a remedy, so that VRA could more effectively address vote dilution processes like gerrymandering, Roberts went HAM. At the time a 20-something-year-old lawyer representing the Reagan administration, he sounded every alarm about why the discriminatory effect clause shouldn't happen. Election law expert Rick Hasen wrote this about the 1980s Roberts in a 2005 L.A. Times column:
During the Senate debates, for instance, Roberts wrote that the attorney general had to "get something out somewhere soon" [original emphasis] explaining the administration's position because the "frequent writings in this area by our adversaries have gone unanswered for too long." He called on the administration to take an "aggressive stance" against the changes to Section 2. When it was over and Section 2 had been amended, Roberts wrote that "we were burned."
Roberts' 2009 "serious misgivings" comment on VRA shows that his perspective hasn't evolved much. In that same ruling, his fellow justice Clarence Thomas flat out called VRA unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Justice Antonin Scalia and Kennedy exhibited similar VRA disappointment in Chisom v Roemer, the Supreme Court case that led to the creation of the black-majority district in Louisiana responsible for making Bernette Johnson the first black State Supreme Court Justice in 1994 -- and Louisiana's first black State Supreme Court Chief Justice today.
The US Supreme Court's Chief Justice will likely strike the clause that helped make Johnson's ascendancy possible in Louisiana. More disappointing, though, is that the Section 5 remedy didn't address racial voting problems that arose in states like Ohio, Colorado and the 62 non-Section 5 counties in Florida this past November. Even Pennsylvanians had to suffer through a voter ID legal battle that went into double-overtime, ending in the law only temporarily struck while voter confusion continued to molest Election Day. These states deserve Section 5's attention, and unfortunately they're not getting it. That's not a good recipe for a SCOTUS chief who's looking for any excuse to revenge getting "burned."
-- Brentin Mock
For many of our Voting Rights Watch community journalists, keeping an eye on voting rights was a natural extension of the activism in which they were already deeply engaged.
Individuals from our dedicated team participate with religious communities in Ohio, work to restore rights for former felons in Kentucky, help ensure that Native American youth everywhere have the access they need to claim a higher education, and then some.
In Texas, Undocubus rider Kemi Bello represents a community that cannot vote because of their immigration status. For Bello, the real work begins now that the election is over. “Now we continue working to bridge the gap between political promises and community accountability,” she says.
Her fellow community journalist Noni M. Grant, who works in Georgia, couldn’t agree more. As Grant explains, she wants to remain vigilant that her community continue the work to create the change she wants to see.
We Voted For a Leader… Now What?
We can all breathe a sigh of relief now that the 2012 presidential election cycle is over. In the months leading up to November 6, voters were bombarded with public service announcements, e-mails, text messages, phone calls, TV ads and billboards telling us to get out and vote. At the same time, we witnessed reinvigorated voter registration drives and strengthened Get Out the Vote campaigns, which seemed a necessary response to the voter suppression, intimidation, and disenfranchisement tactics employed around the country.
For many in the African-American community, these voter suppression tactics were an attempt to silence their already marginalized voices and reverse the gains made during the civil rights movement. While journaling in the field, I asked several elders why they felt it was important to vote in the most recent election. The unanimous response was, “Black folks have fought and died for the right to vote.” One elder went further and advised me that it was my “civic and racial duty” to vote.
While I appreciate the sentiment behind the elder’s mandate, I am increasingly concerned that conveying the Just Do It and You Gotta Vote mantras give us a false impression that voting alone is the key to solving our problems.
I am equally troubled at the suggestion that by electing the right kind of charismatic, bold, LBJ-Lincolnesque leader of leaders, we will somehow attain a post-oppression society. Looking back on the presidential debates, there was an inordinate amount of focus on leadership qualities being the determining factor in whether anything gets done in Washington.
Familiar tropes such as “he looked presidential” and “he was strong and steady” were the predominant commentaries from news anchors and media pundits. Even post-election analysis suggests that the people are looking for President Obama to deliver policy results and get things done.
However, the framing of our ability to get results as a function of leadership and execution is troubling. How will President Obama know that for African-Americans, the failure to address the drug war and mass incarceration renders any education and economic policy targeted to African Americans meaningless? How will he know that championing the DREAM Act without severe reductions in deportations is inadequate immigration policy? Do we really expect the Obama administration to just instinctively understand the nuances of our issues and tailor an agenda that addresses the complexities of our problems?
In these moments, I think a lot about organizers like Ella Baker, who cautioned us against depending so largely upon a leader. Her wise words proclaimed that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
I am also reminded of racial justice and labor movements in the past that showed us that communities can inform and set their own agenda, and through collective action, force political leaders to adopt the agenda as their own (War on Poverty anyone?).
History teaches us that social and economic justice movements are effective in challenging exploitative and oppressive systems. At the same time, these movements cultivate a model of democracy that promotes self-determination and reflects the vision of the community.
As we move beyond Election Day 2012, having voted and elected a leader, we have to ask ourselves, “Now what?” What will we as a community gain from the frenzied efforts to get us to vote? Will the needs of the poor, communities of color, immigrants, youth, and LGBT folks take center stage in future policy debates? If the groups that I have been covering in the South have anything to say about it, the answer is absolutely yes.
On November 7, 2012, organizations from all over the South assembled in Atlanta to kick off what they call “The People’s First 100 Days.” Anchored by the movement building organization Project South the People’s First 100 Days will mark a series of coordinated regional actions and community assemblies aimed at building a Southern Freedom Movement. A brainchild of the Southern Movement Assembly that took place in Lowndes County, Ala., in September 2012, the People’s First 100 seeks to highlight the struggle of southern organizations in their fight against poverty, racism, deportation, the lack of healthcare, threats to reproductive justice, crumbling education systems and rising violence.
When I first began chronicling these organizations at the Southern Movement Assembly, so many people cited failed political leadership and inaction for the lingering problems in their communities. But since then, these groups have refocused their energies and decided to take matters into their own hands. Starting on November 7, instead of waiting on politicians to act, they will set their own agenda for transformative change. Like so many social and economic justice movements before it, I suspect that this people’s movement will be the determining factor in whether anything gets done in our communities.
—Noni M. Grant
Allison Kilkenny writes about another community movement aimed at relieving burdened citizens of their debt.
Before election results came in, Arapahoe was considered the swing county in the swing state of Colorado. Roughly a third of the county’s voters are registered Republicans, a third are registered Democrats, and the remaining third are independents. The county and the state ultimately swung to re-elect President Obama—and voters of color had a crucial voice in that decision.
Law enforcement and poll workers in other Colorado counties had already harassed Latino canvassers and early voters. And on Election Day, Arapahoe County voters experienced very long lines, and rumors began to emerge about possible voter challengers.
When I arrived to Arapahoe’s Aurora CenterPoint voting center, people were braving chilling temperatures to wait their turn to cast a ballot. A handful of volunteers handed out water bottles, some cups of coffee and even pizza to thirsty and hungry voters—and their sometimes exhausted kids—in line.
Shortly afterwards, I noticed a man wearing a suit with a distinguishable US flag tie, who seemed especially irritated as he walked around the voting center, sometimes looking at people in line and turning red with anger. Long after the doors were closed, and the final batch of voters were casting their ballots, this gentleman made two phone calls to report what he had observed—all within earshot of several voters and poll workers, who sometimes stared at him in confusion or disbelief.
The man, who later identified himself to me as Republican poll watcher Dayton Conway, complained not only about the water and pizza handed to voters in line but also about what he said was the disproportionate amount of people of color who were casting ballots.
According to the 2010 census, “White persons not Hispanic” made up less than 50 percent of Aurora’s population—and that’s a big change from just twenty years ago previously, when they made up nearly 80 percent of the city’s population. In some ways, Aurora is a present-day microcosm of this country’s demographic future, which is shifting towards a numerical majority of people of color.
Conway, meanwhile, was in denial about his city’s population, and frustrated that so many people of color cast their ballots at the CenterPoint voting center. Many did so because Colorado’s Secretary of State, Republican Scott Gessler encouraged voters in several counties, including Arapahoe, to use voting centers anywhere in the county, instead of assigned polling stations. That means people driving to and from work could stop by at a location most convenient to them—and they did.
Conway’s comments and physical irritability didn’t seem to deter any voters from casting their ballots during the three or so hours I was there. But his statements do illustrate some of what’s wrong with far-right poll watchers like the True the Vote group, which insists there’s rampant voter fraud despite any real evidence to support its claims. What Aurora’s voters proved last night was that they recognized their right to cast a ballot, and they weren’t swayed by people who think otherwise.
More from Voting Rights Watch: Brentin Mock writes that voters targeted for suppression were “Undeterred by the Long, Slow Line Toward Democracy.”