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Voting Rights Watch

Voting Rights Watch

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

Undeterred by the Long, Slow Line Toward Democracy

In his victory speech, President Obama was generous with his thanks, notably showing appreciation for those who participated actively in democracy, giving a shout out to everyone who "voted for the very first time, or waited in line for a very long time," before adding to loud cheers, "By the way, we have to fix that."

Here's why we need to fix that. All voters didn't have to wait in long lines. When you look at the pictures, such as those collected by PostBourgie, you find mostly people of color in those lines that stretched literally as long as the day. Those voters, many of them low-income who missed work and had to pay babysitters to stand in lines that long, bore the burden of democracy so that we could move forward.

Not only that, but they withstood voter suppression, intimidation and utter confusion so that the nation wouldn't move backwards to a time where that and a lot worse was the norm during elections.

Since last year, America has suffered a wave of voter restriction laws that have sought to mandate photo voter ID, instituted onerous voter registration procedures, shrunk early voting periods, required people to show proof of citizenship to register and made tossing out provisional ballots easier. Most of those laws have been fought off or backed down by dedicated voting rights advocates and citizens. But too often, it has been people of color and those of limited resources who ended up at the front lines, mainly because it was their necks that were on the chopping blocks under these laws.

Neither Obama's nor Romney's campaigns focused on these people, choosing instead to focus squarely on the middle-class, when not the wealthy. It wasn't the middle and wealthy classes, for the most part, who bore the brunt of this election, though. Low-income and working-class voters, and black, Asian, Muslim, Latino and LGTBQ voters all jumped through hoops to make this election, and this democracy, as free and fair as possible, even when the campaigns failed to mention them.

For most of this year our Voting Rights Watch 2012 project, which includes a team of passionate community journalists, reported the burdens and the victories of social justice organizations and coalitions who confronted injust voter laws and deflated them. That reporting didn't end yesterday, and in fact, accelerated in many ways.

Take Aura Bogado's trip to the ever-browning Colorado where she heard reports of Latino voters and organizers being harassed by police. Groups like the Colorado Civic Engagement Roundtable mobilized Latino voters against stifling election administrators like Secretary of State Scott Gessler and voter harassment groups like Colorado Voter Protection, an affiliate of the nefarious True the Vote. Bogado wrote that Colorado's outcome could likely come down to the state's Latino voters, "But they may have to overcome unnecessary obstacles to cast their ballots."

Latino voters would help carry not only Colorado, but much of the nation. A national poll of Latinos reported that Latino voters favored Obama over Romney by a 73 to 24 margin before Election Day. Latino voters helped make Arizona a close race. As Seth Freed Wessler wrote in our live blog last night, "Arizona has been firmly in the Republican camp but as the population there becomes markedly less white, its partisan allegiance may change too."

Black voters came out in droves also, despite laws and poll watcher groups targeted for their discouragement. In Florida, many black voters waited hours in line under the hot sun while sustaining power outages and malfunctions with ballot scanner equipment. When NAACP volunteers tried to offer them bottled water and chairs to sit down, they were confronted by Republican and tea party elections observers who accused them of buying votes with this charity.

The same long lines could be found in Virginia, mainly in Prince William County and Richmond where thousands of black voters stood in lines until as late as midnight, even after the election was already called for Obama. In Virginia, over 450,000 people, roughly half of them African Americans, were unable to vote due to the state's harsh felon disenfranchisement laws—the same kind of laws that prevent over a million Floridians from voting, a quarter of whom were black citizens.

And yet civil rights advocates in both states soldiered on—I'm talking about Lillie Branch Kennedy, King Salim Khalfani and Sa'ad El-Amin in Virginia; and Lavon Bracy, Yvette Lewis, Belinthia Berry and Desmond Meade in Florida. Not to mention groups like the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, who helped assist voters get ID when the state called for it, fought for those who couldn't get ID, like Laila Stones, and helped usher voters through the confusion when the judge supposedly suspended the law—all of this while being called "lazy" by state legislators.

It wasn't just people of color who were both impacted by and had to fight against these laws. Gender and sex were central issues also. Yesterday, the nation elected its first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin, in Wisconsin to counterweight against the anti-labor Gov. Scott Walker.

More Baldwins are needed in Congress, where a number of men have been looking to define or redefine what rape is and what reproductive rights women should have. As of yesterday, most of those men are looking at the front door, like Missouri's Todd Akin who was trounced by Claire McCaskill. As in many recent elections, women's bodies became political battlegrounds, especially true for low-income and immigrant women who have been hardest hit by state cuts in programs like Planned Parenthood.

But what yesterday's election told us more than anything was that, as Julianne Hing wrote, "The steady browning of the nation is the undeniable reality in the nation's future," and that:

Nowhere is that more clear than in the steadily declining power of the white electorate. In 1988 white voters made up nearly 85 percent of voters, and in 2008 white voters were down to 76.3 percent of the electorate. The latest CNN polls confirm what many have projected for the last four years—the downward trend will continue. According to a CNN exit poll, white voters made up 73 percent of the electorate this year, a 3 percent decline.

Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly seemed to agree, saying at the election's twilight, "The demographics are changing."

He said this means the end of "a traditional America"—an entitled and privileged perspective that completely erases the Native Americans, African Americans and Latino Americans who all built this country, lived in this country as long as white people did, and also bore far more of the burden to help America realize the best of its "traditional" values. Colorlines.com publisher Rinku Sen Tweeted in response quite succinctly, "He's right."

Meanwhile tea party groups and True the Vote sought to make racial antagonization the last resort of preserving that white traditional America by deputizing themselves to enforce laws they poorly understood, while completely ignoring civil rights laws. They promoted voter ID laws, pressured and sued states to purge voters, and foraged through voter registration databases looking for more people to purge. They also challenged voters, unbeknownst to the electors so that they would be prevented from casting regular ballots, as we saw in Tampa and Miami yesterday. They also made fools of themselves, though, getting kicked out of a county in Ohio and being lambasted for fighting to block elections helpers from giving elderly voters water in long lines.

And yet these voters pressed on, and not just to vote for Obama. It's hard to make the case for this president to Latino voters, when he has deported more immigrants than any president, shattering families in the process. Even black voters have had their qualms, given high unemployment and a focus on the middle class that fails to address uneven playing fields in economic opportunities. So there was something more at work in those long lines and perseverance in exercising their rights.

Los Angeles resident Rowena Williams, who's 70 years old, stood three hours in line to vote yesterday, but said it was worth the wait. She said she remembered the civil rights movement and how people gave their lives so that African Americans could vote in the South. "As a black woman," she said, "I remember people dying to give people the right to vote."

She waited a long time for that, just like millions of Americans have been waiting a long time for a purer democracy devoid of racism, sexism, homophobia, economic despair and educational disparities. Like Obama said, "We have to fix that."

Brentin Mock

Voting Rights Watch's community journalists were hard at work throughout election day. Check out their coverage.

Voters in Predominantly Black Ohio Suburb Forced to Cast Provisional Ballots

A number of residents in Forest Park, a predominantly black suburb outside Cincinnati, are reporting that they’re being forced to cast provisional ballots because records incorrectly show that they already submitted an absentee ballot.

The state Board of Election says the issue was caused by a “human error” but Forest Park residents—65 percent of them who are black—will still have to file a provisional ballot

WKRC-TV has more details about the “human error” that’s preventing msny Forest Park voters from casting their ballots today:

We learned of it from a couple who lives in Forest Park and who vote at Word of Deliverance Church. When Acquanitia and Thomas Moxley showed up this morning, a poll worker said that they already voted absentee. The Moxley’s contend they never requested an absentee ballot-nor did they fill one out. They say they’ve voted at the polls every year since they turned 18 years old.

Precinct officials told them to cast a provisional ballot. Wilson went down to the Board of Elections, where the deputy director checked the official list and confirmed the Moxley’s story.

Meanwhile, other voters began reporting similar problems. Officials finally figured out that human error is to blame and affects the voters at only that Forest Park polling. Those voters will be asked to cast a provisional ballot. Officials will wait ten days to count the votes-but they will be counted.

Ohio has eighteen electoral votes, and it’s important to note that no Republican candidate has won the presidency without carrying the state.

What’s the Scope of Voter Suppression in This Election?

It’s too early to tell, but here’s a sampling of anecdotal reports from our community journalists spread out around the country that are unconfirmed but offer a sense of the problem.

Meagan Ortiz has the following from California:

[Voter] ID problems continue to occur across the country. In Los Angeles County, in a predominantly Latino and African-American neighborhood, a woman reported that voters were being asked to present a California state driver’s license or ID in order to vote.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, which includes the city of Lakewood, a pollworker was unaware that a utility bill is acceptable form of identification. At first the voter was told to file a provisional ballot but she insisted and verified she was on voting list. Eventually she was allowed to vote via a regular ballot.

From Kemi Bellow in Texas:

College students in Terre Haute, Indiana were made to stand in a separate line to cast their ballot. When a voter and college student attempted to vote, her ballot was taken away from her by a poll official, who told her that she would not be able to vote. The poll worker then reportedly told her that the ballots of the other college students would be destroyed.

Election Protection has also received multiple reports from Minnesota that poll workers were informing voters that “not voting for the constitutional amendments is the same as voting no,” perhaps in an attempt to influence voting behavior.

At Camp Navajo in Arizona, a voter called in to explain that she was required to submit photo identification, when Arizona law only requires ID.

Here’s what Meta Mendel-Reyes is reporting from Kentucky:

In Detroit, Michigan, according to Election Protection, District 13 is demanding driver’s licenses. People are not being allowed to vote even if they have a voter ID card, nor are they being given the option of signing an affidavit saying they don’t have ID. A voter had allegedly had his military identification rejected and he was asked to show a driver’s license, even though a photo ID is not required under state law until 2013. He reported that the election officials did not seem to know about the law.

From Hermelinda Cortes in Virginia:

Across the country, voters are also being sent to the wrong polling locations. In Springfield, Massachusetts, redistricting changes sent voters to multiple locations before they found the correct one. In Staunton, Virginia, a voter was told that they had to return to a former polling station from a former address and was turned away. In San Francisco, an official city elections map is sending people to the wrong neighborhood.

Pennsylvania's Spanish-Speaking Voters Face Barriers at the Polls

Reports continue to pour in about voter ID misinformation in Pennsylvania. Meredith McCoy from the Lawyer’s Committee tells Voting Rights Watch that signs have been up in Harrisburg and Dauphin Counties stating that photo IDs are required (see photo above). In Erie County, she says, one polling place has told voters that “although some places don’t require ID, this one does.” Community journalist Meta Mendel-Reyes writes that a voter was wrongly rejected from the polls in Oley for not having ID, while the city of Berwick has signs stating that ID is required. Voting Rights Watch Community Journalist Maegan Ortiz reports that similar posters have been up in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown.

Meanwhile, Spanish-speaking voters at several polling places in North Philly have been left without interpreters, Ceiba’s Will Gonzalez tells Voting Rights Watch. “It would be akin to opening a polling place without electricity,” he says. In some cases, poll workers have asked Spanish-speaking voters to put their name on a list for follow-up, making many voters uneasy. Adds Gonzalez: “Any delay is denial on this thing.”

Philadelphia’s Latino population has also had issues with voters not showing up on the rolls and being forced to fill out provisional ballots—or walk away in frustration. As Philadelphia’s City Paper reports, provisional ballots, a theme across the city today, require extra follow-up from voters after they’ve filled out their forms. Absentee ballots have also been an issue. As Luke McKinstry from the Committee of Seventy tells Voting Rights Watch, numerous voters have called in saying that they haven’t received their ballots even after submitting absentee applications well in advance.

The Committee of Seventy office, which I visited this afternoon, is a phone-ringing nightmare. “Usually with federal elections it’ll die down [mid-afternoon]—people doing crossword puzzles,” President and CEO Zack Stalberg says. “I haven’t seen anything like this before.”

Check Voting Rights Watch 2012 throughout the night for live updates.

More Floridians' Votes Challenged by Tea Party, This Time in Miami

Voting Rights Watch just received word from the Miami-Dade County Elections Department that there are about forty-six people in their area whose voting rights have been challenged. The challenges follow the same pattern as those filed in Hillsborough County, where they have all been signed by the same person on the same date, this time by Pamela Evans Rhodenbaugh of Aventura, Florida on October 25, 2012. Most of the challenges were for discrepancies in voters’ addresses that Rhodenbaugh found by matching names and birth dates from voter registration databases with the state’s Department of Corrections database. Eleven of them were challenges based on her allegation that the voters have felony convictions that disqualify them from voting.

As with the Tampa case, each of these challenged voters will be surprised at the polls when they find out they can not vote regular ballots, only provisional ballots. In 2008, over half of the provisional ballots cast were thrown out, and over a quarter were tossed in Florida’s 2010 elections.

Rhodenbaugh could not be reached by the phone number listed in the phone book. A profile page for a Pamela Rhodenbaugh from North Miami is listed on the Patriot Action Network, an online social media network for Tea Party members, where Pamela rails off about ACORN and the New Black Panther Party.

The challenges were made under oath, and again punishable by up to a year in prison if they are found frivolous. It is not clear if Rhodenbaugh has a connection to True the Vote, as does Kimberly Kelley who filed seventy-seven challenges in the Tampa area.

Check back with Voting Rights Watch 2012 throughout election day for regular updates.

Sheriff Deputies, Poll Worker Harass Latinos in Swing State Colorado

Although both presidential candidates stopped their visits to Colorado days ago, it remains a crucial swing state in this election. With just nine electoral votes, and its distance from the eastern part of the country, the Centennial State has lost its spot in the national media, but may prove important in this tight race. 

That’s why canvassers have been busy encouraging people to vote here. But it hasn’t necessarily been easy to either canvas or show up to the polling station for some Latinos. One canvasser, who works with a coalition of groups leading a get out the vote initiative told me that during her training she was told, “And watch out for police. They don’t always think people who look like us should be out in the street.”

Not many job descriptions include a warning that the work may entail police harassment, but this is Colorado, where demographics are changing. In 2010, the Latino population hit 1 million—accounting for every one in five Coloradans. As more and more Latinos turn 18, it’s that younger generation that may hold the key to sway this election. The Latino vote here is expected to increase 15 percent over the last presidential election, accounting for nearly 9 percent of the state’s electorate. 

The quiet, rural town of Pueblo West, just a two hour drive from Denver, is a mixed neighborhood that’s part of the greater city of Pueblo, which makes up more than 40 percent of the state’s entire Latino population. And canvassers there are eager to encourage all voters to get out to the polls. One canvasser, who declined to have his name for publication, was doing just that last week when he ran in to trouble. He and his canvassing partner, who are both Latino, noticed local Sheriffs were sometimes tailing them, but they continued their work.

They drove to a local convenience store for snacks, but when they got back into their car, they realized they couldn’t back away from the parking spot because it was blocked by two Pueblo County Sheriff’s vehicles. They were both asked to show identification, and deputies ran these for outstanding warrants. The canvassers explained they were simply urging people to get out and vote, but the deputies replied that local residents called in to complain about two suspicious Latinos in the neighborhood. The deputies then told them they should quit immediately, and “call it a day.”

And it’s not just Pueblo County where Latinos feel they’re being harassed. I spoke with one woman who was a first-time voter in Boulder. A mother who’s originally from Central America, she also declined to have her name in print for fear of retaliation. She became a citizen last year, and was so excited to cast her ballot that she voted early last week. But the process was confusing for her, and after she came home and spoke with family members, she realized she had accidently skipped a portion of her ballot. She returned with her daughter and son-in-law the next day, to inquire if she could fix her ballot, or have it annulled and cast a new one in its place. 

That’s when she says things got out of hand. One poll worker, who was white, began to get angry. He told her she would be charged with a felony, have to pay fines, and serve time in prison. He then rose from his seat, and she says she was afraid he might strike at her son-in-law. Fellow poll workers, she says, all went absolutely silent, and essentially embarrassed him from any further harassment. This new voter told me that had her daughter and son-in-law not been there with her that day to protect her, she would never consider voting again. 

The Department of Justice is monitoring elections in Denver County, and hundreds of volunteer poll workers, recruited through the Colorado Civic Engagement Roundtable, will be making sure that voters aren’t harassed at the polls. But they may meet their match if poll challengers begin questioning voters’ right to cast a ballot. True the Vote, which held a summit here earlier this year, claims that they, too are dispatching thousands of monitors. 

If today’s outcome comes down to Colorado, that will mean it may likely come down to the state’s Latino voters. But they may have to overcome unnecessary obstacles to cast their ballots.

—Aura Bogado

Check back with Voting Rights Watch 2012 throughout election day for regular updates.

Debunking Election Myths: Don’t Worry, Your Straight-Ticket Vote Is Totally Okay

Among the rumors and misinformation floating around today is one that’s very easy to debunk—if you’re voting anywhere but North Carolina. Do not fear—your straight-ticket voting is perfectly valid, and will include a vote for the president. Nevertheless, rumors to the contrary are populating the social mediasphere and even reaching the Election Protection hotline. So reports Kemi Bello, a Voting Rights Watch community journalist from Texas, who is monitoring the Election Protection feed today.

The Florida Times-Union explains the one exception to this rule:

In North Carolina, however, the warning in the viral email could be a good one. In that state, straight-ticket voting is allowed, but only for races other than president/vice president. So if you vote a straight ticket, you must vote separately for the president and vice president. A state law passed in 1967 prohibits the combination of the vote for president with any other office on the ballot, according to the state’s election website.

Still, rumors are popping up in Pontiac, Michigan; Stewartstown, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The rumor is so widespread that a spokesperson from Alabama’s Secretary of State responded to the talk today to assure voters that straight-ticket voting, a ballot option allowing voters to vote for a party’s entire slate of candidates with a single mark, is a valid way of voting that will indeed include a person’s pick for president.

Once an unavoidable part of the voting process, today just 15 states offer straight-ticket voting. They are: Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

Check back with Voting Rights Watch 2012 throughout election day for regular updates, including reports of harassment from Latino voters in Colorado.

Tea Party Group Blocks Florida Voters, Stops Water Handouts at Polls


Voters stand in line during the fourth day of early voting in North Miami, Tuesday, October 30, 2012, as Floridians cast their ballot seven days before Election Day. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Update @5:45 pm pm ET: An independent analysis of the list of names challenged by Tampa Vote Fair’s Kimberly Kelley reveals the list is 40 percent black, which compares to 15 percent of registered voters who are black. Political scientists Daniel Smith of University of Florida and Michael Herron of Dartmouth College identified 73 people on the list using voter ID numbers in the Florida voter file. They also found just 16 percent of the voters on the list were registered as Republicans, compared to 33 percent of county voters. “We’re essentially seeing the privitzation of voter suppression,” says Smith, “and that should be highly disconcerting. Now we have private citizens through this organization Tampa Vote Fair doing their own data mining and matching and challenging potential citizens at the polls.”

*****

Tea Party activists in Florida’s largely black and electorally significant Interstate 4 corridor have worked furiously to put a damper on what has been a record-setting turnout thus far. In one of the most striking examples of voter suppression to emerge, Voting Rights Watch obtained a list of several dozen Hillsborough County voters who will be surprised to learn they cannot vote regular ballots thanks to last-minute challenges filed against them.

I’ve requested similar information from Miami-Dade, Orange, Pinellas and Seminole counties, but officials have not responded. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office, Chris Cate, said the state does not track voter challenges, so there is no way of knowing how widespread these sorts of challenges may be.

In Hillsborough County, seventy-seven people—forty of them in Tampa—won’t be able to file a regular ballot because the True the Vote–affiliated group Tampa Vote Fair has challenged their voting status. Of those, sixty-eight have been challenged because Tampa Vote Fair asserts they are ineligible due to a felony conviction. These people will not know that their vote has been challenged until they reach the polls and are forced to cast a provisional ballot. (Some of them may have already attempted to vote during the early voting period.)

According to documents provided to Voting Rights Watch by Hillsborough County Attorney’s office, all seventy-seven of the voter challenges were filed by Kimberly Kelley, Tampa Vote Fair’s president, and all are dated October 16, 2012—a full week after voter registration ended in Florida. Earlier this year, Kelley sent to the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections multiple lists of people she suspected were ineligible to vote because of felony convictions. One of those lists had 1,375 names on it, which the county supervisor forwarded on to the state to investigate, but which turned up no names yet of people improperly registered.

Kelley’s new list is significant in that it is an official under-oath declaration from Tampa Vote Fair that these people should not be allowed to vote. Kelley is putting herself at risk by filing the challenges. If any of the challenges are determined to be frivolous, then Kelley could be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison, for each bogus challenge. The attorney general will make the determination of whether the challenges are frivolous or in good faith, but this is unchartered territory—perhaps the most extreme steps a True the Vote–affiliated group has taken to strip voters of election rights. Hillsborough County managing attorney Mary Helen Farris told me she is not aware of any voter challenges filed in 2008 or 2010.

All of Kelley’s challenges were made by matching state voter registration names and dates of birth with information from the state’s Department of Corrections database. In nine cases, she challenged voters based off them having the wrong addresses, while in the other sixty-eight she accuses of them of being “an adjudicated guilty felon.”

Florida’s laws around felony disenfranchisement and for challenging voters both have roots in a time and space when the state’s lawmakers were purposely trying to suppress black voters. The Brennan Center for Justice’s report “Voter Challengers” says:

Many states originally enacted challenger laws to block minority voters’ access to the polls. Virginia, for instance, passed its first challenger law in the immediate wake of Reconstruction alongside a host of other suppressive measures, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, aimed at recently freed former slaves. Other states—like Florida, Ohio and Minnesota—similarly passed challenger legislation during the nineteenth century to suppress turnout in black communities.

The Brennan Center recommends that challengers bear the burden of proving a voter is ineligible through documented evidence before a legal challenge can be placed, while giving the presumption of eligibility—the presumption of innocence—to a voter. Brennan also recommends that voters should be shielded from frivolous challenges and given ample time to respond to a challenge before Election Day, as opposed to showing up at the polls and finding out that they can’t file a regular ballot.

The Controversy Over Bottled Water

Kelley’s challenges aren’t the only ones Tampa voters needed to worry about during the early voting period. Last Friday and Saturday, the last two official days of early voting, black voters and NAACP members were upset when Republican poll watchers challenged NAACP members for passing out water and offering chairs to voters standing in long lines in the hot sun.

Black voters have been turning out in record numbers, not only in Tampa but throughout the state. There are reports of people standing in line up to seven hours, many of them elderly and disabled—and at one Orlando site there was a bomb scare.

So NAACP members have been passing out water to help people deal with the heat. A Republican poll watcher reported this activity at the C. Blythe Andrews Jr. polling site in Tampa, a predominantly African-American district, and had the poll clerk stop the water distribution. According to NAACP political action chair Yvette Lewis, the Republican poll watcher accused the teams of bribing voters with the water, much like a challenge filed by a Republican poll watcher Sunday when helpers passed out fried fish.

Lewis said the water ban was made possible by a poll watcher assigned by the Democratic Party (all poll watchers are assigned by the political parties) who capitulated to the Republican poll watcher’s demands, in an effort to “pick and choose their battles.”

True the Vote–affiliated poll watchers filed similar challenges against the NAACP for passing out water in Houston. Right-wing blogger Matthew Vadum, who once wrote that it should be criminal to register low-income people to vote, wrote about the Houston NAACP Water-Gate caper saying:

Poll watcher Eve Rockford said members of the left-wing so-called civil rights group appeared at the early polling place wearing NAACP-labeled clothing and 50 cases of bottled water. The activists handed out the water bottles to individuals standing in line waiting to vote. They were also “stirring the crowd” and “talking to voters about flying to Ohio to promote President Barack Obama,” said Rockford, who was trained in poll-watching by True the Vote, a prominent electoral integrity organization.

Lewis said the Republican poll watcher stood outside the polling place, “Grinning like, ‘Ha, I control you all, I shut you all down,’ because that’s what it felt like. We had all these people out here to help voters and this one man shut it down.”

But it didn’t seem to stop the flow of voter traffic. Black voter turnout at predominantly black districts hovered around 45 percent, which Lewis said was “very good” compared to 2008. But it also means that there‘s roughly half of remaining black eligible voters who have one more day to vote, tomorrow, which means lines could be even longer.

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The early voting number totals are impressive—166,937 in total throughout Hillsborough County, the anchor of the important Interstate 4 corridor that includes Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach. In 2008, the total early voting numbers in Hillsborough County totalled 146,563—and that was with four more days of early voting than this year.

Brentin Mock

Ohio officials are also trying a last-minute voter suppression effort. Ari Berman reports.

Ready to Vote? Rampant Suppression Threatens Already Tight Race

We’re just four days away from Election Day, and voter suppression schemes continue to strike—as does the push back against them. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy may mark an additional, and unforeseen barrier to the vote. Meanwhile, everyday people will contribute to the way we understand this election than ever before.

As seen above, Video the Vote is empowering communities to document what happens Tuesday, from long lines to voter machine failures. Their new promo video encourages voters to sign up, monitor hot spots, and hashtag shared social media content with #VideoTheVote.

The Advancement Project has also released a short series of films, produced by Stanley Nelson, that focus on people whose right to vote was threatened this year. The inspirational films encourage people to get out and vote.

But the lead up to this election is still marred by attempts to keep certain people from casting ballots. Here are some of this week’s most important voting rights updates, including many from our community journalists in key states:

Hurricane Sandy Affects Early Voting in Virginia

Harrisonburg, Virginia, Community Journalist Hermelinda Cortes writes in that this week’s huge storm may take its toll on the election:

Political organizers in Virginia are working down to the wire and putting boots to the ground to influence the vote in the remaining days before the election. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has political pundits are making all sorts of predictions for which way Virginia will swing come Election Day. The anticipation of massive storm forced the closing of twenty-one voter registrar offices offering early absentee voting in ten counties in Virginia, including Arlington County, Fairfax County, Virginia Beach City and Suffolk Counties—four of the most highly populated areas of the state. As the storm subsided and its most disastrous effects circumnavigated a majority of the state, Governor Bob McDonnell authorized, not mandated, local registrar offices to extend in-person absentee voting hours for the remainder of the week until the November 3 deadline.

In 2008, absentee votes accounted for 13 percent of all ballots cast in Virginia. Of these absentee votes, then nominee Barack Obama won 63 percent, making his margin of victory 6.3 percent. According to Daily Kos, the Virginia legislature initially reported that the margin of victory was only 3.4 percent, because it did not include absentee ballots. However, the Virginia Public Access Project indicates that absentee voting is down by 30 percent.

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. What does this mean for a president who won a state in 2008 on a winning margin provided by absentee ballots? With its thirteen electoral votes, Virginia remains the tightest race—and it’s still unknown what effect the closure of twenty-one registrar offices will mean.

Are These Voting Machines Colorado’s ‘Hanging Chads’?

Colorado-based Community Journalist Rosemary Harris Lytle writes in that touch-screen voting machines may cause a problem in the swing state. As the Denver Post reports, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s office is accused of providing unreliable voting machines that violate his state’s election rules. Despite the complaints, Arapahoe County, a swing county in the swing state, will be using the machines as the primary way of casting ballots on Tuesday, along with two other counties.

And, with just two working days left before the election, Univision is reporting that Gessler is also pursuing a purge of what he says are noncitizens on Colorado’s voter rolls. Election officials may challenge voters on the list, which could discourage eligible voters.

Georgia County Denies Backlog, Questions Immigrant Voters

Atlanta-based Community Journalist Noni M. Grant wrote last month that Fulton County—one of Georgia’s largest counties—had a huge voter registration application backlog. Noni send this update:

I spoke with Helen Butler, Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda (GCPA) yesterday. Based on records kept by GCPA, the Fulton County Registration and Elections Department has yet to mail back fifty-seven absentee ballots to applicants that GPCA assisted. Georgia law requires that absentee ballots be mailed within two days of receipt of the application. Butler says that the applications in question were sent September 25, 2012, and she advised that the Elections Department is working with her to ensure that the affected applicants for absentee ballots will be processed in time for Election Day. Fulton County has continued to deny a backlog of voter registration applications.

But that’s not all. Noni also writes that new immigrants are being targeted for disenfranchisement in Georgia, because of the state’s citizenship verification law. According to OnlineAthens.com, at least three people who provided passports for early voting in Cobb and Fulton Counties were initially denied the opportunity to vote.

Pennsylvania Accused of Continuing to Foment Voter ID Confusion

Philly-based Community Journalist James Cersonsky reported last week on a petition filed by the Pennsylvania ACLU, Advancement Project and Philadelphia Public Interest Law Center on October 19 to get the state to correct misleading or false information about photo ID requirements for voters. Here’s his update from this week:

After twisting through Pennsylvania’s legal system over the summer, the state’s new voter ID law won’t be in effect this November. Still, the state has sent out false letters to senior citizens, has been slow to take down outdated billboards and posters, and is still putting out “Show It” ads encouraging voters to bring ID to the polls, only slightly amended from their original version.

“We’ve gotten lots of calls about ads in different mediums complaining that they still have the old ad up,” says the Witold Walczak, the state ACLU’s legal director. “When we checked it out, it in fact was the new ad.”

Today, Commonwealth judge Robert Simpson rejected the petition for the state to take corrective action. To combat the inertia, the ACLU has teamed up with the Service Employees International Union to mail out 90,000 letters clarifying for voters that they don’t need ID. On election day, there will be a election protection coalition effort.

“A major focus will be to ensure that poll workers are not wrongfully insisting on ID as a requirement of voting,” Walczak says.

True the Vote Manual Features Transphobic Image

True the Vote guide

Voting Rights Watch obtained a copy of a training manual that True the Vote uses in Virginia. Part of the front cover features a caricature of what is supposed to be a man dressed up as a woman, with the slogan “Prevent voter fraud” directly above it. As Colorlines.com’s Jamilah King has pointed out, a voter’s gender identity can prove to be an unnecessary burden at the polls. The National Center for Transgender Equality has released public service announcements and other resources that address the problem that voter ID laws may pose for transgender voters—images like the one found on True the Vote’s manual testify to poll watchers may target transgender voters for disenfranchisement.

Nevada Poll Workers Hassle Voters

Community Journalist Kate Sedinger works with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, and her group has heard reports of voters being hassled at polling stations. Kate writes:

Although the state does not require voters to show ID unless they did not show one or provide a signature when they registered (Nevada recently implemented online voter registration services), many individuals are being told at the polling booth that their signature does not match the one on file and are then asked to show identification before they can vote.

This brings up something we may have overlooked: the clause that poll workers can ask for ID when they determine signatures don’t match leaves gray area for poll workers to work around Nevada’s lack of voter ID law and ask for ID anyway. One voter told me, “They asked for my ID, which I provided…. they seemed to deliberate for a minute before I asked if there was a problem. Once I asked if we were good they let me vote, hesitantly.”

I have heard multiple firsthand accounts similar to this one, and so far, it’s been impossible to count how many people experiencing these barriers don’t speak out—or worse, don’t have the requested ID, don’t know their rights and end up walking away from the poll booths without casting their ballots.

New Mexico Secretary of State Prohibits League of Women Voters’ Guide

From New Mexico, Community Journalist George Lujan writes in that the Secretary of State has banned the League of Women Voters’ voting guide at early voting locations. The League’s guide is nonpartisan, and has been used to educate voters for years. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the guide, on the pretext that it amounts to electioneering, is now banned.

George also writes in that voters received deceptive phone calls informing them that early voting had ended in Doña Ana County, despite the fact that early voting continues.

The Power of the Native Vote in New Mexico

Arizona-based Community Journalist Hillary Abe, who focuses on Native American voter rights, wrote in that Mark Trahant at Indian Country Today has posted an article about New Mexico’s growing Native influence, coupled by an attempt to suppress that power through voter suppression. The article highlights Santa Clara Pueblo member Alvin Warren:

Warren said there is an increasing number of Native Americans running for office—seventeen at one point—and a coalition defeated three different voter ID proposals. At the panel he said there are only two Native American senators and three representatives, but he said those numbers will increase as civic engagement increases. “I would say the majority of tribes now are actively involved in doing some kind of voter registration,” he said. “They’re in their communities doing voter education. My community, I’m proud to say, we’ve been actively doing this for the last, oh, five or six cycles.”

But that growing clout is exactly why there are renewed efforts to limit Native voting.

Read the whole article here.

Riverside County Accused of Reversing Democratic Registrations

LA-based Community Journalist Maegan E. Ortiz writes in that Democrats are accusing Riverside County of reversing voters’ party affiliations in order to create a Republican Advantage. California Watch reports that more than 100 Democrats signed affidavits claiming they were duped into signing petitions “outside of welfare offices and stores,” which were then used to re-register the voters as Republicans.

Southern California Edison Plans Outages on Election Day

A concerned reader wrote in that Southern California Edison (SCE) is planning an outage from 7 a.m. to 7 pm on Election Day in South Bay area of Los Angeles. Voting Rights Watch contacted SCE to ask how many outages were planned for Tuesday. Our call was eventually returned by media relations representative Paul Klein. Klein, whose job it is to answer reporters’ questions, insisted that we answer his questions first, and reveal our source. When we declined, he became recalcitrant and asked if we were “doing a story about this.” We claimed that we were, and he angrily stated that he would call back. We never heard back from Klein, and our subsequent calls were never returned. It remains unknown how many power outages are planned for Election Day.

‘Dream Voters’ Make Pledges to Undocumented Youth

As election day nears, many have pledged to enter the poll booth with the voices of thousands accompanying them—but not in the way you might think. Texas-based Community Journalist Kemi Bello, who was an Undocubus rider, and focuses on the way undocumented people are engaging with the electoral process, writes in:

They call themselves “dream voters” and have signed a pledge promising to keep in mind the pressing needs of the undocumented community—namely education access and protection form deportation—as they cast their votes this election. Immigrant, and often undocumented youth in particular, from groups like Education Initiative Association in Beaumont and the San Antonio Immigrant Youth Movement, have been registering voters across the state of Texas and encouraging them not just to vote, but to be dream voters.

Colorlines.com recently asked if President Obama is taking the Latino vote for granted. Since Latinos make up a large part of the undocumented demographic in the United States, it raises the question whether mobilizing dream voters will result in more accountability at the ballot box next week. It seems that if “Mi Voto es Mi Voz” (“My Vote is My Voice”) does not apply, “Su Voz, Mi Voto” (Your Voice, My Vote) just might.

Community Journalist Encourages Voters not to Dissuade by Ballot Bullies

Ohio-based Community Journalist Nelson Pierce authored an opinion piece urging voters not to be discouraged by efforts to disenfranchise them. The piece, written with the Advancement Project’s Judith Browne Dianis, can be read here.

Why Vote? Because You Can Shift Power in the United States

“This is the most important election of our lifetime.”

Those words seem to echo in every election, including 2012. Four years ago, we saw a historic election with high voter participation—when many of those voters knew that their choice would elect the first African-American to the White House. Today, enthusiasm is understandably lower, as the United States continues to recover from a bad economy, and racial justice still seems like a far off goal that certainly won’t be fixed with one presidential election. According to a recent Gallup poll, voter turnout will pale in comparison to the two previous elections.

In the months ahead of Election Day, we’ve written here about dubious voter purges, cut offs to early voting, voter intimidation and more. Groups like True the Vote and their tactics may serve only to disenfranchise certain voters. The fact that so much has been invested to suppress peoples’ right to vote—particularly after the election of the country’s first black president—should indicate voting remains a threat, because those votes can destabilize the way power has traditionally been held.

Voting rights still matter as much as the act of voting itself. Aside from the long history that guaranteed suffrage for all adult citizens, casting a ballot does make a difference to our future. This is especially true in a country where demographic shifts will inevitably have to be reflected in domestic policy.

The upcoming presidential race may determine the future makeup of the Supreme Court, and congressional races will mark whether cooperation or filibustering will define the next four years. And state and local races will determine issues much closer to home.

Some states, like California, use ballot measures so that voters can weigh in on everything from GMO labeling to the death penalty. Our Los Angeles based community journalist Maegan E. Ortiz writes in this week about why voting might be a matter of life and death in California.

—Aura Bogado

Why Voting Is Critical for People of Color Communities

It’s sometimes hard to argue why getting to the polls on November 6 is critical in a non-swing state like California. The blue state is often used more like an ATM than for actual campaigning by both parties in federal elections. There is little talk of voter suppression with California seeing a record number of voter registrations. But registering and actually voting are two different things. The statewide primary elections in June yielded a disappointing turnout, especially among communities of color.

Perhaps some history is in order. Access to the vote for people of color communities was hard fought in California. Its first constitution—created in 1849, shortly after the conclusion of the Mexican-American War and a year before California attained statehood—limited suffrage to white male citizens of the United States and white male citizens of Mexico who had elected to become US citizens under the treaty ending the war. In addition, the state’s constitution gave the legislature the option of extending a “special” franchise to Native Americans, who were not generally considered to be US citizens at the time. Citizenship statutes were added in the 1879 state constitution in conjunction with nativist anti-Chinese provisions. While those anti-Chinese provisions are gone, the citizenship statutes remain, leaving even local school board elections inaccessible for many families in the state.

Most efforts to animate voters of color now in the Golden State are not based on a historical imperative to vote but rather are focused on the eleven statewide ballot propositions that should be seen as equally important as the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. One especially contentious measure is Proposition 34, which seeks to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without the possibility of parole. Some crime victim organizations have come out strongly against the measure, saying it denies justice for loved ones. But much of the narrative focuses on stereotypical portrayals of who is a criminal and who is a victim.

Deldelp Medina, Northern California coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, is not in favor of getting rid of the death penalty just because of wrongful convictions like that of Franky Carrillo. Wrongly convicted of murder at age 16 and served twenty years before having his case reversed, Carrillo’s story is featured prominently in pro Prop 34 ads.* Medina isn’t just concerned over the $4 billion spent on the death penalty since 1978 and the approximately $1 billion that will additionally be spent in the next five years if the death penalty remains law in the cash-strapped state. She, like many family members of crime victims who are against repealing the death penalty, wants justice for her community.

"I think that when you come from Latin America, a place where many are used to corruption winning, to the United States, you think that here you get your voice and your vote, that this is a fair system. Our communities learn the hard way that power corrupts and that justice is just as unequal as anywhere else,” Medina said.

She is not just referring to the fact that Franky Carillo’s father, his alibi, was dismissed as a witness because he couldn’t speak English. She’s referring to personal experience. Eight years ago, Medina’s aunt was murdered by her only son while he was in the midst of a schizophrenic break. While the family spiraled through multiple emotions, they had to plan a funeral and mount a defense, especially when the district attorney decided to pursue the death penalty for her cousin.

Medina’s experience puts her in an unenviable position. She can understand the pain and frustration with the criminal justice system from both sides. Medina points to the fact that 46 percent of murders go unsolved in California each year. Fifty-six percent of reported rapes are unsolved each year, a number she hopes will go down if Prop 34 passes thanks to the $100 million over three years that will be placed in a “SAFE California Fund” to help local law enforcement solve more murder and rape cases. If Prop 34 passes, SAFE California Fund will be disbursed by the Attorney General to police departments, sheriffs and district attorney offices.

Medina feels the media fiction portraying criminal perpetrator versus victim is dangerous. “There is no talk about black women being killed, about intra-family violence. We need to have conversations about this and Proposition 34 can start that, allowing people, families to heal because I don’t want any other families to go through what we did.”

And families of color are really at the core of why those who can vote in California should. Another important proposition asks for taxes for a public school system that has seen massive cuts. California is educating a Latino student population that is up from 25.8 percent in 1981 to 51.4 percent in 2010 and the largest Asian-American student population in the country. Perhaps some of those students are descendents of those purposely prevented from voting when California was a newborn state.

Beyond California, there are a number of significant congressional races, reflecting changing demographics in new and redrawn districts. These races may mean that the 113th Congress is more representative of the United States of today. Local races from school board to city council may contain the future leaders of the country. Just when you think your vote doesn’t matter, looking deeper, thinking beyond the presidency and into our communities may change your mind. Voting may not solve every problem, but think about it as just one tool, hard fought over, with which to create the communities we all deserve.

—Maegan E. Ortiz

*A previous version of this post inaccurately stated that Carillo served his time on death row.

Follow Voting Rights Watch 2012 here, a collaboration between The Nation and Color Lines.

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