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Voting Rights Watch

Voting Rights Watch

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

Voting Suppression Schemes and How They're Being Challenged

This week marks the forty-seventh anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. A lot has changed since then. A new app called Election Protection was released yesterday that allows voters to register, find their polling locations, and report problems. Voters around the nation are already familiar with the Election Protection program, which has long fielded complaints from voters on Election Day. The increased used of smartphones, along with the increased move to suppress votes, makes the app a must-have this election season. Here are updates from some key states in which constituents are already worried about their vote.

Michigan Voters Turned Away at the Polls
We’re watching primary elections this season to get a sense of the shenanigans that might occur on Election Day. Well, it’s already started in Michigan. You might recall that Governor Rick Snyder vetoed a bill last month that would have required voters to mark a checkbox indicating their US citizenship—expressly because he didn’t want voters to feel confused. Michigan Live is reporting that not only did Secretary of State Ruth Johnson issue ballots that included the checkbox but that there was indeed some major confusion over it at the polls this week. Election Protection, which unveiled the smartphone app mentioned earlier, says they received complaints from throughout the state, and that “several voters where turned away.”

New Mexico’s Massive Voter Purge
Community journalist George Lujan, who wrote about voter suppression in New Mexico last week, let us know that the massive voter purge is already taking its toll. Common Cause’s Voting Rights Director Diane Wood received a postcard stating she may need to verify her address in order to continue voting*. When she checked her voting status on the Secretary of State’s online database, she found that her status was listed as inactive, despite the fact she’s participated in every election in New Mexico since 1971.

Lawsuit Claims Iowa Purge Targets Latino Voters
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the ACLU and LULAC have filed suit against Iowa’s voter purge, claiming Secretary of State Matt Schultz is targeting Latino voters. Schultz issued “emergency rules” just three weeks ago to compare the state’s voter list to unspecified state and federal foreign national databases. Civil rights groups say the purge will threaten new citizens’ votes in the battleground state.

Pushback in Pennsylvania
The pushback against voter suppression continues to grow. Community journalist James Cersonsky tells us that the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition has added another partner to its alliance**, which already includes churches, unions, community, and other advocacy groups. James, who highlighted the efforts of one group, the Northwest Philadelphia Coalition last month, writes:

Another coalition partner, Vote For Homes, is a statewide coalition of its own with some fifty-member groups focusing on good jobs, quality services and affordable housing. For many groups within Vote for Homes, like Action Now and the Homeless Advocacy Project, the central mission is outreach or organizing. As such, voting rights advocacy builds on volunteer bases and organizing infrastructures already in place. “Elections are when people are paying attention to constituent groups,” says advocacy director Jenine Miller. “There are 6,000 people living in shelters right now in Philadelphia. We’re a voting bloc.”

Memphis Challenges Voter ID Law
We told you last month that Memphis city libraries began adding photos to the cards they issued so that they could be used as voter ID in Tennessee. Well, a sympathetic judge ruled against using the library card, because the law is written so that only a passport, driver’s license, military ID or gun permit counts as valid identification to vote. In fact, a gun permit from a neighboring state can be used to identify voters, but a school ID from a Tennessee school cannot. Memphis, in turn, is now challenging Tennessee’s voter ID law as unconstitutional.

—Aura Bogado

*This post previously stated that noted that the postcard Diane Wood received requested she confirm her voting status via the Secretary of State's website; the postcard only asked for address verification.

**This post previously noted that the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition had surpassed 300 constituent groups; that number is closer to 150. 

Undocumented Immigrants Ride Through the South, Headed for a DNC Coming Out

Photo: Fernando Lopez, courtesy of the No Papers No Fear Ride

Party conventions always attract more than just delegates. Although this year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC) will have its share of fans, onlookers and protesters, one particular group will hold a historic presence when they arrive next month. That’s because the workers, students, mothers and fathers who are participating in a new kind of Freedom Ride are all undocumented immigrants.

UndocuBus is transporting about thirty people across ten states this summer, as it approaches Charlotte, North Carolina, for the DNC. It’s making stops on the way to pick up new riders, and to meet with supporters. Whatever happens at the convention will depend on how federal immigration authorities—as well as the DNC itself—responds to the riders’ presence.

Getting on UndocuBus in Phoenix, Arizona, was no easy task for the riders. The city is home to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and members boarded an old single-deck bus that was repurposed and painted bright mint green with the words “No Papers No Fear” in English and Spanish on both sides. The bus will travel through states like Alabama, which has what’s considered the nation’s most draconian SB 1070–style law.

At Voting Rights Watch, we’re engaging community journalists as our eyes and ears on the ground. Early on, we decided the term “citizen journalist” would imply that only people born in the United States or naturalized through a process could weigh in this electoral season. Instead, we want to feature the voices of community journalists who may be undocumented and cannot vote, yet still have a stake in the electoral process.

Meet Eleazar Castellanos. He’s a 45-year-old day laborer who has lived in Tucson, Arizona, for sixteen years with his wife and child. For the bulk of that time, he worked creating custom marble and granite countertops. About four years ago, he found that he was unable to hold a steady job because of Arizona’s use of E-Verify, which checks federal employment eligibility, and essentially bars unauthorized immigrants from obtaining work. About one year ago, he heard about the Southside Worker Center, and began realizing that many other people faced similar circumstances. Although he doesn’t find work every day, he has found a community that reflects and honors his experience. When he heard about the tour, called No Papers No Fear Ride for Justice, he decided to participate. I spoke with him this week.

Why did you to want to board UndocuBus and publicly declare yourself undocumented?

Because I believe that I am not the only one in this situation. There are thousands upon thousands of us in the same circumstance. And not all of us have realized that we are not alone. And when I began going to the day labor center, I opened my eyes. I realized that we have to come out and struggle. I don’t want to stay in the shadows, I want to come out to the light, so people know that I’m here, and the problems that I’ve faced. Just because I’m undocumented doesn’t mean that I’m a criminal—because that’s what they try to make of me in Arizona, they catalog me as a criminal. But how can I be a criminal when I’ve been working and paying my taxes the entire time? So, in order for us to be heard, someone has to come forward. When they explained all the risks about boarding, I told them I wasn’t the one best suited for it. All of us were afraid; I was really afraid. But when we saw so much support, I chose to move forward. I have to speak—and not just for myself but for everyone at once. Someone has to represent Tucson, someone has to represent Southside Worker Center, and ask for an opportunity for my wife, for my daughter, for my brothers and for everyone to move forward. And that’s why I joined.

A lot of people might be surprised that you’re not only publicly claiming your undocumented status but that you’re headed to the DNC, despite the fact you cannot vote. Why did you think it would be important for you to show up at the convention?

Because the elections are coming. And the Democrats have helped us—even if it’s been in a very limited way. But at the same time, it’s a way to let them know that there are so many of us. But getting to the DNC isn’t just about reaching the Democratic delegates. We’re making this public so that everyone can pay attention to the crisis we’re facing: the pain, the sacrifice and the humiliation. I don’t know if you would consider it humiliating to have to search in the trash to find money or food with which to feed your family. But that’s what some of us have to go through because of E-Verify. That’s why we’re going to the DNC, why we’re letting people know about us on the way, and why I’m hoping that more people like me will join us. There are so many of us. Just a few years ago, there were 12 million undocumented immigrants. In that time, a lot of us have self-deported, but let’s not turn back without a fight. If we don’t gain anything out our struggle, that’s fine—but at least we can say we put up a fight.

Obama recently announced a deferred action for undocumented students, and some one million young people to apply for a two-year work permit next week. What do you think about that?

It wasn’t nearly enough. It’s possible that during those two years, those young people will be fine. But what if, during that time, someone has a radical idea to change the deferred action? They would have a new database of young people who applied, with their names and addresses. They will be easy to locate and arrest—and while they’re at it, they might arrest everyone inside the home. And if someone comes forward with an idea that the deferred action was a bad idea, those young people could be in jeopardy. Maybe they should hold off until a real change happens, before applying. That’s why I say Obama’s deferred action was not enough.

Undocumented students were unrelenting in their demands, and although, as you pointed out, the deferred action comes with serious flaws, it’s the first significant change to immigration policy in decades. Do you think that UndocuBus may have a similar impact, but one that effects all undocumented immigrants, not just students?

We’re not trying to put pressure on the DNC—we just want them to know what’s happening. The undocumented students deserved a lot more, so I don’t know if we can expect a significant policy change for the rest of us. But we want everyone to know that we’re here, that we’re worth something. That we’re people, we’re not animals. We’re not like the horse that you use for its labor, and once it’s old, you send it back to the fields to die out of sight. I love this country, but that’s not how I want to be seen, and that’s not how I want to be treated.

—Aura Bogado

Voter Suppression in the Land of Enchantment

Regardless of whether New Mexico is a swing state this November, and whether Governor Susana Martinez becomes Mitt Romney’s running mate, the Land of Enchantment state remains a place to watch. New Mexico has hardly figured in national news about voter suppression, in part because the state doesn’t have a voter ID law that is currently being challenged, and in part because its secretary of state is starting its own massive voter purge only this week, a relatively late date in the wave of purges. But an on-the-ground updated we’ve received from New Mexico may change our perception. It comes from the latest community journalist to join our Voting Rights Watch 2012 investigation, and it challenges us to really think about what voter participation means.

Meet George Lujan. He’s the communications organizer for the SouthWest Organizing Project, and a contributor and editor for El Grito. He lives in the South Valley with his fiancée and their two dogs. While still a teenager, George began registering voters more than ten years ago, when he worked with SWOP’s youth program. Earlier this week, Lujan reported to us that the six counties have run out of English-language registration forms, while Secretary of State Diana Duran—the first Republican to hold the office in eighty years—has focused her attention on a voter-roll purge.

—Aura Bogado

Voter Participation: A Two-Way Street

When we hear the term voter participation, we think about people who are engaged to some degree in local politics, and who will mobilize on Election Day to cast a ballot. The image also infers the opposite: eligible voters who do not participate, thereby weakening the democratic process. Voter participation focuses on individual responsibility—but a truly engaged voter base is also the responsibility of the state.

New Mexico has a small population, and because of the vast rural, low-income and indigenous communities here, hard data is sometimes hard to come by. In 2011, 1,427,493 people were eligible to register to vote; yet 250,000–600,000 remained unregistered. Voter registration groups see this gap as an opportunity to engage more potential voters in the electoral process. One would think that the state government would be ecstatic to receive a little help in outreaching to those hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans whose voices aren’t being heard. Yet through false claims about voter fraud, missing voter registration forms and an ominous voter purge, the state of New Mexico is the biggest threat to voter participation here this election season.

The registration group Voter Participation Center sent thousands of registration forms to addresses throughout the state, yet its effort to draw new voters was met with harsh criticism by the state. According to KFOX14, Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins said the group’s registration drive had “morphed into trying to get everybody in the world registered, including your pet dog or your 13-year-old daughter.” The Voter Participation Center admits it doesn’t have a perfect list, but that their process does its job of identifying people who are eligible to register.

A letter from Secretary of State Dianna Duran to the Voter Participation Center claimed that their “methods and [their] mailing lists appear to have significant flaws, to the detriment of many of the recipients, as well as the integrity of the voter file in New Mexico.” The secretary of state is afraid of the possibility of an ineligible straw man registering to vote, and seems less concerned with the reality of hundreds of thousands of eligible citizens who are not exercising their right to a voice in state government.

Officials could be trying to outreach to more potential voters and engage them in the democratic process. But apparently that risk is just too high, because… someone’s dog may get a registration letter? The County Clerk is relying on a tired old myth—that individuals are perpetuating voter fraud. Extensive research shows that voter fraud is almost nonexistent. The real outrage is that at least one-sixth, if not more, of New Mexico’s eligible voters aren’t even registered.

But what happens when someone who’s eligible wants to register? In some New Mexico counties, they can’t, because the state has essentially run out of voter registration forms. Secretary of State Duran has an obligation to make sure that elections function smoothly. This includes ensuring that there is broad participation from voters. In order for that to happen, Duran should do everything in her power to make sure every eligible voter is registered and encouraged to show up to the polls.

There’s a demand to register new voters, especially from young people who want to participate for the first time in November. But, according to KOB-TV Channel 4, Duran’s office ran out of English-language registration forms for six counties.

When we contacted Duran’s office, we were assured that there was never a shortage, and the story was false. When we contacted Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver, however, she explained that her office requested 70,000 registration forms in January—but was sent only 35,000. When they were down to only 200 registration forms, they found they could no longer supply third-party groups with the forms. Toulouse Oliver told Voting Rights Watch, “For all intents and purposes, we were down to nothing.”

It’s bad enough that the secretary of state’s office isn’t fulfilling its obligation to print registration forms. But it gets worse. In order to comply with a Department of Justice request to clean up the voter rolls, Duran is now conducting a massive voter purge. This week, the secretary of state’s office is sending out 177,000 postcards to New Mexico residents in an attempt to clean up voter files.

Duran’s office says that, in accordance to federal law, if a voter doesn’t respond to the postcard, they will still be eligible to vote in November. But this is the same office that ran out of registration forms and denied it. Apparently, the secretary of state’s office had enough resources to conduct a purge, but not enough resources to provide registration forms. And the purge doesn’t stop there. Duran is demanding the Department of Homeland Security turn over a federal database that identifies non-citizens who are eligible for public assistance, to cross reference to the voter list. The flawed approach may mean that eligible voters, who are mostly Latino, will be scrubbed from the rolls. [Editor’s note: As we’ve reported previously, this is a tactic pioneered in Florida and that is spreading across states doing purges.]

Voter participation is a two-way street between the electorate and the state. New Mexico does have a problem with voter participation—the participation of the secretary of state’s office and other elected officials who have not shown much interest in the integrity of our elections.

—George Lujan

I Have Photo ID, Therefore I Am

When Laila Stones sent a letter to the Commonwealth of Virginia requesting a copy of her birth certificate, the response was jarring: “They say I don’t exist,” she recounts under oath.

Stones needs her birth certificate so that she can obtain a photo identification card and thereby vote in November. She’s a witness against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where she now lives, in a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups to block the state’s voter ID law. Stones is one of at least ten witnesses called to testify about the burdens she’s suffered to obtain the ID now mandated for voting. Her testimony is mostly about why she doesn’t have the resources to comply.

But how can this be? How hard is it to get a driver’s license? You need one for everything these days: to cash a check, to board a plane, to open a bank account, to buy allergy medicine, to buy liquor. How can one function in society without a picture of themselves on a government-issued piece of plastic? As I’ve covered the voting rights battles of 2012, these are questions I’ve heard repeatedly not just from Republicans and conservatives, but also from some Democrats, liberals and progressives. How can one exist without this card?

Stones has lived in Philadelphia for fifty-three years, but was born in a small town in Virginia. I’m sitting in the Commonwealth courtroom listening as she explains from the witness stand how Virginia denied her a birth certificate. A lawyer from the petitioners’ side pulls a letter from Virginia’s vital records office that explains the denial.

She’s an African-American woman who’s wearing her hair in cornrows, with a white sleeveless shirt that’s maybe a notch above a tanktop and blue shorts. She’s what the body-mass-index campaigners would call “obese.” Her English is not the Queen’s, and it sounds like she might be chewing gum on the stand. These are not important characteristics to me, but I’d be dishonest if I said I didn’t notice them. I ask myself, what is in me that makes me want to notice her difference from the rest of the room?

And if I notice it, then God, those white lawyers representing the state in their crisp, FBI-dark suits, they must notice, too. Watching the state lawyers scribble on paper as she testifies, I wonder if they’re noting perceived inconsistencies in her statements, or simply that she’s wearing cornrows. Like I just did.

When Stones is cross-examined by one of the state’s attorneys, they ask her about how she gets around. The bus, she says.

And how long does it take you to get to your polling place? About a half-hour on public transportation.

Do you know your Social Security number? they ask this adult woman.

She begins reciting it aloud, number-by-number, emphasizing each numeral to prove she knows it. This is unnecessary, so the state’s attorney holds up his hand halting her from finishing the numbers. His hand motion draws laughter. “That’s very impressive,” he says.

The judge, who is white and robed darkly, also laughs, but politely, I guess. He sits to Stones’ immediate left, slightly elevated above her so that whenever he speaks directly to her, he must speak down to her. Same when he laughs.

Like Stones, most of the petitioners’ witnesses live in some kind of public housing facility. They live in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and some of them had to catch rides with their lawyers to this hearing in Harrisburg. After the hearing, they’ll return to their home cities and resume using public transportation. This is part of the reason why they don’t have driver’s licenses. This is also part of the reason why their lives are under assault.

Outside the courtroom, campaign wars are being waged over why America is broken, or at least why the economy is. Perhaps not coincidentally, the same political party and ideology that passed strict voter ID laws in Pennsylvania and at least a half-dozen other states in the last two years, are the same players calling for funding cuts to public transportation, public healthcare and public housing—in some cases, erasure of these funds altogether. They argue, in short, that people who turn to these public goods for life’s basic necessities need to get their shit together, like the rest of America.

Inside the courtroom, I wonder if the all-white lawyers of the state are thinking this, too, thinking that Stones just needs to get her shit together. I shudder to think the judge might think this, even though he’s so polite. I look around the mostly white courtroom—the judge, news reporters, even the advocates who have come to support Stones—and I wonder how many others share the thought.

Stones’ inability to get an ID comes through no fault of her own. She just doesn’t exist, according to Virginia. All we know of her reality, is what’s shared in court. At this point, that’s the ID cards in her possession: a check-cashing ID, a food stamp card, her Medicare card and a library card. The cards stand as symbols of the areas of society to which Stones has access. They are displayed on a wall-sized projector screen for all of us to gawk at, and judge. She has a library card and thus can educate herself about the politics of the moment, but her lack of a driver’s license now means she can’t vote on what she’s learned.

Pennsylvania’s lawyers argue that Stones can vote by other forms of ID. She should know this, they say, because they’ve been doing community outreach to ensure everyone learns the provisions of the new voter ID law. Yet it’s been established that the governor and secretary of state don’t know the details of the law themselves.

The Commonwealth argues that Stones can vote with the use of a passport. They assume she has left the country, or can afford to. They say she can use a college ID, assuming she went to college, or could afford to, or even that the college she might have attended puts expiration dates on its ID, as the voting law requires.

Some of the petitioners’ other witnesses didn’t finish high school. One witness, Anna Gonzalez, was adopted in New York after her birth in Puerto Rico, and has no birth certificate. Neither can she board a plane to get back to her native state to locate it. Puerto Rico also told Gonzalez she doesn’t exist, she testified earlier.

These are not irresponsible people. All of them have held jobs. The eldest witness, Viviette Applewhite, 93, an African-American, testified that one of her jobs was as a cleaning lady when she lived in Virginia. She cleaned a courtroom, “one just like this one,” she says from the stand. I look at the paintings of the white judges lining the perimeter of the courtroom and I wonder, Where are the paintings of the janitors like Applewhite? The room is pristine. Someone got it that way and it wasn’t the judges and the lawyers.

The Commonwealth’s lawyers grill Stones. They ask her to explain why she doesn’t have other forms of identification.

Tell me again why you don’t have a birth certificate? Do you have a Social Security card? Why not? Are you still trying to get one? When was the last time you tried? Did you know that if you took this bus route to get to that polling place before it closes, and then supply this information and then sign that application, and another one, and an affidavit, that you can have a Pennsylvania ID, delivered maybe on the last week of August?

These questions are to help the state prove its argument: that obtaining a voter ID is neither burdensome nor intrusive. But I also wonder if they seek these answers because they genuinely want Stones to account for herself. Because they don’t live her reality, but they want to understand. Because maybe understanding it might change their minds and they’ll drop the law. That seems unlikely.

The challenge for Stones’ lawyers is to convince the judge and the state’s leaders—people who also don’t live Stones’s reality—that her narrative is valid, as are the narratives of the other witnesses like her. We know that this is a Commonwealth, but the wealth assumed here in court is not at all common. And there are reasons for that.

So Stones submits to a grilling as her life, rather than the voter ID law, stands trial. She has, in recent years, been reminded constantly from the news, from Congress, from political campaigns that her use of public health insurance, public transit, public housing are all drains on the nation’s wealth; that people like her are the reason government is “too big,” the reason for the foreclosure crisis, for the economic collapse; that the race, gender, native status, income status of her and her fellow witnesses are all problems, as are the fact that they are carless or homeless.

Still, they have taken the stand, seated below the Commonwealth’s judge, which must take a tremendous amount of courage, to stand up for the rights of Pennsylvanians like themselves. They are fighting off the consequences of a new label: ID-less. Which is to say face-less, potentially vote-less. Or as Stones put it, far more eloquently, “They say I don’t exist.”

—Brentin Mock

What’s Happening With Voting Rights Near You? Here’s a National Look

Pennsylvania’s voter ID case continues this week, and so does the fight against voter suppression throughout the country. As students seek to organize around the Pennsylvania law, an online initiative seeks to register student voters. In New Mexico, meanwhile, several counties simply run out of registration forms. And Alabama becomes ground for a new redistricting fight. Here’s some of the latest voting rights news.

Online Registration Site Also Sends Reminder Texts
Eastern Michigan University became the twenty-fifth university to partner with TurboVote, a resource to get voters to fill out their registration forms online. Once completed, voters receive their already completed forms in the mail, ready for their signature to send out in a stamped and pre-addressed envelope. And in case you—like the rest of us—find it hard to keep up with every deadline and election, TurboVote will send you a text message to remind you. Started by two Masters students at Harvard’s Kennedy School two years ago, three campuses have already launched TurboVote and garnered nearly 10,000 members. As more community colleges and universities co-brand ahead of the fall term, co-founder Seth Flaxman tells us he’s excited to see how many voters will register before Election Day. Not a student? Don’t worry, TurboVote is for voters of all ages.

New Mexico Runs Out of Voter Registration Forms
If registering online isn’t your thing, you might have a hard time doing it in person in New Mexico. Our newest community journalist, George Lujan, tells us that six counties have run out of English language registration forms. Secretary of State Diana Duran—the first Republican to hold that office in eighty years—is ultimately responsible for printing and making the forms available to register new voters. According to KOB-TV Channel 4, her office says new forms will be available next month.

Penn Election Official Won’t Enforce Voter ID Law
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that at least one election official won’t enforce the law. Delaware County’s Christopher Broach, a Democrat, insists that he won’t ask voters to show identification because it’s a violation of civil rights. Another elections supervisor from Radnor Township, Republican Jane Golas, made clear that there the town has “never had an issue with people coming in to fraudulently vote,” and contends that the voter ID law was set in place to suppress Philly’s vote.

Philly College Students Discuss Voter ID
Last week, community journalist James Cersonsky produced a photo essay about a Freedom Ride from Philly to Harrisburg against voter ID—make sure to check it out if you haven’t already. James tells us the fight against the new law is far from over. The Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development met on Friday to discuss the way the new law may affect first time voters, and students in particular.

Heart of Dixie Claims Voting Rights Act Requirement is Unconstitutional
Whenever Alabama (or any state that has a history of discriminating against voters of color) draws a redistricting map, it must pre-clear it with the Department of Justice or through a federal court. The Heart of Dixie State avoided the DOJ, and is now asking the court of authorize its new map. However, Alabama is also claiming that pre-clearance is unconstitutional.

—Aura Bogado

[PHOTOS] Taking a ‘Freedom Ride’ Against Pennsylvania’s Voter ID

As Election Day approaches, we’ve seen increased reporting on voter suppression schemes. Journalists, lawyers, and academics are all weighing in, and our own project, Voting Rights Watch 2012, continues to investigate beyond the headlines, from a battle over the Voting Rights Act in Texas to purge lists in Florida and beyond.

But we’re also curious about what’s happening at the community level, and sparking a conversation about why communities that are often either ignored or bashed by elected officials of all stripes would care about voting rights in 2012. Last week, I introduced you to Miracle Randle, a rising college senior whose own family history inspired her get involved to defeat a ballot measure in Minnesota what would require ID to vote. Over the coming weeks, we’ll introduce you to more community activists and bloggers, who will explain what draws them to work against voter suppression. Several of them are also joining our Voting Rights Watch 2012 team as community journalists, offering additional eyes and ears in their districts and states.

One of those team members is James Cersonsky in Pennsylvania. He works with Philly’s Teacher Action Group and Asian-Americans United around education reform and community-centered pedagogy. Aside from his activism, he’s also a writer who will be sending us missives about how everyday people in Philly are organizing around the state’s voter ID law. This week, as the state’s Supreme Court hears a case challenging that law, James joined a group of voters who evoked the civil rights era Freedom Rides to highlight the racially biased impact of the law. Here’s his report from the bus to Harrisburg.

—Aura Bogado


‘I’m One Who Will Stir It Up’

As Pennsylvania’s voter ID law was being fought inside the state’s Supreme Court this week, more than 1,000 people rallied outside the state’s capital in protest of the law, which may disenfranchise up to 43 percent of Philadelphia’s voters.

Shortly after the law passed in March, leaders from the Northwest Philadelphia Coalition started a neighborhood-based campaign called “Keeping my Vote”. Since then, the group has recruited scores of volunteers to organize neighbors around voting rights and ensure people have the right documentation to vote in November.

On Tuesday, group members joined with others from the statewide Voter ID Coalition to take buses to the capital. I met up with forty people at Germantown’s Johnson House—a stop on the Underground Railroad that now runs youth programming on histories of protest—for a “Freedom Ride” to Harrisburg. We shared stories, watched videos, belted out gospel songs and took a rest along our two-hour bus trip before spending the day at the capital, denouncing the voter ID law. Here are some photographs from our ride.

On the ride to the capital, we watch clips from PBS’ Eyes on the Prize, which recounts the story of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Mjenzi Traylor laments, “People don’t have the advantage of having this history in their communities and homes.” In 1967, Traylor was arrested at Philly’s school district headquarters for protesting the shortage of black teachers and lack of black history taught in city schools. Before that, he was president of the NAACP of Flint, Michigan, where he led a rally—attended by Governor George Romney—following Medgar Evers’ murder.


Though Leandra Hunter (left) won’t be 18 by November, she’s enthusiastic about educating her peers on civil rights and civic engagement. Hunter, a high school senior who recently received certification as a nursing assistant, wasn’t always into politics herself. When she applied for a job with Philly’s WorkReady summer program, she described herself as a people person, which landed her at the office of State Representative John Myers. There, under the mentorship of youth organizer Annette Young-Gordy (right), she helps provide clothing, food, and ID support to district residents. 


En route to Harrisburg, Stephen Kinsey (left) signs up for the Johnson House mailing list while his “body guard,” 85-year-old Nathan Thomas, watches. Kinsey will replace the soon-to-be retired Representative Myers after winning a three-way primary in April. Already, Kinsey has been inundated with calls from neighbors concerned about the state’s new voting requirements.


Clarice McIntosh (second from right) maintains her support for Obama, but says that change begins with grassroots organizing. McIntosh grew up in Ohio as a “rebel child” and Vietnam dissident inspired by the likes of Angela Davis and Malcolm X. Along with her husband Lee (second from left), she volunteers with Concerned Citizens for Change, a former subsidiary of ACORN.


Tara Smith (far right) sees a priority role for women as activists and leaders: “As soon as we organize, we can get the men to follow.” Marvetta Coleman, Smith’s red-and-white-clad sister from the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, was a co-host of the Harrisburg rally. Smith’s voter activism is also a natural outgrowth of her job. After the rally, she headed to West Philly to lead a neighborhood meeting for Town Watch, a city community policing initiative in which she serves as a Community Support Specialist.


On the ride back to Philly, Rena Traves led an impromptu bus-wide rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” Traves is a 91-year-old, lifelong Philly resident who refuses to own a rocking chair. As an Episcopal deacon, she is active with Keeping My Vote’s clergy committee and envisions organizing clergy throughout the city around voting rights. “I’m one who will stir it up,” she says. “That’s our job. Let’s be intentional about what we do.” 

—James Cersonsky

Why Today’s Voter ID Face-off in Pennsylvania Is Crucial

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele had a message for the hundreds of people gathered at the State Capitol yesterday to rally against voter ID laws: “Go home” and find ways to make their fellow citizens comply with the state’s controversial law.

“We hope that some of the people who are outside would go home from this rally,” said Aichele during a closed-door press conference. “Focus that energy, go home and find five people who need transportation to a [driver’s license] ID center and take those people to get photo identification.”

Today, a court will begin hearing arguments in a case to determine whether the state’s voters must in fact carry Aichele’s burden. Ten Pennsylvania residents will seek to demonstrate how the state denied them ID for voting purposes, thereby showing the harmful effect of the law that is required to knock it down. The voters’ lawyers are seeking an injunction to stop the law due to the problems it poses for hundreds of thousands of voters. For an injunction, they don’t have to prove the law violates voters’ rights. They need only to convince a judge that there are too many unresolved issues with the law that deserve deeper scrutiny.

The legal push and pull over voter ID laws has moved through a growing number of states, as federal and state courts weigh the laws’ constitutionality. The fight in Pennsylvania, like an earlier one in Wisconsin, stands out in that plaintiffs believe they’ll be able to show clear harm to specific groups of people, including along racial lines.

Testifying against the state will be Matt Barreto, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality, who surveyed over 1,285 Pennsylvanians and found disproportionate burdens on multiple voting populations, including Latinos, women, the elderly and those of very low income.

If Barreto’s research is correct, then 1.3 million Pennsylvanians, or 14.4 percent of the voter-eligible population, lack ID—that’s twice as large as the number of votes President Obama earned in the state in 2008. Aichele’s office originally said that only 1 percent of voters, or about 88,000, lacked ID, but then later released figures suggesting that 9.2 percent of voters, or 759,000, didn’t have state-issued photo ID. Yesterday, Aichele said they’re back to sticking with the 88,000 number.

The Department of Justice has requested information from Aichele’s office about the numbers of eligible voters lacking ID and their racial demographics. Aichele said at the press conference, “We will comply with the request from the Department of Justice and provide the information they have requested.”

DOJ’s intervention in the state is unique (for a lot of reasons) because unlike the other states they’ve interrogated for passing questionable voter laws—Texas, South Carolina and Florida—Pennsylvania doesn’t need their pre-clearance. Those other states have histories of discrimination at the polls and are considered “covered jurisdictions” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The investigation into Pennsylvania is being done under Section 2, which prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity or language, whether by intention or impact.

Asked by a reporter if she thought DOJ’s request suggested the voter ID law might be constitutionally faulty, Acihele responded: “The state of Pennsylvania believes the law passed by the General Assembly was valid and will sustain any kind of test. Our law is very similar to the law in Indiana and we are being called into question under Section 2 not Section 5. South Carolina and Texas have past histories of discrimination. Pennsylvania does not. So we would fall under the same category as Indiana.”

This is the same argument that Aichele will lean on in this week’s court hearings. Their original crutch, that voter ID laws are needed to stop voter fraud, went bust when they realized they had no prosecuted cases to back up their argument.

Republican Philadelphia Commissioner Al Schmidt tried to help along the fraud case by releasing a report last week on the subject, but it failed miserably. The so-called “Schmidt Report” may have even helped civil rights lawyers, since it reinforced the point that voter-impersonation fraud hasn’t and isn’t happening.

So the state will claim their voter ID law is the twin to Indiana’s law, which passed muster under the US Supreme Court. But there are two big problems with that.

First, this week’s case is being argued on state constitutional grounds, not federal constitutional grounds—as was the case with the Indiana law challenge. There is technically no “right to vote” established in the US Constitution, only a prohibition of race-based voting obstructions. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s constitution is much more clear about its citizens’ voting rights.

Second, civil rights lawyers failed in Indiana because they didn’t produce any individuals who had actually been harmed by the law. In the Pennsylvania case, there are 10 people who will show how they’ve been harmed by the law, including being denied ID, or being denied the documents needed to obtain ID. That makes it more akin to Missouri. In that state, when voter ID boosters claimed their law cloned Indiana’s, the Missouri Supreme Court still rejected it after residents testified how the law prevented them from voting. And the US Supreme Court’s own Indiana decision left a path open for voters to revisit the case if discrimination was found.

It’s the discriminatory impact that Aichele and the state seem to be in flat-out denial about. They’ve not even acknowledged the impact on black and Latino voters. The only remedy Aichele has proposed is modification of the rules for obtaining a photo ID, which her office has modified twice.

When I asked Aichele if these modifications suggested an admission that the voter ID law is burdensome for voters, she responded, “I would say we have identified specifically the problem of out-of-state residents who are having trouble getting birth certificates from other states and other countries for that matter. The birth certificate issue is a tough hurdle.”

It’s indeed tough for over 120,000 Pennsylvanians from Puerto Rico, where the government invalidated all birth certificates before 2010. Reaching out to the Latino population seems not even a thought to Aichele’s office, which built a website, votespa.com, to spread awareness about voter laws that has an inoperable link to the Spanish translation of the site.

Another note on race and ethnicity: when Aichele said Pennsylvania has no history of racial discrimination, she wasn’t telling the whole truth. It was just 2010 when Chester County was sued in federal court for depriving students at the historically black Lincoln University of their right to vote. Aichele was named in that suit, as she was the commissioner of Chester County at the time and in charge of their elections. Now she’s in charge of the state’s elections. Everett L. Butcher, head of the Chester County Minority Caucus, was at yesterday’s rally and told me that Lincoln University students may be deprived again, because their student IDs don’t have expiration dates.

While Butcher was out in the sweltering heat yesterday, still advocating for black students, Aichele was in the cozy confines of a state government building, where she neither had to face her history nor the hundreds of people fighting against voting obstacles. But this week, the state won’t be able to avoid facing Viviette Applewhite, Wilola Shinholster Lee, Grover Freeland, Gloria Cuttino, Nadine Marsh, Dorothy Barksdale, Bea Bookler, Joyce Block, Henrietta Kay Dickerson and Devra Mirel “Asher” Schor—the petitioners in the case. These are real Pennsylvanians with personal narratives about how the new voting rules acted as barriers to their voting rights. Before the judge, Aichele won’t have the luxury of telling them to simply “go home” and find out how to deal with it.

—Brentin Mock

Study Links ‘Racial Resentment’ and Voter ID Support

A new survey indicates that people who “harbor negative sentiments towards African Americans” are also more likely to support voter ID laws. And the correlation extends beyond party and ideological lines.

Researchers at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication weren’t surprised to find that most Republicans and conservatives were in favor of voter ID laws—regardless of how they measured on the “racial resentment” scale used in the study. The shocker came when Democrats and liberals who rated highest on the racial resentment scale also indicated support for voter ID laws.

How likely one is to possess or be able to acquire a specific form of voter ID is also affected by race. The Brennan Center released a report illustrating, among other challenges to obtaining identification, the lack of overlap between offices that issue valid voter IDs and high populations of people of color. More than 1 million blacks and half a million Latinos live more than 10 miles away from such offices.

One map in the study illustrates that in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, driver’s license offices that are open more than twice a week are located largely away from rural black populations. An additional map illustrates that areas with high Latino populations also lack offices that issue IDs that will be considered valid if Texas requires them in the upcoming election.

Another Judge Blocks Wisconsin’s Voter ID
A second judge blocked Wisconsin’s voter ID requirement, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. Dane County Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan ruled the measure unconstitutional. Citing obstacles to getting a valid identification, Judge Flanagan wrote that obtaining “a DMV Photo ID can easily be a frustrating, complex and time-consuming process,” adding that any associated costs are significant for poor people. The state is expected to appeal the ruling.

Feds Hand Over Database for State Purges
The Department of Homeland Security has agreed to allow Florida access to the SAVE database, AP reports. The Sunshine State sued the DHS for access, and the Department of Justice sued Florida to block it from conducting a voter purge. A federal judged ruled in favor of Florida’s purge, and now, the DHS is handing over a database meant to identify non-citizens eligible for public assistance. DHS says it will also make the SAVE system available to Colorado and Washington. The battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico and Nevada are expected to acquire the database as well—and Texas is already drafting its demand. The states believe that by identifying non-citizens who are eligible for public assistance, they’ll be able to identify names to purge from voter rolls as well.

Check Out My Voter ID
Memphis city libraries began adding photos to cards so that they could be used as voter IDs—but the Shelby County election commission says the IDs cannot be used to cast a ballot, reports WMC-TV 5. Local Democrats say they may initiate a lawsuit in order compel the election commission to accept the ID.

Iowa Investigates Three Cases of Voter Fraud—and Finds None
Iowa’s Secretary of State “has made it his top priority” to pass a voter ID law in his state. In order to do so, he wants to illustrate at least one example of voter fraud. Yet after vigorously investigating a whopping three possible instances of voter fraud, Matt Schultz’ office can’t conclude that any of them amount to actual fraud, according to the Associated Press. Had Secretary Schultz been paying attention, he might have noticed that fraud occurs only 0.0002% of the time—so it’s unlikely he’ll find anything to bolster his claim.

—Aura Bogado

Minnesota Voter ID Amendment Draws Youth Activists

A coalition of groups led by the ACLU and the League of Women Voters made arguments in Minnesota’s Supreme Court yesterday against a ballot measure that would amend the state’s constitution to “require all voters to present valid photographic identification to vote.” The plaintiffs argue that the measure’s language obscures how the constitution would be changed. “Valid photographic identification” would only include those that were government-issued, and not other forms of ID, such as those issued by schools.

Minnesota remains one of only seven states that does not use a provisional ballot system. This measure would institute provisional voting, but lawyers argue that the measure is misleading because it makes no mention of the significant change to the way votes are counted when using provisional ballots.

The measure, which will be decided by voters in November if the state’s high court allows it, also requires “the state to provide free identification to eligible voters.” Yet those IDs wouldn’t exactly be free—at minimum, taxpayers would foot the bill, as would voters who would first need to obtain a $26 birth certificate and travel up to 100 miles to a Department of Vehicle Services office to apply for their ID.

The voter ID measure is supported by Minnesota Majority, which has been accused of using a racist ad to call attention to the imaginary problem of voter fraud. The ad in question features a black man in a prison uniform, and a mariachi musician waiting in line to vote.

The court is expected to issue its decision by August 27, so the secretary of state’s office will know whether to print up this fall’s ballots with the constitutional amendment proposal.

But not everyone’s waiting until the state’s Supreme Court decision to do something. I spoke with Miracle Randle by phone about her decision to begin working with TakeAction Minnesota’s Stop Photo ID campaign. A rising senior at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, this 22-year-old feels she’s inherited a legacy of civil rights. I spoke to her while she was at the school library, where she was studying for a class she’s currently enrolled in, before she took off to a meeting to strategize about the campaign she’s working on. Randle works in a phone bank, as well as in groups of four people who go door-to-door to talk with potential voters about this fall’s ballot measure.

What drew you to do work against the voter ID ballot measure?

I learned about voter ID in February of this year. Before then, I didn’t understand what the bill was about, but I began researching it. I realized that if the amendment passes, everyone would need ID in order to vote—but there a lot of people in my community, in low-income communities, and homeless people who can’t afford ID. But everyone who’s eligible should be able to exercise their right to vote.

I’m currently taking a class on human rights for the summer term and my professor talked to us about voter suppression. After class, she told me about TakeAction and how I could get involved in the group, and I was very excited to finally be able to do something to help create change in Minnesota and in my particular community.

I grew up in Chicago, where the community is a foundation for everything, so I’m taking a community approach here to bring African-Americans together around this. And I’m getting my friends to join me, by phone banking or going door to door. Our future generations will be affected depending on how this measure goes.

You mentioned growing up in Chicago, which was a hotbed of civil rights activism fifty years ago. Do you see that generation’s work connecting to what you’re doing today?

Definitely. I grew up with my grandma, she raised me and took care of me, I have aunties who were part of the civil rights movement. And I think this is why I became involved in the effort against voter suppression. My aunties and my uncles marched for the right to vote for all of us—for my right to vote. And I don’t think it’s fair that one strike could overturn everything that they fought so hard for.

And this is about the suffragette movement before that, too. The women who came before me fought to make it our right to vote. And now this measure threatens that, because women who are escaping domestic abuse may not be able to vote if they don’t have a current and permanent address. So this could potentially suppress that vote as well. For me, it just hits close to home. And that’s why I’m working to defeat it in November.

How do people respond when you show up at their door? Or when you call them at home?

Some people are already set to vote against it and protect everyone’s right to vote—but some people still feel that everyone should simply have an ID. So my challenge becomes explaining how low-income people are limited in their ability to get the proper type of ID needed. I haven’t been especially successful yet, but I’m brand-new to organizing and campaigning. I started two months ago, and it can only get better.

This is my first time doing organizing, and I love it. I graduate next year and now I realize that this is what I want to do from here forward—work towards social justice by preventing voter suppression.

—Aura Bogado

It’s Bigger Than Texas: Voting Rights News Roundup


All eyes have been on a federal court in DC this week that will decide the future of Texas’s voter ID law. Among other arguments, Texas maintains that its constituents support voter ID, and that getting ID is not an obstacle.

The Department of Justice asserts that Texas has yet to prove that the law will not have a discriminatory affect on marginalized voters. Attorney General Eric Holder told an NAACP gathering in Houston this week that there’s a term for schemes that make it so that eligible voters have to “travel great distances to get [identification cards]” and make it a struggle to get them: “poll taxes,” in reference to laws that predate Jim Crow and barred the poor from casting their votes.

But plenty of young voters of color also traveled to DC to be heard—people like Blake Green, Ariana Williams and Christina Sanders, who work with the Texas League of Young Voters. Along with the Texas League of Young Voters, Williams networked through the Historically Black Colleges and Universities group to help build the case against Texas. The league also produced a video that highlights that up to 2.4 million Texans may be effected by the voter ID law.

As Texas points out, “Poverty is not a protected classification under the Constitution,” and if “minority voters are disproportionately indigent,” they are not being discriminated against on the basis of race. Texas also argues that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires the state to obtain preclearance from the DOJ in order to make changes to its districts or voting rules, is unconstitutional.

If the court rules in favor of the DOJ, and finds that Texas must obtain preclearance, the court will then also have to attend to the constitutional challenge to Section 5, which may result in a new venue at the Supreme Court.  

Florida To Release Purge List
Despite an election official’s statements to the contrary, Florida will release the names of about 180,000 “suspected non-citizens” on its purge list. The state released a small sample of names in May, which contained individuals who were, in fact, citizens—and helped lead Florida to halt the purge. 

Move Over Florida, Colorado’s Purging, Too
Colorado is following in the Sunshine State’s flawed purge effort, and is demanding the Department of Homeland Security validate the citizenship of some 5,000 voters. Colorado’s Secretary of State Scott Gessler added the names of eleven Republican officials from eleven other states who are expected to request the same of DHS. As the Denver Post points out, two of those states, Ohio and Iowa, join Colorado as battlegrounds states this election season.

Seniors Still Lack IDs Needed to Vote in Tennessee
More than 230,000 Tennessee seniors have non-photo driver’s licenses—and 126,000 of them are registered voters who will not be able to use their existing ID to cast a ballot. And a program aimed at getting these seniors a free photo ID is failing. The Institute for Southern Studies found that only 17 percent of those seniors have taken advantage of the program. According to state officials, 20,923 new IDs have been issued under the program, which means that up to 100,000 seniors might find that their old license won’t be enough to vote on Election Day.

CVS, Best Buy, MillerCoors, Hewlett-Packard and John Deere have said goodbye to ALEC, the lobby group that has pushed for voter ID laws in various states. ColorOfChange.org members have now pressured twenty-five corporations to leave ALEC.

—Aura Bogado

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