In-depth coverage of voter suppression efforts nationwide, in partnership with Colorlines.com.
Between the shenanigans uncovered by GOP operative Nathan Sproul and Strategic Allied Consulting with falsified voter registration forms, and the ongoing voter challenges waged by tea party groups “empowered” by True the Vote, Representative Elijah Cummings had seen enough to believe voter suppression might be in the queue for Election Day. Last week he sent a letter to True the Vote’s founder Catherine Engelbrecht requesting documents that would explain the ballot security organization’s operations.
The letter in many ways was also a categorical rundown of recent True the Vote (or True the Vote–inspired) actions that suggest suppression if not intimidation are their modus operandi. The letter lists Engelbrecht stating at a Conservative Political Action Conference meeting that she “absolutely” was working to have the Obama administration replaced, hundreds of Ohio college students whose voter status were challenged incorrectly by True the Vote affiliate Ohio Voter Integrity Project, a black Ohio family incorrectly challenged by the same group, and more of the same false reporting in North Carolina and Cummings’ state of Maryland.
Cummings wrote, “If these efforts are intentional, politically motivated, and widespread across multiple states, they could amount to a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate voters their constitutional rights.”
True the Vote has responded saying they would avail themselves “to any official House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform inquiry,” and has invited Representative Cummings to a briefing meeting and to participate in their poll watcher trainings. But they have not agreed to hand over the documents he has requested.
Engelbrecht wrote in a response letter, “It was of great concern to me that you had suddenly requested a considerable amount of documentation on the basis of news reports which offered limited balance and an over-simplification of the facts,” and that Cummings’ letter “demonstrate a second-hand knowledge or poor staff- researched understanding of our organization’s activities.”
J. Christian Adams, a former US Department of Justice attorney and True the Vote partner, was much harsher, writing on his blog that “Cummings needs to get himself a lawyer who knows more about election law and less about playing the race card. First of all, there is no federal statute which mentions ‘voter suppression.’”
Speaking with Representative Cummings over the weekend, he said he was “very saddened” by comments that he was “playing the race card.” Said Cummings, “Every two years I raise my hand to protect the rights of the citizens of our country and if I see that there is deliberate effort to deny anyone their vote, I don’t care what color they are. And if it appears to be an effort to either sway an election or to improperly suppress a vote I’ve got to at least do what I’m sworn to do under oath.”
Adams point about “voter suppression” not being mentioned in federal law is only correct that those two words are literally not in the text. But the idea that voter suppression as an action is unaddressed by federal law is completely false, and it’s really a shame that Adams would attempt to make this point at all. Section 1985 of Title 42 of our federal laws states:
If two or more persons in any State or Territory conspire or go in disguise on the highway or on the premises of another, for the purpose of depriving, either directly or indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws; … or if two or more persons conspire to prevent by force, intimidation, or threat, any citizen who is lawfully entitled to vote, from giving his support or advocacy in a legal manner, toward or in favor of the election of any lawfully qualified person as an elector for President or Vice President, or as a Member of Congress of the United States…
…Then they may sue the offending party. It may not have the word “suppression” spelled out, but we know what’s being described here. Law professor Simon Stern, a former clerk to a Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals judge and law lecturer at Harvard, explained to me that Section 1985 was originally part of the KKK Act of the 1870s and dealt with direct confrontation with newly freed African-Americans who were trying to vote.
The law addresses “people who conspire to intimidate people or make them anxious or fearful about exercising their right to vote,” said Stern. So when True the Vote says they want voters to feel like they’re “driving and seeing the police following you,” says Stern, “It seems to me—look, how would you feel about it? I hear it as someone who is very familiar with the phenomenon of driving while black and wants people who he is advising to look after people who are voting to make them feel like they are voting while black.”
(True the Vote attempted to explain their “police” quote here.)
Stern went on to say that the police quote, coupled with the implementation of True the Vote’s voter registration challenger activities, where they comb voter rolls and challenge any voter deemed suspicious, could run afoul of the law, especially if True the Vote is targeting predominantly black or Latino districts. Cummings’ document request could reveal such targeting practices if they exist—if True the Vote hands the documents over, which they have not said for certain they would do.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of reports that show True the Vote has targeted neighborhoods that are majority people of color. In May, we reported from True the Vote’s guest speaker John Fund (author of the book Stealing Elections) at their national summit told the Tea Party audience that minority neighborhoods needed to be targeted because that’s where the voter fraud was, while “nice suburban areas” were “insulated” from voter fraud.
The New York Times recently reported about True the Vote’s 2009 dealings:
In Houston, the group targeted the Congressional district represented by Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who is black. Ms. Engelbrecht said the group settled on Ms. Lee’s district because thousands of addresses there housed six or more registered voters, which it took as an indication of inaccurate registrations. The methodology, which the group still uses, could disproportionately affect lower income families.
The Brennan Center for Justice produced the report “Voter Challengers,” which directly addresses a lot of True the Vote’s activities and says:
In 2011, a Houston-area organization called True The Vote announced its goal of recruiting one million people to serve as poll-watchers during the 2012 general election. The group has been supporting local activists’ efforts to challenge voters in dozens of states over the past few months. In May, one of these local activists challenged over 500 voters in Wake County, North Carolina, most of whom were voters of color.
Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center told me it is difficult to identify the hard legal line on True the Vote’s activities but, “What I do know is that these private security operatons, because they are not professionals who make decisions about voter eligiblity day in and day out, are making mistakes.”
A litany of those mistakes are spelled out in Representative Cummings’ letter, as well as plentiful reports on True the Vote from media outlets such as News 21, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Atlantic, Talking Points Memo, Washington Monthly, Demos and many others. Even Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who is no friend of voting rights advocates, said of the True the Vote–empowered Ohio Voter Integrity Project, “When you cry wolf, and there’s no wolf, you undermine your credibility, and you have unjustly inconvenienced a legally registered voter, and that can border on voter intimidation.” (Husted pulled out of a speaking engagement with True the Vote after Voting Rights Watch 2012’s profile of the group was published.)
Representative Cummings told me he was “emotional” about these operations. “It is because of the right to vote that has allowed me, the son of sharecroppers, to be a congressman. The right to vote is what has allowed folks in my district to have some say over their destiny. At 62 years old, it pains me to know that as I march towards the end of my life that I would still be fighting this fight.”
For more on True the Vote, read Brentin Mock on former representative Artur Davis, one of the organization's prized supporters.
In another voting rights victory, a federal appeals court has blocked the state of Ohio from cutting off its early voting hours. As Colorlines.com reported in August, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, cut off early voting the weekend before the election.
Because black churches encourage their congregants to vote after services the Sunday before Election Day, Husted’s move would have disproportionately affected black voters. The new rule would have allowed military voters to cast their ballots in person through the weekend—but not any others. Today’s ruling doesn’t mandate all polling places to remain open for early hours—local elections boards will make that decision.
ColorOfChange.org led a campaign to pressure Secretary Husted, a Republican, to guarantee access to the polls for everyone in Ohio. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s campaign sued the state to allow early voting the weekend before Election Day.
ColorOfChange.org Executive Director Rashad Robinson issued the following statement after today’s ruling:
“Today’s decision is in line with what members of the ColorOfChange community have long known: Black, low-income and elderly voters as well as students and other groups are more likely to vote if they have a broader range of opportunities to do so. Ohioans now need to demand that county boards of election open their doors those three days before Election Day so that everyone can take advantage of those weekend hours.
“We cannot afford to have November 6th be a replay of the 2004 election debacle, in which many Ohioans waited upwards of 10 hours in line to vote. By calling for an end to weekend voting throughout the month of October, Secretary of State Husted has indicated that he wants a return to that kind of election, in which Black Ohioans and other groups that typically vote Democratic were disenfranchised. It’s a shame that Mr. Husted is playing partisan politics by putting barriers to the polls. Our community is still calling on him to open the polls all remaining weekends in October. Beyond that, it is our strong hope that Mr. Husted complies with today’s ruling and instructs the county boards of election to immediately make arrangements for voting for the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday before Election Day.”
Yesterday, Judge Robert Simpson put a temporary hold on the full implementation of Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, allowing for voters to cast ballots in November’s elections regardless of whether they have a state-issued photo identification or not. The ruling prompted yet another statement from the state’s GOP leadership that calls into question the motives for the law in the first place.
Up until this point, Judge Simpson had been deferring to state government officials, relying on what they said they would be doing to ensure everyone would be able to vote, as opposed to what they were actually doing, or even what they were capable of doing.
That worked for the initial voter ID hearing he presided over in July, when he initially denied an injunction based on a “predictive judgement” of the state’s best intentions. But then the Pennsylvania Supreme Court told him last month that he had to make a ruling based on the state’s currently practiced voter ID operations, and be sure it had zero intolerance for disenfranchisement.
Before Simpson’s court again last week, the state tried to reinterpret the Supreme Court’s orders in two ways: First, it tried to redefine disenfranchisement, saying the term didn’t include people who got fed up with the state’s onerous requirements. Second, the state’s lawyers said the Supreme Court meant for Simpson to make a ruling based on the “future perfect”—what they will have done—not what they are doing, and proceeded with pointing to the state’s voter ID law changes as their proof.
Judge Simpson bought neither. He found three problems (detailed at the bottom of page 3 in Simpson’s ruling in the link), one of which was that the law as demonstrated now is still deficient in granting all voters access to ID—“the evidence is similar in kind to the prospective ‘assurances of government officials’ testimony which the Supreme Court found an unsatisfactory basis for a ‘predictive judgment,’ ” he wrote. In other words, the future was imperfect.
Also, he rejected the state’s revised definition of “disenfranchisement” in no uncertain terms saying:
I am not still convinced in my predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement arising out of the Commonwealth’s implementation of a voter identification requirement for purposes of the upcoming election. … I conclude that the salient offending conduct is voter disenfranchisement.”
While Simpson had deferred to the state in his previous ruling, what he failed to recognize was that the way the state officials—from the Department of State and Department of Transportation—were talking about the law was completely different than how the state legislators who created and passed the law were talking about it.
Yesterday, after Simpson’s ruling, Representative Daryl Metcalfe—lead sponsor of the voter ID bill and House State Government Committee majority chairman—made the following statement:
Rather than making a ruling based on the constitution and the law, this judicial activist decision is skewed in favor of the lazy who refuse to exercise the necessary work ethic to meet the commonsense requirements to obtain an acceptable photo ID.… Rather than using today’s ruling as an opportunity to increase both voter integrity and accountability by requiring every Pennsylvania voter to prove they are who they say they are by presenting a valid photo ID before casting a vote, as Constitutionally upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Simpson and the Corbett administration have chosen to openly enable and fully embrace the ever-increasing entitlement mentality of those individuals who have no problem living off the fruits of their neighbors’ labor.
Let’s put aside the fact that Simpson’s ruling was completely in alignment with both the state and federal constitutions, not to mention the Voting Rights Act, which forbids any law that places obstructions to voting before people of color. Instead, focus on Metcalf’s comments about the “lazy,” which he first brought to the public realm in a radio interview right after the state Supreme Court raised the disenfranchisement issue in their ruling.
My colleague Ari Berman expounds plenty on this in his post “The ‘Lazy’ ‘47 Percent’ Vote,” but what we have here are state legislators who think that voters aren’t being disenfranchised, they’re just being slackers. But more than that, Representative Metcalfe ties this voter ID issue into claims by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his veep running mate Paul Ryan that there is a huge percentage of people in society who are “takers,” mooching off the so-called “makers” in society. How this applies to a fundamental right to vote for everyone, and which detracts from no one, as guaranteed in the Pennsylvania constitution is unclear.
What is clear is that Republicans in Pennsylvania think that anyone who isn’t voting for them or following their agenda are fraudulent, irresponsible welfare queens who are undeserving of the vote. Statements made by Representative Mike Turzai, who candidly admitted that the voter ID laws were passed to help “Romney win Pennsylvania,” and the Pennsylvania GOP about Simpson’s ruling weren’t much better. After yesterday’s ruling, Turzai released a statement that decried voter fraud even though the state’s lawyers brought forth no evidence of voter fraud.
Many thought that the “47 percent,” and “30 percent” comments of Romney and Ryan would harm their campaigns, but the Republican Party must not have gotten that memo, because now they’re doubling down on the comments.
Meanwhile, for those who still support an actual democracy, the words most precious are those recently spoken by First Lady Michelle Obama, who said, “It is up to us. We cannot let anyone discourage us from casting our ballots.”
— Brentin Mock
When Minnesota voters head to the polls this November, they’ll decide on whether to amend their state’s constitution to “require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote,” and to mandate the state issue free ID to eligible voters beginning in July of 2013.
As we reported this summer, the amendment’s language is plagued with problems. So much so, that lawyers thought they could challenge the amendment’s appearance on the ballot. But they lost in the state’s Supreme Court.
What voters won’t necessarily know when they vote on the measure is that only government-issued ID will be acceptable—not student IDs. And while the amendment requires the state to issue “free identification,” it’s taxpayers who will be paying, as well as individuals who may need to travel as far as 100 miles to issuing agency, only after they’ve obtained a $26 birth certificate.
Outside of the legal arena, community groups have been doing their share of work to defeat the amendment—and are now using social media to spread their message. Our community journalist Lolla Mohammed Nur considers one campaign for, by and about the communities that will face exclusion if the voter ID amendment is passed on Election Day.
Communities of Color Use Storytelling to Oppose Minnesota’s Voter ID Amendment
Minnesota-based Organizing Apprenticeship Project (OAP) launched its “Voices for Voting Rights” video series, a campaign that uses narratives and storytelling to engage communities of color in opposition to the voter ID amendment. Jointly produced by Line Break Media, the series of five videos target five Minnesota communities: Latino, Somali, African-American, Native American and Hmong.
The videos are part of the OAP’s ongoing training and policy research aimed to reframe the discourse around voter ID.
“What was important to us was to be able to…have each video both come from and speak to each community,” said Vina Kay, OAP Director of Research and Policy. “We want it to belong to the community. We wanted the people to be comfortable in how they were communicating their story.”
The first video, released September 24, features Latino community members, including a religious leader and community organizers. “Voter ID would be one more systematic blow,” says Deacon Carl Valdez of Incarnation Catholic Church/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús. “The average citizen does not know that many people do not have the same conveniences, especially those who are poor, those of a different race, those who do not have the same opportunities that many people have.”
OAP released the second video days after, featuring Somali community leaders and activists explaining how the Voter ID amendment will affect them. “I know that right [to participate in elections] doesn’t come easy. It comes at a lot of peoples’ sacrifice so that I have that right,” says Somali community leader Sadik Warfa. “Rather than restricting and putting out the barrier of voter ID, it is very important that we make sure more people participate in our democracy.”
The third video, for the Hmong community, launched this Monday. Videos for and about African-American and Native American communities are scheduled to roll out in the next two weeks.
Each video has a unique story to tell. For example, Native American community members reflect on the tension between the imposition of US citizenship on their communities, and the responsibility to participate in the political process. The Latino video features images from the 2005 Twin Cities March for Dignity, a rally for immigration reform. Somali interviewees focus on how being a mobile community will affect their ease of attaining voter identification cards.
Despite the unique stories, common themes tie the series together: historic struggle, systemic exclusion and access to power and political participation.
Interviewees speak in their native languages as well as in English in three of the videos, none of which carry English language subtitles—a strategic decision on the OAP’s part to capture each community’s unique story and provide accessibility for various members of each community.
These decisions came out of months of consultation between the OAP and a strategy table consisting of multiracial and multi-ethnic panel members. Kay believes this intentionality allowed community members to feel comfortable enough to claim each respective video as their own.
“What I thought interesting was how willing and interested people were in participating; they had a lot to say whether they were young people or youth who had never voted before,” said Kay. “Or elders from immigrant communities, or African-American communities who were part of the civil rights movement and experienced that struggle firsthand.
Erick Boustead, co-founder and co-director of Line Break Media with Nolan Morice, said the power of the “Voices for Voting Rights” video series lies in its ability to counter the dominant story.
“The narrative right now is that [the voter ID amendment] will affect seniors, students, and veterans,” he said. He cautioned that the dominant story around voter fraud could be destructive. “The effects on communities of color—even with the work that’s happening on voter ID—isn’t really part of the narrative.”
Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Somali Action Alliance, who is seen in the video for the Somali community, said using media to educate communities of color about voter ID is crucial because there is a lot of confusion about the impact of the amendment. He has received positive feedback since the video launched.
“Many people don’t exactly know until you educate them how it works. Many say, ‘We have an ID so why should we care?’” Shafi said. “But we [Somalis] are a mobile community. We move from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city. We don’t own property. So [the amendment] affects us directly.”
The OAP is collaborating with local nonprofits and ethnic media outlets to disseminate the video series through social and local media. Main targets include ethnic radio stations, newspapers and TV channels within each community. The OAP will eventually contact mainstream media outlets, but they are not a priority, said Hana Worku, an OAP organizer, research associate and Wellstone Organizing Fellow.
“That’s what makes our approach unique,” she said. “This amendment impacts everyone in some way; it has broad sweeping effects…. But our frame was really concerned with communities of color and low income folks.”
The challenge for organizations like the OAP has been focusing on key issues with an amendment that could have such broad-sweeping effects.
“We decided we can’t organize the entire (voter ID opposition) campaign; we’re not equipped for that,” explained Kay. “But we can reach out to communities who have a significant voice, who are voters and understand what this means to them, particularly through empowering multicultural and multiracial communities.”
Kay is enthusiastic the amendment may be defeated, with recent poll numbers showing that 52 percent of voters support the amendment, which is down from 80 percent back in May. The OAP plans on screening the “Voices for Voting Rights” series, as well as a culmination video for general audiences, at a community celebration October 11, at Parkway Theatre in South Minneapolis.
—Lolla Mohammed Nur
Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson handed down a partial preliminary injunction on Act 18, the state's photo voter ID law. According to lawyers close to the case -- and from local media reports out of Pennsylvania -- this means that a state-issued photo voter identification card will not be mandatory for voting for this November's election.
The Harrisburg Patriot-News reports:
Simpson is postponing Pennsylvania's tough new voter identification requirement, ordering that it not be enforced in the presidential election. Today's ruling comes five weeks before the election. An appeal is possible.
Meanwhile, The Advancement Project, the civil rights law organization that is one of the petitioners listed on the case challenging the voter ID law, says that the ruling allows for poll workers to ask voters for ID, which could cause confusion.
"While we're happy that voters in Pennsylvania will not be turned away if they do not have an ID, we are concerned that the ruling will allow election workers to ask for ID at the polls and this could cause confusion," said Advancement Project Co-Director Penda D. Hair. "This injunction serves as a mere Band-Aid for the law's inherent problems, not an effective remedy."
Judge Simpson said during last week's hearing that he anticipates his decision will be appealed back up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court either way. The state has not indicated whether it will appeal yet. Meanwhile, if the read on this ruling is correct, then voters will not be turned away from voting if they don't have photo ID on them.
"We are very glad voters will not be turned away from the polls this November if they do have an ID," said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis. "The evidence made it clear to the judge that this law would indeed disenfranchise voters and that the Commonwealth was not equipped to implement it fairly right now."
Check back in at Voting Rights Watch 2012 later for further analysis of the ruling. Meanwhile, yo can read the Judge's ruling here:
Full full background on Pennsylvania's voter ID law hearings, you can read here:
See Voting Rights Watch 2012's Brentin Mock discuss the Pennsylvania voter ID hearing on the Melissa Harris Perry show this past weekend:
The voter ID law hearing in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court closed yesterday and now Judge Robert Simpson will have plenty to mull over, including what the true definition of “disenfranchisement” is. The judge has heard two days of testimony from civil rights attorneys representing people overburdened with trying to obtain ID for voting, and from the state government, which claims no such burdens exist. He has until October 2 to make a ruling, but has indicated that he’ll make his decision much earlier, mostly because he anticipates that his ruling will be appealed back to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court anyway.
The higher court found flaws in Simpson’s July ruling—the initial Commonwealth Court hearing where he denied civil rights attorneys an injunction on the law—saying that he made a “predictive judgement” that placed faith in what the state said it will do to help people get ID, but before actually having done it. The Supreme Court also gave Simpson direct instructions to grant an injunction if the law’s provision on offering free ID to registered voters led to disenfranchisement—which those justices already found to be the case, and that the state acknowledged based off how the law was written. Simpson was ordered to make a new ruling through examination of the law as currently applied as opposed to what the state prophesied.
We reported a day after the Supreme Court ruling that their instructions to Simpson was subject to Simpson’s interpretation. Speaking with University of Pittsburgh law professor Jessie Allen, who’s been following the case, she hinted that Simpson might find away around the Supreme Court’s orders:
The Supreme Court gave clear orders — if the law don’t fit, then you must acquit voters from having to follow it. Simpson doesn’t have the discretion to go above those instructions, but they are still subject to his interpretation, says Allen. Still, there will be little wiggle room for that. “The trial judge is the primary finder of facts and he has to examine whether [implementation of the law] meets the standard the law sets.
Allen also predicted that Pennsylvania would modify their law to meet Simpson’s favor, which is exactly what happened. The day before this week’s hearing started, Pennsylvania loosened up its rules on how to obtain a free voter ID, though many of its employees didn’t get the memo until the morning of the first day of the hearing, which started Tuesday. As a result, lawyers from both sides spent much of that day and yesterday (no hearings on Wednesday to observe Yom Kippur) scrambling to find witnesses and documents that could respond to rules that had literally just been implemented.
What no one predicted was that the state would also attempt to modify the definition of “disenfranchisement.” The state’s attorney Alfred Putnam said at the close of Tuesday’s session, “The Supreme Court did not say that you get disenfranchised just because you are not able to demonstrate who you are to vote. That’s not disenfranchisement.”
That message popped up again yesterday, most emphasized by the state’s other attorney Alicia Hickok, who said in closing arguments that the civil rights attorneys didn’t show evidence of people who couldn’t vote, but instead showed evidence of “people who were resentful of the process they went through to get IDs” to vote.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys—represented by the Advancement Project, ACLU, SEIU—brought at least a half-dozen witnesses to the stand who all testified about the troubles they encountered trying to get voter ID. In the cases where some of those witnesses were able to get ID, they were denied multiple times at first because of glitches in the state’s voter registration verification system. Almost half of the courtroom space yesterday was packed with additional witnesses discovered by the civil rights attorneys, many of whom didn’t have the chance to testify due to time. More than twenty affidavits were signed by others attesting to the fact they couldn’t get ID or had major problems attaining it. In the original hearing in July, in the same courtroom, Over two dozen witnesses were brought to the stand testifying to the same, many of them testifying through the stories of their lives.
But none of this moved Hickokm who said in closing arguments that those people “were frustrated, but frustration is a part of everyday life,” but that doesn’t add up to disenfranchisement.
I caught up with Hickock after the trial for further explanation of the state’s understanding of what disenfranchisement meant. I also asked if the unquantifiable number of people who got so frustrated by the process—hours’ long lines and state workers confused by the law, as testified to in court—that they decided to go home and not vote, counted as disenfranchisement.
“No,” said Hickok “Because there are other options besides a PennDOT ID. If you look back at old cases, it used to be in Pennsylvania that you had to show up with a neighbor and an affidavit and demonstrate that you are who you say you are and where you lived. And nobody considered that disenfranchising. This was back in the 1800s, and this was one of the first challenges in—‘Oh, you’re preventing me from voting’—and the answer was ‘No, your neighbors have a right to know that the person who is voting with them is a someone who is eligible to vote.’ And so in that way it is not disenfranchising. Disenfranchisement comes in two categories: It comes in a category where you say no women can vote. I’m a woman, I’m not going to be able to change that, so I now cannot vote. It’s also disenfranchisement when you create an uneven standard, which is what the literacy tests were, right?”
And so today’s law isn’t considered a literacy test because we all have to read the same thing to get ID and vote, right?
“Well, they don’t have to read anything,” said Hickok. “They just have to be able to show a picture ID” to vote.
Except that’s not true. Hickok and Pennsylvania’s other attorneys just testified in court that they exhausted over $5 million on advertisements and other education and outreach materials that people have to read to know what the new mandates are for voting. If you already have ID, of course, you don’t have to read any of this. And as even the Supreme Court acknowledged, the people most likely to not have ID are vulnerable populations such as the elderly, disabled and those of low income. But these aren’t “complete” people according to the state. Hickok told me “A picture ID is something that helps people to be a complete member of society and access things that should be available to them.”
I guess one of those things is the right to vote as guaranteed by the state’s constitution—but the state is saying that right doesn’t extend to incomplete people. What we’re talking about here is a redefining of “disenfranchisement” just fifty years after civil rights heroes fought, bled and died to show the nation exactly what disenfranchisement meant. Thank God the 1960s courts finally overturned bad voting laws instead of merely saying “Well, you may get frustrated with reading the Constitution backwards, or counting how many marbles are in a jar, or counting the bubbles on a bar of soap just to vote, but, hey, that’s just part of everyday life.”
Katherine Culliton-Gonzales, the director of voter protection for the Advancement Project, agreed, telling me, “Poll taxes and literacy tests disenfranchised a certain parts of the population but of course some people could pay those poll taxes or pass those literacy tests,” during the days of Jim Crow. “So while it’s true that there is a blanket disenfranchisement [definition], but there’s also the issue of discriminatory impact, which is an important part of the Pennsylvania constitution and also an important part of federal voting laws like the Voting Rights Act. And keep in mind that the uneven standard in this case affects a whole lot of people in Pennsylvania—it’s not just one person, but many hundreds of thousands of people in this situation who may not be able to get this ID, and the judge needs to consider that.”
The judge did in fact say that he was “surprised” by the number of free IDs the state had given out in the past month—a mere 11,000 when the lowest estimates of people without ID in the state was around 90,000. “I expected more,” said Simpson.
He then indicated that he might strike a compromise where he tailored an injunction around how provisional ballots are counted. Judge Simpson said he found “disenfranchisement language” around provisional ballots in both the voter ID law and the state’s general election code because there are conditions around which those ballots could be tossed out. The state seemed to concur when Hickok said they would be open to an injunction based of the “offending activity” in the law.
“What do you think the offending activity is here?” Simpson asked her. “It seems to me it’s somebody whose vote won’t count.”
For more from Voting Rights Watch, check out The Nation's latest issue.
One the most powerful speakers during the Democratic National Convention earlier this month was Representative John Lewis. The Georgia Congressman recalled being in North Carolina more than forty years ago on a Freedom Ride to challenge segregation in the South. He explained that as he and a fellow rider attempted to enter a white waiting room, an angry mob beat the men and left them lying in a pool of blood.
Many delegates cried when they heard Lewis explain how, following President Obama’s election, one of the men from that angry mob apologized; Lewis accepted his apology and forgave him. Addressing the delegates as “brothers and sisters,” Lewis talked about the sanctity of voting, and how that right is being threatened by suppression schemes.
Many people agree with Lewis that voting is a sacred act, and some are organizing their religious communities—their brothers and sisters—to defend what’s previous. One of them is Nelson Pierce Jr. A doctoral candidate in the Micah program at New York Theological Seminary, he’s also the pastor of Beloved Community Church Cincinnati, and the lead organizer with The AMOS Project. As Nelson explains, for him, voting rights are a matter of faith.
Voting Rights: A Matter of Faith
In 1984, the Reverend Jesse Jackson declared his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the president of the United States. I was 6 at the time, but I remember my parents’ anguished conversation over the dinner table. Both of my parents had been involved at different levels of the civil rights struggle in the United States. My father was one of the first African-Americans to attend what was then Louisiana State University in New Orleans. My mother had been involved with the Black Panther Party in Detroit. By 1984, all of that was a lifetime ago to them. They had met and married in the late 1970s, both of them eager to build a life and raise a family; they had become deeply reconnected to their Christian faith, both of them taking on positions of leadership within the church. And, perhaps most surprisingly, they both had become Republicans.
At the time, my parents were part of the religious right that was growing all over the United States. They believed that the morals and tenets of the Christian faith were embodied by the Republican Party. They also were strong supporters of the work that Rev. Jackson had done, both in the civil rights movement, and with corporations. They felt that Rev. Jackson could best speak to the needs and hopes of people who had been marginalized, not just by racism but by sexism and classism as well. Should they vote for their faith or should they vote for their community?
I grew up believing in that same tension. At one point in my life, I rejected my community responsibility as an attempt to fully own my faith. During another point in my life, I put my faith on the back burner to fully present in my community’s struggles. At best, I thought that these were two trains that ran on separate tracks. It may have been convenient to do civic engagement with the community out of a church, but I did not see it as a part of the life of the church.
I was operating in this “separate track” mindset when I started seminary. On the first day of my Old Testament class, my professor began with the following text, and it was like I read the Bible for the first time when I came upon Exodus 3:7-8a:
Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey[…].
In Egypt, God was concerned because the government became unjust. God became active because the people were crying. So God sent Moses to change Pharaoh’s labor policy. God worked on behalf of those who had the greatest need. Later, when the children of the people whom God set free from Egypt were forming their own society, they would be warned to remember that their parents were once vulnerable, and that they should always provide for the vulnerable, because God cares about what happens to the vulnerable.
Ohio’s 2004 election process was the source of national ridicule. Long lines forced many people to make a choice between voting and going to work on time, or voting and picking up their children on time from school or daycare. Machines broke down, causing already long lines to be still for hours at a time. In addition, many people were told that they were not eligible to vote, much to their surprise and dismay. As I saw reports of what was happening, and I heard the frustration and disbelief of United States citizens and Ohio residents who were kept from the voting process, I could not help but imagine that the same God who called Moses to speak to Pharaoh was not pleased with what was happening in Ohio.
As it turned out, God was not the only one not pleased. The external pressure by the media and voting rights organizations helped create internal pressure by the state government. A bipartisan effort to reform the voting process got underway, and by 2008 many positive changes occurred. Among these changes were the advent of early, in-person voting and the expansion of vote-by-mail or absentee voting. These reforms made it possible for our state and nation to live up to its responsibility of hearing the voices of all of its citizens.
The sad news is that it was not long before the positive changes began to slowly erode. The in-person early voting hours were cut back in 2010, again in 2011 and, most surprisingly, even further in 2012. I believe that this is the reason so many clergy from across Ohio have been engaged in conversations with the Boards of Elections over voting hours. I believe that this is why fifty clergy representing different cities and denominational traditions gathered as a part of Ohio Prophetic Voices to meet the Secretary of State Jon Husted about his decision to cut the early, in-person hours back from what they had been in 2008. It is not simply because we have access to so many people, and it is not just because we care about the people. I am in this fight because of what my parents did not realize as they debated across the dinner table: that there is no distinction, let alone a difference, between the claims of my faith and civic engagement within the community. I am in this fight because I believe that God is concerned about what happens to the most vulnerable in our society, and I want to help our elected officials to be concerned about the very same thing that God is concerned about.
—Nelson Pierce Jr.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This week boxing champ Floyd Mayweather was ordered by a judge to pay over $113,000 for refusing to answer questions in boxer Manny Pacquiao’s defamation lawsuit against him. Even if you don’t follow boxing you’ve probably heard this story since it involves the last two popular boxers on the planet: what would be the fight of the century is not happening because Mayweather has made random needle-drawn blood tests a condition for fighting, though such tests are not standard policy in professional boxing. Pacquiao has refused these terms, but has consented to unlimited urine tests.
The reason for Mayweather’s insistence on a specific form of drug testing is that he believes Pacquiao uses performance-enhancing drugs. This is why Pacquiao sued him for defamation—though Mayweather has repeated this accusation repeatedly in public, Pacquiao has never tested positive for any kind of drugs. And so Pacquiao, in Mayweather’s mind, is guilty until proven innocent, and all Pacquiao can do in the meantime is at least clear his name through the lawsuit.
It’s in this way that somehow the vote game reminds me of the boxing game, and not just because of all the theater and drama. States like Pennsylvania have made displaying a state-issued photo voter ID card a condition for voting. Reason being: they—and by “they” I mean people who tend to be Republicans—believe that rampant voter fraud is afoot. In their minds, voters are guilty of fraud until showing ID proves them innocent. Civil rights organizations such as The Advancement Project, ACLU and the NAACP have had to sue these voter ID states for violating the fundamental rights of eligible voters.
Next week in Pennsylvania, a courtroom drama ensues over its photo voter ID law, which was kept in tact by the Commonwealth Court in August, and then appealed to the state’s supreme court, only to be kicked back down to the lower court with instructions to issue an injunction against it if it is as questionably lawful as the Supreme Court found it.
But in both the boxing and the voting cases the strategy is the same: keep the opponent away. Mayweather is adamant about the needle drug tests only because he knows it will keep Pacquiao out the boxing ring with him—the drug allegations are a ruse. Republicans appear to only push for voter ID laws because it will keep voters who tend to be Democrats away from the boxing ring, with voter fraud as their ruse.
Boxing writer Tim Keown of ESPN wrote of the Mayweather Pacquiao saga:
This is a tactic worthy of the best disinformation campaigns. You issue a damning proclamation and then stand back and let everyone else deny it. This is what Mayweather’s people seem to be doing by asking Pacquiao to submit to random blood testing to prove that he’s not using performance-enhancing drugs, whether it be steroids or HGH. And since Pacquiao refuses to consent to anything beyond unlimited urine tests, Mayweather’s people can sit back and say, “See? See what we’re talking about?”
Mayweather has made “cleaning up the sport” of drugs his new campaign, even enlisting other boxers to campaign with him. According to the undefeated champ, the whole sport is corrupt—and to be fair, he’s right. Boxing is notorious for suffering every form of corruption, from paid-off referees and judges to loaded or stuffed gloves. But performance-enhancing drug fraud, not so much. Top flight trainers are known for rooting out that kind of nonsense early on, and Pacquiao has one of the world’s best trainers in Freddie Roach whose reputation lies in his integrity if nothing else.
But Mayweather says it is “basic common sense” that boxers have blood drawn for drug tests in order to draw blood in the ring, “Because this sport is a little different from how it used to be. It’s tainted.”
Elections are also tainted, with paid-off poll workers and judges and people loading and stuffing ballot boxes. But voter impersonation fraud, not so much. And to be clear, the only kind of fraud voter ID laws can address is voter impersonation fraud. And since the proposed remedy doesn’t match the declared problem, one can only conclude that this is about intimidation: keeping people out the ring.
A few highlights from America’s history with voter intimidation—a history that really goes back hundreds of years, but if we just look at the last few years:
1998, South Carolina, a state representative mails 3,000 brochures to black neighborhoods telling them that police would be working the elections and that “this election is not worth going to jail.”
2002, Louisiana, flyers were sent around black neighborhoods falsely telling voters that they could go vote on a day that was three days after the election day
2003, Philadelphia, black voters are met and challenged at the polls by men carrying clipboards and driving a fleet of sedans with signs on them that looked like law enforcement.
While we’re on Philly, note that a Tea Party group has surfaced from the city of brotherly love—the Independence Hall Tea Party—trying to bully the courts into upholding the voter ID law by threatening to have two state supreme court justices voted out if it doesn’t happen. It’s not clear why they think it’s so necessary, though their website includes plenty of anti-immigrant vitriol. Perhaps they believe in magic buses importing i-word-immigrants to come vote and throw the election to Obama.
Who knows? What we do know is that, yes, the history of fraud in America is long and has many tentacles. But America has an even longer, uglier history with disenfranchising voters of color and women. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a recent blog:
Our picture of pre-Civil Rights America is unduly shaped by “Whites Only” water fountains. Some of the most pernicious racism was ostensibly color-blind. This is especially true in the realm of voting, where the legal weaponry of white supremacists weren’t simply “No Coloreds” but literacy tests, poll taxes, felon disenfranchisement and grandfather clauses. And just like vote-fraud prevention, each enjoyed a patina of legitimacy. Literacy tests could be defended by noting that voting should be restricted to those who could read the ballot; poll taxes, by noting that those with a stake in the community should determine its fate; felon disenfranchisement by asserting the basic amorality of criminals.
Pacquiao said in his defamation suit that “Accusing an athlete of using performance-enhancing drugs—however baseless and lacking in evidence—is toxic.”
Penalizing ID-less voters while accusing them of fraud is equally toxic. The state of Pennsylvania is on the record in courts for lacking evidence of voter fraud. We won’t even get into drug-testing welfare recipients under false accusations of welfare fraud. Colorlines’ reporter Seth Freed Wessler addresses that issue best.
It’s not as simple as telling people to just go get ID. In many places, especially Philly, that’s a taxing ordeal. But let’s not lose the fact that all citizens have the right to have a say in who will be making decisions about governing their lives, and should be able to do so without being needled by the government.
For more on the intersection of sports and politics, check out Nation sports writer Dave Zirin's blog.
Voter suppression continues to threaten participation on Election Day. But communities of color are fighting back and urging people to pledge and vote in November. As vigilante poll watchers prepare to challenge votes in unprecedented numbers, groups like Video the Vote are training everyday people to document what happens—they’ll then find a media partner to broadcast those videos. Meanwhile, more and more social media apps are encouraging people of color and youth to register and pledge to vote. Our community journalist Maegan E. Ortiz highlights some of the best apps on this week’s voting rights roundup. —Aura Bogado
Using Tech to Push Back Against Voter Suppression
September 25 is National Voter Registration Day and National Voter Education Day. With new voters and young voters, especially people of color, positioned to play a critical role in the November presidential election, it’s no wonder that there are attempts all over the country to try to suppress the exercise of that power. Pushing back against efforts to squash the vote acknowledges the differing ways communities of color are using technology to encourage to either register or pledge to get to the polls on November 12. Here is just a sampling of websites, apps and smartphone tools being rolled out to encourage maximum participation within and across various racial and ethnic groups:
Political engagement goes beyond black and white. In the 2008 presidential elections, 34 percent of the total Native American population over age 18 was eligible but not registered to vote. Native Vote, an initiative of the National Congress of American Indians, is a national nonpartisan effort to mobilize the America-Indian and Alaskan-Native vote. The groups are hosting Get Out the Vote trainings across the country, and webinars focusing on using phone-banking and social networking to spread the word within Native communities. On their website, users can register to vote and access a toolkit, including an election observer guide, posters and trivia.
18 Million Rising
Pushing back against model minority stereotypes that often leave out the diverse United States Asian-American population, 18 Million Rising was founded to promote the civic engagement of the approximately 18 million Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, representing nearly 6 percent of the total population. 18MR wants to change the fact that only 55 percent of Asian-American citizens of voting age are registered to vote—the lowest rate of all demographics—by giving people the opportunity to register to vote on their website. Once registered, users can sign a pledge to vote.
Color of Change
From one simple, user-friendly page, Color of Change is trying to make black history with every vote. On that one page, people can register to vote, get a reminder of reasons to re-register, sign a pledge to vote and track how race is being used in the 2012 race.
Nuestra Elección! / Vote New Mexico
Tapping into Spanish language and bilingual would-be voters is a collaboration among groups like Southwest Organizing Project’s Campaign for a Better New Mexico, New Mexico Vote Matters, Progress New Mexico Education Fund and Presente.org. Nuestra Elección! informs people about voter suppression efforts in New Mexico, and allows users to print a voter registration form to mail in. If you are already a registered voter, filling out a simple online form will get you an e-mail reminder to vote.
Like many of the other resources listed, Voto Latino has a tool to register to vote. Voto Latino is also using a unique Facebook app that provides access to exclusive music, connects with celebrities and shares voting info and election news. They are also reaching out to college campuses with a little friendly competition among various Latino sororities and fraternities.
Rock the Vote
Beyond registering people to vote online, Rock the Vote is putting the power in the hands of individuals by inviting them to become Voter Registration Partners. Being a Partner enables individuals to create customizable voter registration tools on their websites, blogs, Facebook page or even MySpace profile. That way, people can register their readers, friends, family or whoever is part of their defined community. Already registered? You can also use the site to find your local polling place and sign up for election reminders. Rock the Vote also recently launched a #WeWill hashtag as part of their campaign that urges youth to participate at the ballot box despite efforts to stop them. This campaign includes an online sign on pledge.
866 Our Vote
With people of color as the fastest demographic of smartphone adopters, it makes sense to use an app to inform and protect a demographic that is also being targeted for voter suppression. The Election Protection Smartphone App, deployed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, National Association of Latino Appointed and Elected Officials Education Fund, New Organizing Institute, Rock the Vote and Verified Voting Foundation provides English and Spanish language resources that allows users to register, verify their registration, look up their polling place, review voting rules and regulations for their state, and see what type of machine they vote on. Want to report a problem or get an answer to a voting-related question? Contact Election Protection via phone or e-mail.
—Maegan E. Ortiz
Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided to vacate a lower state court’s ruling that allowed Act 18, the photo voter ID law, to commence as planned. Problem being: the law as planned appears so burdensome that—putting voters aside for a moment—the state itself can’t comply with its own law. As stated in the Court’s order, “the Commonwealth parties have candidly conceded, that the Law is not being implemented according to its terms.”
The Supreme Court ordered per curiam—meaning unsigned by the six justices—that the Commonwealth Court must re-examine the implementation of certain provisions of the law. Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who ruled in August in favor of the law, must decide if the way the state presently administers free photo voter ID cards to those who can’t get regular state-issued id cards is in compliance with the law—something the state already conceded in court that it doesn’t, and can’t for good reasons.
This means that while the state would like to grant photo ID cards to all who approach for voting, it can loosen its rules only so much without breaching federal and state security concerns. Which means that many people will still be burdened with producing specific documents—birth, marriage, adoption certificates, etc.—to get state-issued ID. From the voters’ perspective, this unresolved issue is rooted in the age-old conundrum best expressed by Mos Def: “Why do I need ID to get ID? If I had ID, I wouldn’t need ID.”
Still, the state has time to correct whatever legal problems it has in order to impress Simpson, who has until October 2 to issue a new decision.
Speaking with University of Pittsburgh law professor Jessie Allen, she said the ruling was “a classic piece of judicial craftsmanship and political compromise.” Bipartisanship at its finest, though the legislation itself enjoyed no such harmony—it was passed with all Republican votes. Still, two of the justices, Debra Todd and Seamus McCaffery, issued dissenting statements summarily, saying that the law should be blocked as soon as possible. Justice Todd said her colleagues were allowing “the Commonwealth to virtually ignore the election clock and try once again to defend its inexplicable need to rush this law into application by November 6, 2012.”
Justice McAffery, agreeing with Todd, suggested in his dissent that the rush was “purely political” and stated, “Where a fundamental constitutional right is at issue—arguably the fundamental right—an implementation of even a lesser burden on the exercise of that right, ten weeks before it is to be exercised, is simply unreasonable and constitutionally insupportable.”
But the important thing about the higher court’s ruling, as Pennsylvania ACLU legal director Vic Walczak told reporters yesterday, is that civil rights lawyers no longer have to show and prove that the law is burdensome. Instead, the state has to prove the law’s current implementation won’t lead to disenfranchisement of any voters. Meaning the numbers that have been flung around about whether 100,000 or 1 million voters don’t have ID are now hardly relevant—if one voter will be disenfranchised, then the law can’t stand for November.
Says the court’s order: “if the Commonwealth Court is not still convinced in its predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement arising out of the Commonwealth’s implementation of a voter identification requirement for purposes of the upcoming election, that court is obliged to enter a preliminary injunction.”
“They left very little room here for the trial judge to do anything but enjoin the ID requirement,” says Allen. “[Simpson] has to determine without relying just on assurances from the government that no voters will be disenfranchised, which is a tough determination to make.”
The burden of protecting voting rights has effectively been shifted away from voters and placed on the state, whose job it is to protect those rights to begin with. In my coverage of Pennsylvania’s voter ID law hearings, I’ve focused on burdens. During the initial Commonwealth Court hearing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I reported how voters, particularly those of color and low income, expressed those burdens by testifying with their very lives. For the Supreme Court hearing in Philadelphia, I reported on how those burdens, and those lives, were overlooked. Today, the state must finally prove that their law has a zero tolerance for disenfranchisement.
The Supreme Court—which Walczak said was “sufficiently nervous” that all voters may not get the ID needed to vote—has already hedged toward telling Simpson to grant an injunction. Its order states that “the most judicious remedy, in such a circumstance, is the entry of a preliminary injunction, which may moot further controversy as the constitutional impediments dissipate.”
But Governor Tom Corbett’s administration can change the law to ensure that Simpson will once again protect it. “If the state can convince the trial judge that they have changed procedures significantly since oral argument last week, then he might still deny the injunction,” says Allen. “But that would sure leave the judge pretty far out on a limb.”
The Supreme Court gave clear orders—if the law doesn’t fit, then you must acquit voters from having to follow it. Simpson doesn’t have the discretion to go above those instructions, but they are still subject to his interpretation, says Allen. Still, there will be little wiggle room for that. “The trial judge is the primary finder of facts and he has to examine whether [implementation of the law] meets the standard the law sets. The Supreme Court says, ‘We doubt it does,’ and the state candidly concedes it does not. So the [Supreme Court] is saying to the trial judge that if it’s not, then you must issue the injunction.”
The Supreme Court reviewed whether Simpson engaged in an “abuse of discretion” in his earlier ruling. It said that Simpson based his decision on a “predictive judgement” that the state would meet its legal obligation and protect every Pennsylvanian’s fundamental right to vote. So Simpson’s prejudiced ruling erred in favor of the state’s promise to do whatever needed done, but without the burden of proof that it could actually be done.
But as the civil rights lawyers pointed out yesterday, there has already been mad madcap around the state’s issuance of voter IDs. Many applicants for the free ID have been turned away because their voter registration records aren’t matching up with motor vehicle records&madsh;”there is a disconnect with the data,” said Advancement Project attorney Marian Schneider, who’s been helping people obtain ID.
“The reports from Pennsylvania already include long lines at the PennDOT offices, confusion and untrained workers giving out misinformation,” said Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne Dianis. This report from Ari Berman at The Nation supports as much.
Justice Todd stated in her dissent, “There is ample evidence of disarray in the record, and I would not allow chaos to beget chaos,” and agreed with her colleagues who wrote in the order that they are “not satisfied with a mere predictive judgment based primarily on the assurances of government officials.”
“I think this is quite right,” says Ohio State University Moritz College of Law professor Daniel Tokaji. “It shouldn’t be based on predictions of whether voters will or won’t get ID. The protection of the right to vote shouldn’t be a matter of guessing probabilities.”
Yet, grassroots organizations and civil rights groups still remain burdened with the guesswork of whether they should or shouldn’t continue mobilizing around helping people obtain ID. With the case in limbo at least another couple of weeks, they have little recourse but to stay on the voter ID course.
Whether the ruling should be considered a victory for voting rights is also up in the air. But it at least shows that someone in government takes seriously the burdens this law imposes on voters. “It gives me some faith in the judicial process,” says Allen of the ruling. Asked if the lower court’s early ruling did the same, she replied, “Not particularly.”
For more on court decisions concerning elections, read George Zornick on a defeat for campaign finance reform.