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Voting Rights Watch

Voting Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

—Aura Bogado

Go to Jail, Lose Your Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meta Mendel-Reyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Racial Burdens Obscured by Voter ID Laws

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court hearing on Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, over the state’s voter ID law, was serious enough that it drew the presence of Ben Jealous, the president of the national NAACP. After ninety minutes of arguing about the fundamental right to vote before the state’s six supreme court justices, Jealous said he was “cautiously optimistic” that civil rights groups might prevail in the case.

Perhaps cautiously pessimistic, I couldn’t help but think, But what if they don’t? When I asked Jealous this, he said:

“We will have volunteers throughout the state demanding that everyone who is eligible to vote and who has a right to vote will be able to vote. And then we will make sure every provisional ballot is counted and make sure the polls stay open and we will fight to make sure the polls stay open as long as necessary.”

In other words, the NAACP, and a lot of civil rights and liberties organizations like them, would be absorbing the burden imposed by the Pennsylvania law, which mandates specific forms of photo ID in order to vote.

A lot was covered in that ninety-minute hearing, and I strongly recommend that you read Ari Berman and Philadelphia City Paper’s Daniel Denvir for the minutiae of what transpired in the court session.

There was a lot of argument about what constituted “the fundamental right to vote” as guaranteed by Pennsylvania’s constitution, and also how many people would be disenfranchised by the law. But at root, this hearing was about burdens, and as Gang Starr once asked, who was gonna take the weight? There were many questions about which Pennsylvanians would have to carry the extraneous burdens of this law in order to vote, and who would not. There was also debate about whether the burden was on the state or on voters to prove that those extraneous burdens even existed. When supreme court justices asked why they should overturn the lower court ruling—a huge ask—the plaintiff’s lawyer David Gersch said that “the fact people are burdened by this law triggers” their intervention.

And yet while the photo voter ID law was created on the premise that it would protect against voter fraud or unearth it, the state legislators never had the burden of having to prove that fraud actually exists—evidence of it was never entered in the court record. Governor Corbett’s lawyer Alfred Putnam Jr. said yesterday that the Commonwealth didn’t need to prove it (Also read great analysis by Pittsburgh City Paper’s Chris Potter). Yet voters now have the burden—voters of color disproportionately—of complying with the law. It’s as if voters are guilty of the potential of fraud until proven innocent by an ID card.

Jealous, who enlisted the NAACP in a rally held outside the courtroom, was asked by reporters who would be hurt by the law. He said, “We fight everyday to motivate people who until the day before may not have been thinking about voting. Well this puts an entire bureaucracy between them and their vote. So now they may not be able [to vote] if they wake up that morning and decide to vote for the first time. this hurts people of color, it disproportionately hurts poor people, and it hurts working people of all colors.”

The silver lining was that some of the judges, the two liberal ones and Chief Justice Ronald Castille, asked with some frequency what would be wrong with giving a couple of years before implementing the law instead of rushing it. At one point, chief deputy attorney general for the state John Knorr conceded that the law “could be made better” if activated later rather than for this election.

But all that really did was confirm that passing the law was simply inevitable. Gersch consistently agreed with judges that while the law is terrible for 2012, that it’s at least reasonable for 2014, if not good for 2016. Election law professor Rick Hasentold Reuters “If you write a play you wouldn’t premier it on Broadway. If you implement a brand new law in time for the presidential election, it could just be bad.” But the state wasn’t fearful of that.

Sitting next to me was Olivia Thorne, president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. We got into a discussion of the early women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements. This is a thorny history, she acknowledged. Many white women at that time were fully down for the abolitionist cause in the beginning, with the understanding that they’d help African-Americans get the right to vote, and in turn everyone would push for women’s voting rights. It didn’t quite work out. Sexism among both the allies and the enemies of women suffragists drove women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton out of the abolitionist movement, and toward an unseemly racist turn. Read more about this in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Great Schism.”

But now the LWV, inheritors of the women’s suffrage movement, are going hard in the paint for voting rights in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin and many other states—and down to the mat, when many organizations threw in the towel or decided to play the sidelines.

Thorne was in Harrisburg for the voter ID hearing, and left “disappointed” by that decision, but showed right back up for yesterday’s hearing. She spoke with me about the unique challenges faced by women and the elderly under this voter ID law, but she seemed to understand the other forces of race and class that draw additional burdens. She noted the long lines people will have to stand in on Election Day, “three to five hours in Philadelphia, but one to two hours in the suburbs,” where she said her organization works most often.

The idea of shared but unequal burdens was lost upon Pennsylvania’s lawyers and Justice Michael Eakin, one of the conservative justices. “There will never be a point where everybody can get something the legislature requires,” said Eakin. “There will always be someone left burdened” by legislation.

That may be so, but the Voting Rights Actexpressly protects people of color from having to incur burdens that white Americans vote freely without. And yet now organizations like NAACP, whose members fought and died for that law, have acquired the new burden of spending time, money, shoe leather, gas and other resources to align people with the new voting rules. Our community journalist James Ceronsky spent time with NAACP civic engagement director John Jordan earlier this week, who told him:

“Four years ago we were paying canvassers to do voter registration work,” he says. Now, tasked with informing voters about ID requirements in addition registering them, his organization is “pleading and begging” for volunteers in the effort to get IDs in the hands of voters.

The state’s attorney Knorr was oblivious to this. “The burden is quite minimal,” he told the judges.

“It’s minimal if you already have ID,” Judge Debra Todd snapped back.

I caught Knorr in the court hallway afterward and asked him: What if you’re wrong? What if thousands are burdened to the point of disenfranchisement on Election Day? “I can’t answer that,” he responded.

I asked Jealous the same, but he was more blunt: “If the Pennsylvania Republican leadership succeeds in stealing this election by denying people the right to vote there will be hell to pay.”

—Brentin Mock

Philadelphia Groups Scramble to Help Residents Get Voter ID

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

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

—Aura Bogado

Pennsylvania’s Two-Month Warning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—James Cersonsky

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

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

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

—Aura Bogado

Why You Should Be Very Afraid of This Year’s Ballot Bullies

The scrutinization of True the Vote, and their voter-stalking Tea Party co-signers across the nation, is growing. Today, Common Cause and Demos released a report called “Bullies at the Ballot Box” that raises awareness about groups determined to challenge voters at the polls, even at risk of intimidating voters. Says the report:

As we approach the 2012 elections, every indication is that we will see an unprecedented use of voter challenges. Organizers of True the Vote claim their goal is to train one million poll watchers to challenge and confront other Americans as they go to the polls in November. They say they want to make the experience of voting “like driving and seeing the police following you.” There is a real danger that voters will face overzealous volunteers who take the law into their own hands to target voters they deem suspect. But there is no place for bullies at the ballot box.

The Nation’s readers may recognize that “police following you” line from our Voting Rights Watch 2012 reporting on the group True the Vote, which you can read about here.

The “Ballot Bullies” report examines laws around challenging voters in ten states, looking at how well or bad voters are protected from pre–Election Day voter registration challenges that can lead to reckless purging, voter caging, voters’ being challenged at the polls on Election Day and obnoxious behavior by poll watchers. According to the report, Florida and Pennsylvania have some of the worst voter protection laws, yet these are pivotal states that hold tremendous sway in the upcoming presidential elections. True the Vote has a substantial presence in Florida and has pressed hard for Governor Rick Scott’s reckless purging program there.

People of color in particular should be most wary of these groups:

With comments about the “illegal alien vote” and “the food stamp army,” King Street Patriots and their allies have created a climate of fear that voter fraud is rampant in minority precincts and used that fear to justify their discriminatory targeting of poll-watching efforts—again, without evidence to support the targeting.

The King Street Patriots is the Houston-based Tea Party group that gave birth to True the Vote and its spawn of poll harassers around the United States.

This report follows another released by the Brennan Center for Justice last week, “Voter Challengers,” which delves deep into the racial history and politics behind poll watching in America.

—Brentin Mock

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

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

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

The Racial Politics Behind the Right Wing’s Poll-Watching

Right now, there are only five states that have strict photo voter ID laws. Six more states have flexible photo ID laws that allow for a broader range of acceptable identification than the strict states. And then there are nineteen states that require some non-photo form of ID to vote. But if you live in Illinois, where there is no voter ID law at all, you might be alarmed to find out on Election Day that you still may have to produce ID to vote. Reason being, it is one of twenty-four states where your voting rights can be challenged by a poll watcher—any random person, really, who happens to be at your polling place—even if the watcher doesn’t have any evidence that you actually need to be challenged. And if you are challenged in Illinois, you have to produce two forms of ID to prove that you’re eligible to vote.

Last month, we published a story on a Tea Party group called True the Vote, which trades in voter ID law advocacy, voter registration challenges and poll watcher trainings. Challenging people who may have illegally registered to vote, and training people to observe poll activity are innocuous activities, but only when divorced from their racial history in the United States. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, “Voter Challengers” details that troublesome history while spelling out just how problematic such poll-watching activities can be, especially when administered by hyper-partisan and racially insensitive groups like True the Vote.

“This history of discriminatory voter challenges casts doubt on the fraud-prevention arguments traditionally used to justify these laws,” writes Nicolas Riley, author of the report. True the Vote, and their many allies, often cite voter fraud as the reason for militarizing the polls, but countless studies have shown that the notion of massive voter fraud is mostly bunk, as meticulously noted in this News 21 investigation.

Still, thirty-nine states allow private citizens to challenge voters at the polls. According to the Brennan study, election officials in those states are “under immense time pressure to decide challenges quickly in order to avoid voting delays.” True the Vote is aware of this, but they put it differently, saying at a recent poll watcher training that election officials are “under immense pressure to do the wrong thing”—namely let undocumented immigrants vote, and let people vote multiple times.

Scarier, of the thirty-nine states that allow random people to challenge voters inside polling places, only fifteen of them require the challengers to prove that the person they’re challenging isn’t an eligible voter. Which means that in twenty-four states people can wage all kinds of frivolous accusations—that a person is an “illegal alien,” or that they are using a dead person’s identity to vote—to burden if not intimidate voters. In these states, the poll challenger statutes can be abused and used for racial profiling, when not sending a chill effect to others who might be vulnerable for no other reason than having a Latino surname.

In those states, people can make up a reason to challenge a voter’s rights without any evidence backing them up, and do so with impunity. It’s the same as when people drum up charges of voter fraud to pass voter ID bills and go unpunished when it’s revealed that no such fraud exists. You can’t fabricate a police report by saying you were mugged if you weren’t; you can’t file a false claim saying you lost possessions in a disaster. In both cases, you face jail and fines for bearing false witness, but not if you fabricate voter fraud or voter ineligibility in many states.

The Brennan report points out that South Carolina and Virginia allow people to challenge voters even if it’s nothing but a whim. Consider that both South Carolina and Virginia both have passed voter ID laws. In South Carolina, that law is currently being challenged in a federal court, where it was discovered that the law’s author Representative Alan Clemmons made racist comments about black voters in an e-mail while discussing how to pass the legislation.

Both states have strong True the Vote connections. In South Carolina, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Cibby Krell, is a True the Vote volunteer with the Spartanburg Tea Party. In Virginia, the Virginia Voters Alliance is a group that trains Tea Party groups in challenging voters while pressuring Virginia election officials to engage in reckless purging processes.

It so happens that many of the states with lax regulations around poll watcher activities are states where True the Vote is most active. But in some of those states, True the Vote leaders—people who have trained thousands of Tea Party volunteers via webinars—don’t seem to know the state laws themselves. In a June interview with Erin Anderson, at the time a True the Vote regional director, I was told that “Wisconsin allows a poll watcher to make a challenge to a voter. Most states don’t have that [law]. Texas doesn’t have that for example.”

She was half right. Wisconsin does not allow election observers to challenge a voter. It does allow private citizens who are eligible to vote to challenge other voters, but only if the challenger provides evidence under oath that the person they are challenging is ineligible. In Texas, poll watchers may not challenge voters, as Anderson mentioned. But her group found out about Texas’ rule the hard way, after dozens of voter intimidation complaints were filed by black and Latino voters against True the Vote’s watchers after the 2010 elections.

In Wisconsin, where True the Vote also suffered voter intimidation complaints, the state’s Government Accountability Board strengthened its monitoring of poll monitors saying in July, “Being well informed is the best defense against complications at the polling place, including frivolous challenges to a voter’s eligibility. Observers may not speak to or intimidate voters. Poll workers do not have to put up with observers who bully them or question their actions,”

But having your rights challenged by True the Vote, and other groups like them, doesn’t necessarily always happen at the polls. Many voters rights are being challenged before the voting period even begins, because True the Vote volunteers are rummaging through databases looking for name and address irregularities. They then use those irregularities to pressure election administrators to purge voters with reckless abandon.

Just this week True the Vote and their Election Integrity 2012 partner Judicial Watch sued Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted for not purging more aggressively (this came after Husted dropped out of True the Vote’s Ohio state summit.) True the Vote volunteers are trained to spot and challenge names on voter registration rolls that might be ineligible based off of flawed data analyses. An example of the typical scare alert from True the Vote is found in one of their recent Tweets: “Voter Integrity Project Finds 30,000 Dead People on North Carolina Voter Rolls”. The Voter Integrity Project is a True the Vote chapter that has been harassing the state about purging, but there’s no there in this story. People die daily. It doesn’t mean that fraud is happening. It only means the voter rolls need to be updated.

Meanwhile, when the Voter Integrity Project attempted to have 500 voters purged from Wake County, North Carolina, rolls, the Brennan Center found that the majority of those were people of color. The attempt too closely mirrored a voter suppression tactic used in 1872 in Wake County to stop black people from voting. Similarly, when Florida’s Secretary of State and governor began a purge program, with huge support from True the Vote, it was mostly voters of color who were on the purge list.

These poll “challenging” and “watching” operations are not race-neutral. The nation has a history of white people taunting and haunting black and Latino voters that goes back centuries. Much of this racial history is recounted in Brennan’s “Voter Challengers” report, which tells how states like Florida, Ohio, Texas and Virginia created poll watcher rules precisely to suppress black and women voters, and also to enforce voting laws that disenfranchised these groups.

Keep that in mind when you read about the Code Red USA project, which rallies Tea Partiers from around the country to join a “conservative army” that will infiltrate battleground states in November for voter registration and “election integrity” efforts. Code Red says it has “partnered with True The Vote to maintain election integrity by training volunteers to be poll watchers and combat voter fraud.” Get ready to tumble.

—Brentin Mock

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

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

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

'Undocumented and Unfraid': UndocuBus Riders Lead by Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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