In-depth coverage of voter suppression efforts nationwide, in partnership with Colorlines.com.
Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder declared in his address to the NAACP national convention in Houston what many voting rights advocates had been saying for months: that the photo voter ID law passed in Texas is a poll tax. Determining whether voter ID laws are as unconstitutional as poll taxes won’t be up to him, though. That honor goes to the US Supreme Court justices who lately have been signaling they may be ready to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
What this means is that a legal challenge to a voter ID law in Texas could be the trigger for the demise of the constitutional act that made it possible for people of color to vote in much of the country. Right-wing pundits have all but conceded this week’s US District Court hearing over Texas’ voter ID law to the Department of Justice. There’s agreement on the left and the right that Texas didn’t do a good enough job proving that the law has no discriminatory purpose nor effect. Experts have testified that almost 1.4 million Texans could be disenfranchised due to lacking ID.
The state’s argument wasn’t helped by Texas state Senator Tommy Williams, an author of the voter ID law, who said, “I think people who live in west Texas are accustomed to driving long distances for routine tasks,” when confronted with the fact that the closest DMV for some low-income Texans could be dozens of miles away.
None of this may matter, though. If the district court judges rule that Texas’ law should not be cleared by DOJ, then that could set it up for a fast-track hearing before the Supreme Court. And the Court has indicated that it is ready to throw Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act—the part that gives DOJ preclearance authority over Texas’ election laws—out altogether, which would trigger a rollback of voting rights expansions made since the civil rights movement. There is little optimism that Chief Justice John Roberts will do for VRA what he did for the Affordable Care Act. Section 5 is to the VRA what the individual mandate is to ACA, but Roberts has little sympathy for laws that remedy histories of racial discrimination.
Duke University election law professor Neil Siegel told Politico, “He’s a deeply committed conservative on matters of race. On the challenge to the Voting Rights Act, he’s warned Congress we’ll strike it down if you don’t change it.”
If the Roberts Court overturned VRA, it would be a grand departure from the SCOTUS decision of 1944, Smith v. Allwright, which helped launch the movement toward civil rights and voting justice for all Americans. That 1944 case involved an African-American man named Lonnie E. Smith who challenged the Texas Democratic Party, which forbade anyone except white people from voting in its primaries. Since Texas at the time was a one-party, Democrat-ruled state, the primaries determined who would win its general elections, guaranteeing black Texans would have no say in who would represent them in government.
Smith v. Allwright was argued by Thurgood Marshall, who considered it his most important case. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Smith, it was considered a turning point in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Marshall called it “a giant milestone in the progress of Negro Americans toward full citizenship.” The victory led to an emboldened black electorate and surges in NAACP membership throughout the South—surges that provided the NAACP with the resources to win more voting rights and civil rights battles in court, all the way through to the Brown v. Board of Education victory ten years later and the passage of the Voting Rights Act roughly ten years after that.
A fully nourished NAACP legal team was needed in the years after Smith v. Allwright, mostly because that decision didn’t automatically grant easy, fair access to the vote, in Texas or anywhere else. That 1944 decision actually led to a proliferation of new poll tax requirements throughout the South that placed typically insurmountable barriers in front of black people seeking to vote.
Still, the number of African-Americans registered to vote after Smith v. Allwright expanded significantly—Southern black registration quadrupled between 1940 and 1947, from 3 percent to 12 percent, and from 30,000 to 100,000 in Texas in the same time period—and this is exactly what drove segregationists to continue launching poll tax deterrents and other attacks (like Ku Klux Klan terrorism). Southern whites didn’t want black people voting because they feared they would lose political power.
This was laid bare when Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo, in protest of a law to ban poll taxes, said, “If the poll tax bill passes, the next step will be an effort to remove the registration qualification, the educational qualification of Negroes. If that is done we will have no way of preventing the Negroes from voting.”
When the Voting Rights Act finally passed in 1965, made possible by the Smith v. Allwright decision twenty years earlier, it once and for all banned any instrument, law or policy that would prevent anyone from voting based on race or color. Texas has been fighting back ever since.
When Texas was designated as a Section 5 state due to discrimination against Latinos, it grew increasingly defiant of the Voting Rights Act. According to a report by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, “Voting Rights in Texas 1982–2006,” only one state challenged Section 5 in court more than the Texas in that period—and that’s Mississippi. From 1982 to 2006, Texas registered at least 107 Section 5 objections. Meanwhile, during that same time period, Texas lead the nation in several categories of voting discrimination, including Section 5 violations. Further, from the MALDEF report:
Texas had far more Section 5 withdrawals, following the DOJ’s request for information to clarify the impact of a proposed voting change, than any other jurisdiction during the 1982-2005 time period. These withdrawals include at least 54 instances in which the state eliminated discriminatory voting changes after it became evident they would not be precleared by the DOJ.
In other words, at least fifty-four times in twenty-five years, Texas had to back down from an effort to restrict the vote—thanks to the power granted the federal government under the Voting Rights Act. That power may soon be removed by the Roberts Court.
The VRA enforcement represents an imposition of the federal government on state sovereignty, according to many Texas state officials today. Governor Rick Perry said that DOJ’s enforcement of VRA in South Carolina, for instance, represented a “war” on states’ rights. The current state attorney general, Greg Abbott, has sued the federal government twenty-four times since he took office in 2004 over a number of federal law enforcement measures, not limited to voting rights.
But the same fear of expanding the electorate to people of color that existed in the years after Smith v. Allwright seems to have spurred Texas state legislators to create the voter ID law currently challenged in court. During this week’s district court hearing, voting rights and race expert Morgan Kousser, of California Institute of Technology, testified that “there was considerable concern” among white state legislators about “losing control” of the legislature. “There is such a correlation between partisanship and race that any bill that has partisan effects would have racial effects,” said Kousser.
In Harris County, where Lonnie E. Smith first challenged the all-white right to vote, the expansion of the non-white electorate shows a clear political power shift. In 2008, Barack Obama won the county, the first Democrat to do that since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Johnson, of course, went on to sign the Voting Rights Act into law the following year. Meanwhile, whites who were the majority in that county in the 1980s, are today the minority, representing only a third of the county’s population. Harris County encompasses Houston.
It’s population shifts like this that led to redistricting wars in Texas this year, also fought along VRA terms in federal courts, and to what looks like an agenda to keep political power in white hands. This is the lens through which DOJ and civil rights advocates are viewing the voter ID law, which according to the state’s own data would exclude as many as 600,000 Latinos who are eligible to vote but lack the ID now required. While Texas is offering to issue voting ID cards for free, the documents needed to obtain that ID are not free. Birth certificates and other documents needed for the ID cost upwards of $20 and that doesn’t figure in the transportation costs of those who’d have to travel twenty, thirty or forty miles to a DMV office to get the ID. That amounts to a poll tax, and no doubt Holder had Smith v. Allwright in mind when he made that declaration.
The following infographic was published with Brentin Mock’s July 12 article, “Texas’ Road To Victory in Its Decades-Long Fight Against Voting Rights.”
Look up at your clock. By this same hour tomorrow, more than 1,500 US-born Latinos will have celebrated a milestone birthday, and turned 18. They’ll be eligible to vote in local, state and federal elections in their home states—but if that state is Texas, that right is under threat.
A case being heard this week by a panel of judges in DC will determine if Texas can demand strict forms of photo ID at the polls. The Lone Star State passed the bill and it was signed into law early this year. But what’s more broadly in question is the federal government’s continued power under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Under the Voting Rights Act, Texas, along with other states that have historically discriminated against people of color around elections, must seek preclearance from the Department of Justice for changes to voting districts or regulations. And in the case of Texas’ voter ID law, that permission was denied. Texas admits that more than 600,000 people lack the necessary identification required—but insists that the law isn’t discriminatory because no-cost ID will be made available, and voters who still lack ID will still be able to cast provisional ballots.
But even when they’re free, IDs are not always so easy to acquire. In Mississippi, another Southern state waiting on DOJ preclearance, voters need a birth certificate to get an ID—but can’t get that birth certificate unless they already have an ID in their possession. And provisional ballots are often challenged, so casting one does not guarantee that the vote will count.
Civil rights groups, meanwhile, argue that the law discriminates against Latinos and other marginalized groups; the DOJ argues that Texas hasn't proven the law doesn't have a discriminatory effect--and it's the state's burden to do so* . When Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the National Council of La Raza this past weekend, he made clear that the DOJ is vigilantly watching threats to voting rights through “redistricting plans, photo identification requirements, and changes affecting third party registration,” not just for Latinos and other people of color, but also for people with disabilities and those living abroad.
The number of Latino voters around the nation is rising—youth especially. Half of all eligible Latino voters are under the age of 40; one-third are between 18 and 34. Back in Texas, which boasts the second-largest Latino population after California, young Latinos who are enrolled in college won’t be eligible to use their school ID in order to vote under the new law. Yet a concealed handgun permit is perfectly valid at the polls. One might think that under Texas’ new law, gun toting is rewarded, but higher education is not.
Harris County, which encompasses Houston, remains Texas’ largest county, and according to the most recent census data, Latinos make up more than 40 percent of the population there. In Hidalgo County, Texas’ eighth-largest county, more than 90 percent of the population is Latino. Texas holds the second-highest number of electoral votes (again, after California), but it’s not certain that the rising number of young Latinos there will be eligible to have their vote counted under the new law.
Beyond voter ID in Texas and other states, redistricting, registration restrictions and voter purges are targeting Latino voters in Florida, Colorado and beyond. Although the black vote is also being targeted, we should remember that the right for Latinos to vote for local seats, state ballot initiatives and federal elections, which is guarded under the Voting Rights Act, is increasingly under threat.
Pennsylvania’s Conflict of Interest
The firm that received a $250,000 contract to create an ad campaign for Pennsylvania’s voter ID law is headed by Chris Bravacos, who just so happens to moonlight as a fundraiser for Mitt Romney. Bravacos himself seems keen on hiding the connection—his firm, Bravos Group, removed the ads after a Philly paper exposed the link over the weekend. But don’t fret, because both ads, one of which oddly suggest that voter ID is somehow an extension of civil rights, have been re-posted by Occupy Harrisburg.
*This post has been updated to clarify the DOJ's position.
We’ve seen state officials around the country flat-out lie about the imaginary problem of voter fraud—and we’ve seen how people of color and other marginalized groups stand to have their rights swiftly confiscated in the process. This time, voters in Pennsylvania will feel the brunt of a bill signed into law this past March, which may disenfranchise nearly 10 percent of voters statewide and 18 percent of voters in Philadelphia.
Although Secretary of Commonwealth Carol Aichele has repeatedly stated that 99 percent of Pennsylvania voters were already in possession of the identification needed to comply with the new law, her numbers were way off. The deliberate or accidental overestimate means that the state is stuck with a law that will potentially disenfranchise 758,939 voters.
In a press release dubiously titled “Department of State and PennDOT Confirm Most Registered Voters Have Photo ID,” issued Tuesday, her own office illustrates that more than 180,000 of Philadelphia’s voters lack the proper ID to cast a ballot. More than 44 percent of Philadelphia is African-American.
Pennsylvania’s strict voter ID law means that only certain forms of identification are acceptable. Even government-issued photo ID cards without an expiration date aren’t acceptable. A hearing on the voter ID bill is scheduled for July 25.
Meanwhile, Aichele and two other state secretaries face an additional lawsuit, alleging violations to the National Voter Registration Act. Also known as Motor Voter, the federal law requires registration forms be made available at a variety of state-run agencies, so that a larger part of the potential electorate can participate.
The suit, filed yesterday by a coalition of voting rights groups, claims that Pennsylvania is systematically barring low-income individuals from obtaining registration forms, because they are not offered at public assistance agencies throughout the state. Less than twenty years ago, nearly 60,000 people registered per year while interacting with a public assistance agency. Yet in 2009 and 2010, less than 5,000 people did so. The 93 percent drop in registration is especially alarming, because the number of food stamps requests nearly doubled during that time.
Is Florida Purge Racist?
A new Spanish-language ad claims Florida’s purge isn’t only illegal but racist. While Latinos make up just 16 percent of the state’s electorate, the purge has targeted up to 61 percent of Latino voters there. Although Florida’s election supervisors have effectively stopped the purge, the mechanisms are still in place to remove voters and can be restarted at any time. MoveOn’s ad features an American and a foreign-born citizen, denouncing the purge’s systemically racist effect and challenging presumptive presidential candidate Mitt Romney to do the same.
Michigan Governor Backs Away From Voter Suppression
In a surprise turn, Michigan’s governor vetoed a set of voter suppression bills. Lawmakers in Michigan, which is already home to a voter ID law, sought to make it nearly impossible for voter registration groups to simply do their job, and to create other obstacles for upcoming elections. In his veto statement, Governor Rick Snyder reminded his constituents that the bills would create unnecessary confusion and that “voting rights are precious.” One can only hope other legislators will agree—not only in Michigan but nationwide.
Right to Vote Maintained in North Carolina
North Carolina’s legislature was unable to override Governor Bev Perdue’s veto of a voter ID bill. Perdue rejected the bill more than a year ago, but Republican leaders announced they had enough votes to override her decision. That failed this week, and the nearly half-million voters who could have been negatively affected are safe there. For now.
DOJ May Have Last Word in New Hampshire
New Hampshire legislators overrode their governor’s veto on a voter ID bill last week—but that doesn’t mean it’s over. Ten New Hampshire jurisdictions are subject to pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act. Lawmakers have informed the Department of Justice of the new law, and the DOJ will now have to decide whether to clear the jurisdictions and allow voter ID.
“Some 1,500 people voted under dead people’s and prisoners’ names from 2008-11, according to Michigan’s auditor general. Many might be clerical errors, but this illustrates the need to ensure accurate voter rolls.”
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson wrote this in a July 2 Times-Herald column, and she lied.
Johnson is a member of a fifteen-state consortium of right-wing elections officials that’s hellbent on purging voters. And her dishonest jousting in Michigan this week offers a window into how that consortium works—playing fast and loose with facts in order to create the impression of a problem that would justify their hardline solutions, and flouting the law themselves when necessary.
Johnson’s Monday column was a last-ditch effort to persuade Governor Rick Snyder to sign into law her Secure and Fair Elections (SAFE) initiative, including the bills HB 5061 and SB 803, which respectively would force voters to reaffirm their citizenship before receiving a ballot and would require photo ID for absentee voting. Another bill, SB 754, would put onerous restrictions on third-party registration organizations, much like a Florida law that was recently blocked by a federal judge. On Tuesday, Governor Snyder vetoed those three bills, but preserved the rest of Johnson’s SAFE package.
Despite Johnson’s constant refrain on dead people voting, her own Bureau of Elections has already established that there was no actual voter fraud in the auditor general’s report she referenced in her July 2 column.
While it’s true that the auditor general initially found close to 1,500 cases in which a dead or imprisoned person appeared to vote, the Department of State’s Bureau of Elections (BOE) said the auditor general was mistaken on all 1,500 counts (pdf; page 17). The auditor general reports that BOE informed investigators “that in every instance where it appears a deceased person or incarcerated person voted and local records were available, a clerical error was established as the reason for the situation. In addition, the Department [BOE] informed [the auditor general] that in some cases, voters submitted absent voter ballots shortly before they died. The Department informed us that the examples provided did not result in a single verified case that an ineligible person voted.” (My emphasis.)
Despite this, Johnson is determined to press forward with her original intentions. And regardless of Governor Snyder’s veto of the citizenship reaffirmation bill, Johnson said she will require that ballot application forms have a citizenship checkbox anyway.
Johnson will also continue this work through membership in the Interstate Cross Check Project. The architect of that consortium is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who gained notoriety when he led a national movement to copycat Arizona’s immigrant profiling law. The consortium allows member states to share voter registration information in a database to find ineligible voters.
Kansas has the most restrictive, active voter ID law in the nation. That law, which is also called the Secure and Fair Elections (SAFE) Act, is the model for what Kobach would like to see happen around the country, where state cabinet officials are sent on missions looking for dead people, dogs and “illegals” attempting to vote. The project claims it has discovered people who are registered in multiple states, and who may have even voted in multiple states during one election.
“Double voting is a real common form of voter fraud,” Kobach told the Washington Times, despite every shred of evidence that exists establishing the opposite to be true. Kobach and his colleagues happily ignore the fact that a voter could be registered in one state, move to another state, and the prior state only fail to update its records in time; that doesn’t add up to “double voting.” But as the engineer of some of the most arcane anti-immigrant laws in the nation, it’s not a far leap to say Kobach’s Cross Check Project is fueled primarily by the desire to harass immigrants.
Despite Johnson’s buy-in to Kobach’s scheme, her efforts are frustrated by the fact that the purging powers she wants to carry out are not officially her bailiwick. Verifying voters’ records is normally the job of local election administrators, and it happens when people register to vote. Michigan’s elections board noted this when it told the auditor general, “the actual recording of voter history is legally a local, not State, responsibility.”
This is a problem that right-wing secretaries of state in places like Florida and Colorado are also running into: they can’t purge without the cooperation of their county elections supervisors, and for good reason. In Florida, county election supervisors were given a list of “non-citizens” to purge by the state, and the list was over 98 percent inaccurate, as found by University of Florida professor Daniel Smith.
Colorado is also pursuing a purging program. The Colorado scheme will sound depressingly familiar to those following voting rights this election season: Secretary of State Scott Gessler started a program this year that matches voter registration information with Department of Motor Vehicle databases to see who used immigrant documents when applying for a drivers license and then registered to vote. Though Gessler acknowledges deep flaws in gathering conclusions based on this criteria, the state still came up with a list of roughly 11,000 names of people it claims are wrongly registered to vote, 106 of which are “non-citizens” who Gessler “is virtually certain…are improperly registered to vote.” This is the same story that unfolded in Florida, and is now being fought out in court.
Gessler of course can’t prove his assertion that the 106 registrations are improper, which is why he, like Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, is banging on DHS’s doors for access to their database tracking immigrants who receive public benefits, in hopes it will validate their premises. It won’t. Last year Gessler tried to block county clerks from mailing out ballots to residents who ended up on “inactive voter” lists because they missed one election—the 2010 election. Gessler picked this fight with clerks in Denver and Pueblo, both Democratic strongholds, prompting a judge to give both counties the right to mail out ballots. Republicans in the legislature intervened by introducing a bill that would have switched all “inactive” voters to active, at the request of local election clerks who said this would make their jobs easier, but Gessler testified against it, and it was voted down.
So Gessler, like Florida’s Detzner, doesn’t get along with his own county election administrators, but he’s invested in Kobach’s Cross Check Project to find other creative ways to purge and block voter participation under phony fraud claims. Gessler asserted in January that by using the consortium’s cross-check he found six people who voted in both his state and Kobach’s Kansas. “Sounds like a few people moved to a neighboring state and forgot to change their address. This is not grounds for disenfranchising thousands of Colorado voters,” Democratic consultant Laura Chapin responded to the Denver Post. The FBI is still investigating Gessler’s claims.
It’s difficult to assess Kobach’s Cross Check Project operations or efficacy because it doesn’t even have a website. But if the reports are true, then there are fifteen states—Michigan, Kansas, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee—inside Kobach’s web, representing 132 electoral college votes. Six more states were waiting in the wings as of reports in May.
This week, Michigan Governor Snyder blocked the Kobach wave in his state, disregarding the voter fraud lies of his secretary of state. But will the other governors do the same?
Those pushing voter ID laws around the country have insisted their intentions are as nonpartisan as they are colorblind. But evidence to the contrary just keeps trickling out. Last week, Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board scolded two lawmakers for receiving free legal services in connection to a voter ID lawsuit. Representatives Robin Vos and Bob Ziegelbauer said they were unaware the Republican National Committee was funding the legal work—which is a violation of the ethics of their office.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is mounting a massive squad of lawyers to fight voter suppression this election season. With partisan organizations like True the Vote planning to train 1 million vigilante poll watchers who will do away with the imaginary problem of voter fraud, the administration hopes to train lawyers to protect against voter intimidation this fall.
Florida’s Next Target: Voter Registration Group
Marginalized voters lost when a federal judge ruled against blocking Florida’s voter purge last week. But it might get even worse in the Sunshine State. The secretary of state’s office has contacted the Voter Participation Center and is “evaluating” whether to stop the group from registering voters. The center has sent out nearly half a million registration letters to potential voters—but the state seems to have an interest in keeping new voters off the rolls. Check out Brentin Mock’s reporting from Florida on how dramatically the state’s conversation about voting has changed in the past two years.
DOJ Claims Georgia Not so Peachy to Service Member Voters
For the first time ever, Congress voted last week to hold the attorney general (or any serving cabinet member, for that matter) in contempt, prompting some lawmakers, led by the Congressional Black Caucus to walk out in protest. The House found Eric Holder in criminal and civil contempt in connection to the gun-walking program known as Fast and Furious. But some argue that the charges are not much more than political persecution to undermine Holder’s defense of voting rights—for instance, his department’s new voting rights lawsuit against another state in the South.
The Department of Justice filed suit against Georgia last Wednesday to ensure the rights of service members and other overseas voters are protected. Congress made changes to the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act in 2009, requiring states to make absentee ballots available at least forty-five days before a federal election. The DOJ filed for an injunction to compel Georgia to allow those service members and other overseas voters the allotted time required to cast their ballot.
Lost in Translation
New York Representative Nydia Velázquez kept her seat despite opposition in last week’s primary election—and despite the fact that her name was misspelled on the Chinese-language ballot. Velázquez was the first Boriqua elected to Congress, but had to distinguish herself from a local economist who is fluent in Mandarin and Chinese. It’s hoped the misspelling does not represent a harbinger of what’s to come as nearly 250 counties in twenty-five states are preparing to offer multilingual ballots this fall.
New Hampshire Override
Legislators in New Hampshire were successful in overriding the governor’s veto against a restrictive voter ID bill last week. As I previously noted, this is the second time lawmakers have attempted to override such a veto. New Hampshire touts a high voter turnout—we’ll see what kind of effect the law yields on future participation, especially for marginalized voters.
*This post erroneously cited Vos and Ziegelbauer as representatives in Minnesota; both are in Wisconsin.
A federal judge today refused the Department of Justice’s attempt to block a Florida voter-purging initiative that has already proved to strip hundreds of eligible citizens of their right to vote.
Last month, the Justice Department sued the state of Florida to stop a voter purge program that aims to systematically take “non-citizens” off of voter rolls weeks before the August 14 federal primary election. Using a highly dubious methodology, the state appeared to find 2,600 people they suspected were not citizens, but might potentially vote.
The grand majority of the people on that list were people of color and Democrats, while over half were Latino-Americans. DOJ claimed that Florida’s purge program runs afoul of the National Voter Registration Act, which says voters can’t be removed in a massive program within ninety days of a federal election—a law put in place mostly in response to Florida’s history of removing eligible voters in massive programs right before elections.
Judge Hinkle did not see it that way, though, and has allowed Florida’s program to continue. His ruling states that federal laws say nothing about removing ineligible voters within ninety days of an election, even though the purge program has already produced hundreds of names of people who are eligible to vote.
“We’re disappointed with the judge’s decision,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Penda Hair, whom Colorlines just interviewed last week about a lawsuit they also filed against Florida over the voter purge program. “This threatens the voting rights of thousands of US citizens. The right to vote is the fundamental pillar of our democracy and targeting a particular group of voters is simply wrong.”
“Florida is is imposing a two-tiered system of voting, one for citizens who were born here and one for those who have been naturalized, with thousands of US-born citizens being unfairly caught up in this anti-democratic purge,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne-Dianis. “Voting illegally already carries with it a threat of substantial fines, jail sentences, and—in the case of non-citizens—deportation. What Florida is actually doing is trying to disenfranchise American citizen for partisan gain. It is against the basic values of fairness and American democracy, which is why we have filed suit to stop it.”
Speaking with Advancement Project’s director of voter protection, Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, she said this ruling against DOJ should not affect their lawsuit, which was filed in a different court, and has a different focus. While DOJ’s case targets National Voter Registration Act violations, for starting voter list maintenance within the ninety-day “quiet period,” Advancement’s case focuses on the discriminatory impact of the purge program, as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Of 562 people in Miami-Dade county who were accused by the state of being non-citizens, 98 percent are US citizens, said Culliton-Gonzalez. Two of their clients, a Nicaraguan-American and a Haitian American, are naturalized citizens whose voting rights have been infringed upon by Florida’s voter purge program, according to the lawsuit.
“We don’t agree with today’s ruling because it seems to be about purging people—not people who are ineligible to vote, but thousands of people who are elgible, many people who are naturalized citizens, and the great majority of whom are people of color,” said Culliton-Gonzalez.
There are also other lawsuits pending against Florida over the purge program.
This is the same judge, Robert Hinkle, who just blocked Florida’s onerous voter registration laws, because they made it harder for citizens to vote.
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner had this to say:
“We are pleased with today’s decision because it is further confirmation that we are doing the right thing and following the law. The court agreed that identifying ineligible voters who have never had a right to vote will help prevent the votes of eligible citizens from being neutralized.”
Florida Governor Rick Scott said, “The court made a common-sense decision consistent with what I’ve been saying all along: that irreparable harm will result if non-citizens are allowed to vote. … We know from just a small sample that an alarming number of non-citizens are on the voter rolls and many of them have illegally voted in past elections.”
There are not “alarming” numbers of non-citizens on voter rolls, and both Governor Scott and Secretary Detzner have admitted their program is flawed. The purge program is, in fact, suspended not because of the lawsuits, but because the state’s own county election supervisors have refused to comply due to alarming numbers of inaccuracies.
What happens when the country’s first black attorney general decides to defend voting rights? He’s held in contempt of Congress. At least that’s what House Democrat Nancy Pelosi is claiming about a House vote scheduled for Thursday on whether to hold Holder in contempt.
A House Committee last week decided to make a recommendation for a full vote for contempt, related to a “gun-walking” operation that began during the Bush era, when federal agents knowingly allowed arms dealers to purchase guns for Mexican drug cartels. After President Obama took office, Holder continued the program through 2011, but also began an investigation into what he has called the flawed and unacceptable gun-walking tactic.
Keep in mind that some 50,000 people have died as a result of the US-supported drug war in Mexico. But it wasn’t until a gun from the so-called Fast and Furious program was involved in the murder of a US border agent that the committee decided to go after the Obama administration. After Obama invoked executive privilege to protect Holder from the committee’s request for additional documents related to the program, a recommendation was made to vote to hold him in contempt in the full House.
In the meantime, Holder has made no secret of the fact that the Department of Justice will vigorously defend voters’ rights. From speeches to clergy groups to lawsuits to stop Florida’s purge of its rolls, Holder has been transparent about the Justice Department’s commitment to combat voter suppression in local, state, and federal contests. Queens County and Orange County, New York, primary elections are being monitored today to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act, as are many other elections this season.
But is Pelosi correct in asserting that Holder’s actions in favor of voting rights are prompting the move to hold him in contempt?
Perhaps what seems like a far-fetched theory holds water now that a Pennsylvania Republican has made clear that the state’s voter ID law will “allow Romney to win the state.” And in a little noticed rant from Senator John Cornyn earlier this month, the Texas Republican challenged Holder to resign, citing in part, that Holder’s “department blocks states from implementing attempts to combat voter fraud.” Cornyn is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but he expressed it during Holder’s ninth appearance before a Senate committee to answer questions not about voter ID, but about the gun-walking program.
If the House votes along party lines (just as the committee did) this week to hold Holder in contempt, it will mark the first time an Attorney General has faced such a predicament—and it could very well be because he’s had the audacity to protect voter rights.
Herman Cain Returns to Batter Holder
Meanwhile, disgraced former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is back this week, attacking Holder’s record on protecting voter rights. He’s teamed up with Ken Blackwell—who’s credited with dubious tactics in the 2004 president race, during his stint as Ohio’s secretary of state. Replete with images from the black civil rights movement that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the two black conservatives tout that “elections should never be about color.” Except, of course, that voter suppression disproportionately affects people of color. Watch Cain and Blackwell go at it for yourself:
New Hampshire is notable for its high voter turnout, second only to Minnesota and Wisconsin in the 2008 elections, according to the US Elections Project at George Mason University. For a year, Governor John Lynch has tried to protect that legacy against the legislature’s attempt to pass a voter ID bill. He now appears ready to concede the point—if only the legislature would let him.
This week, Lynch was ready to compromise and sign off on a bill. But the version the state’s legislature presented was so excessively restrictive he vetoed the legislation Wednesday. Lawmakers are now preparing to vote on whether to override the governor’s veto on June 27.
It’s not the first time Lynch has vetoed a voter ID bill, and not the first time the legislature has threatened to overturn his decision. Last June, the governor vetoed a bill and declared that any eligible voter shouldn’t be denied the right to vote. Three months later, legislators attempted, but failed, to override the veto.
But something’s changed in the meantime. While Lynch was prepared to protect every person’s right to vote just one year ago, he’s now moved towards the idea that voters should present some form of identification in order to participate at the ballot box. The distinction between Lynch’s position and that of the state’s legislators is what kind of ID should be required.
Lynch now says that lawmakers went too far when they restricted the types of identification cards that could be used beginning in 2013. The bill allowed that student IDs, municipal, county and state IDs and any other identification deemed appropriate by election supervisors could be used in the upcoming September state primary, but only a valid driver’s license (or other card issued by the motor vehicles department), US passport or armed services ID could be used in future elections.
The bill is meant to restrict state government employees who use their governmental IDs. Aside from negatively impacting student voters, the bill would also have taken its toll on African-Americans, who are over-represented in municipal, county and state jobs.
We’ll keep you posted on whether the state’s legislature overrides the veto. If the House and Senate find two-thirds support, we’ll also keep a watch on the lawsuits that are sure to follow.
Tell It to the Judge
Speaking of lawsuits, a panel of judges heard arguments from both sides Thursday in one of several suits filed over Florida’s voter suppression attempt. The Department of Justice contends changes to Florida’s voting laws are in violation of the Voting Rights Act, in part because the new rules revoke voting the Sunday before Election Day. Church-going blacks have historically participated in “Souls to the Polls” on that particular Sunday, and Latinos have joined as well. Canceling voting that day will likely see a drop in participation from people of color. The state of Florida, meanwhile, argued that the rule changes are perfectly legal and will not affect voter turnout.
Not on Our Dime, Says St. Paul
And finally, the City of St. Paul filed an amicus brief in Minnesota’s Supreme Court this week, challenging a voter ID ballot measure this fall. Mayor Chris Coleman said more than 6,000 students, veterans and senior citizen voters would be impacted in St. Paul alone. The brief states that if voters pass a constitutional amendment, the city would be compelled to absorb the cost of “implementing voting programs.” It would also create confusion for election officials. The court will hear arguments in the case July 17.
Michigan’s governor is poised to sign a set of three voter suppression bills approved by the House and the Senate—in a state that already has a voter ID law. A group of civil rights organizations testified against the bills last month, citing that the legislation would cause confusion for election supervisors and polling place workers, and that one bill in particular is “especially problematic for organizations operating registration drives.” Like Florida, Michigan is a good indicator of what other states may have in store: creating barriers against the participation of marginalized voters in major elections, before they even enter the polling site.
Less than two months shy of the state’s primary state election, SB 754 targets registration drives in two ways. First, the legislation stipulates photo ID for registration at government agencies. When authoring the so-called Motor Voter Act of 1993, which increases the government venues at which people can register to vote, Congress considered and rejected language to increase the requirements (such as photo ID) to register at government agencies. Federal circuit court decisions in 2005 and 2012 cemented Congress’s intent—but Michigan is still moving forward with the photo ID requirement.
But the bill also creates obstacles for civic participation, which will need to submit the personal information of each and every single volunteer, along with an affidavit that must be kept in file for a minimum of two years. Registering agents will have to be trained by the Secretary of State and are liable for stiff penalties if any of the bill’s numerous new procedures aren’t kept. Unfortunately for them, the bill doesn’t explain the training agents are expected to undergo, and doesn’t spell out the penalties. Once the bill is signed into law, voter registration groups will be too busy scrambling to figure out the bureaucracy and pleading with get volunteers to sign affidavits, rather than carry out their actual mission to register voters.
All of this reminds us of Florida, where voter registration groups saw a sharp dip in new registered voters after similar legislation passed there. Although a ruling blocked parts of the law, Michigan is poised to copycat the Sunshine State’s confusing law, which only results in registering less voters who are already marginalized from the electoral process. And that’s just one of three bills in Michigan.
SB 751 is essentially a new purge effort, aimed to remove voters from the rolls if the state “believes” that person has moved to another state. If a voter has not voted in the past six years and then casts a ballot, their vote will automatically be challenged. Additionally, if a voter receives a postcard regarding their state residency but doesn’t respond within thirty days, and subsequently doesn’t vote in two elections, s/he will be removed from the rolls. Students, who move to attend college and find work but sometimes return home after several years are obviously at risk under this legislation, as are those who serve in the military. Elderly voters, who sometimes move in with loved ones or to assisted living facilities within the state, are also vulnerable to the bill. Federal legislation already dictates how non-residents are identified and removed—this new bill creates another way to keep voters (and young voters in particular) away from the polls rather than engaging them in the process.
The last bill in Michigan’s trifecta is simply unnecessary. Anyone who’s filled out a voter registration form already has to check a box indicating citizenship in the United States. SB 803 adds an additional box at the polling location. If the voter doesn’t automatically acknowledge their citizenship, their eligibility could be challenged, opening the door for additional questions, confusion and longer lines on Election Day. Non-English speakers are especially vulnerable to this new tactic, as there is no indication that the citizenship box will be made available in any other language.
We shouldn’t be surprised if an avalanche of lawsuits challenges Michigan’s three bills. Florida has seen its most expansive lawsuit to stop its purge today. But the suits don’t stop there: the two Democrats on Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County election board will also sue over the state’s voter ID law. All of this in an attempt to ensure that the nation’s marginalized voters can still exercise their right to register and cast their votes on Election Day.
The Advancement Project has joined forces with the Fair Elections Legal Network, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and Project Vote to file a lawsuit against the state of Florida to stop an initiative that attempts to remove “non-citizens” from voter registration rolls via a mass-purging process formed from questionable methods. The lawsuit would cover the entire state and would suspend the voter purging for at least a year. To date, dozens of Floridians and US citizens have come forward stating that they were wrongly identified as “non-citizens” and are at risk of losing their right to vote. The Department of Justice is also suing Florida over the program. We caught up with The Advancement Project’s co-director Penda Hair and asked her to explain the lawsuit, the problems with Florida’s voter purging initiative and the history of voter discrimination in the state.
Voting Rights Watch 2012: Now that this lawsuit against Florida has been filed, what’s next in the process to block Florida’s voter purging initiative?
Penda Hair: The lawsuit is filed in Miami with the federal Southern District Court of Florida. We are asking for a preliminary injunction to block the program. This would be an emergency ruling that will move more quickly than a normal civil suit, and we expect the court to take this up very quickly. We believe this is a case where the voters themselves can have their voices heard. We will bring Florida voters to court so they can make their case about how this program is affecting them. It’s a broad-based effort in terms of public education and activism and obviously the legal complaint. The Advancement Project has been doing voting rights work in Florida since the 2000 elections—I think this is our fifth or sixth lawsuit here—and we are very familiar with these kinds of shenanigans.
It is, in fact, well within the state’s right to purge ineligible voters from their lists. What exactly is wrong with how Florida is doing it?
One thing is that it is discriminatory on the basis of race and language status. The Advancement Project’s research has confirmed that 87 percent of the people on Florida’s purge list are people of color and more than 50 percent are Latinos. So while states are allowed to make their lists more accurate they can’t target people of color for purging in the process. Congress found that there has been a history of certain states using lists like Florida’s to target minorities for purging, so they have determined that certain types of massive systematic purges cannot happen ninety days before a federal election, and Florida’s purge program illustrates why Congress was correct in making that determination.
It’s unclear from Florida state government officials when this process actually started, though. It was announced to the public in May, but Governor Rick Scott says it actually began last year. How will a clear starting date be determined?
The facts are the facts. They probably did start investigating this last year and I understand that as soon as Scott was elected governor he was asking about how he could find people who aren’t citizens. But that doesn’t matter. Under the National Voting Rights Act, it is the day that the program is finished that makes it a violation of the law or not, and it can’t finish within ninety days of a federal election for purging purposes. [Florida has a primary on August 14.]
Florida state officials are saying they did not intend to target Latinos with this program, but does that matter, so long as it has a discriminatory impact?
We are suing under the Voting Rights Act Section 2 which prohibits policies that have discriminatory results. This was defined very clearly by Congress, which says you do not have to prove a bad purpose or discriminatory intent to show violation of VRA. The courts will look at the history of voter discrimination, the impacts of the new policy and the justification of the policy and then will determine under the totality of those facts if there is a discriminatory result. We’re confident that the courts will find that all of those factors line up—it has an overwhelming discriminatory impact, there’s a history of voter discrimination in the state and very little justification for doing this right now.
Of course they will argue that the justification is preventing voter fraud, right?
Let’s be real. There is no significant voter fraud in Florida. I’ve been doing voting rights work for twenty-five years and we always hear this mantra of voter fraud. What’s happening is the people who are attacking voters don’t want people of color participating at same rate and with the same ease as other voters, so they come up with one excuse after another and they label it under voter fraud, but the real fraud is that people aren’t being allowed to vote because this is voter suppression.
Other states are implementing or attempting similar voter purge programs. How would your lawsuit affect those states?
We hope that this lawsuit sends a strong, strong message to all states that this is illegal and they should not do it, and if they follow Florida’s program they will be sued.
Despite the requests from civil rights group and the Department of Justice to Florida to stop this purging initiative, there seems to be a lingering chilling effect, which might frighten people who could be mistaken for “non-citizens”—Latinos and Caribbean Floridians in particular—from voting. Have you already encountered this?
Absolutely, the state can put 2,000 people on a purge list and intimidate millions of people from voting. That’s what we are hearing from Latino and Haitian communities, that they are afraid that police will show up at their homes, and go through their documents just because they had the audacity to register for the right to vote. Florida is just flouting federal law, and Florida has done this repeatedly.
Most of the county supervisors of elections have decided not to comply with the state’s purge program, which means effectively there is no program. Why is it still important to move forward with this lawsuit?
What the counties have done is said we’ll halt this until legal clarification around the program is achieved. Well, we plan to clarify the legal situation. We want voters and Florida communities to know that they can vote without fear, and that is a real important message to send to counter the voter intimidation. We also have evidence, though, that two counties are continuing the program and are purging. We know that they are under pressure from outside activists like the Tea Party and Judicial Watch, as well as the state of Florida to continue purging.