News and Features
After two decades of visiting political nightmares on the state--from
the infamous Prop 13 to the immigrant-bashing Prop 187--California's
notorious initiative and referendum system finally promises to deliver a
welcome gift this November. Enough signatures have been gathered to
qualify the Election Day Voter Registration initiative (EDR) for this
fall's ballot. The measure, which would allow citizens to both register
and vote on Election Day, is seen by many as the most significant
election reform possible at this time.
Since the 2000 presidential debacle in Florida, reformers have mostly
concentrated on improving the logistics of balloting. "But that isn't
the problem," says Cal Tech Professor Mike Alvarez, co-author of a new
report analyzing EDR. "The problem in American elections isn't voting
machines. The biggest problem is voter registration."
Voter participation both across the United States and within California
has plummeted steadily over the past three decades, constantly setting
new records of anemic turnout. "Worse, the higher your income and the
older you are, the more likely you are one of those left voting," says
former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, now the head of
the Demos organization, which commissioned Alvarez's study.
Supporters of EDR say it's the perfect prescription for reversing the
downward trend. In most states voters must register some weeks or even
months in advance of actual balloting, and the process is often
cumbersome and confusing. There are currently six states that have moved
to EDR, and the increase in turnout has been an immediate 3-6 percent.
Voting among young people and those who have moved in the previous six
months runs some 15 percent higher in states that have adopted EDR.
Similar reforms, like "motor voter," which allows registration at the
time of driver's-license renewal, have not been as effective.
Motor-voter does bring in a lot of registrations, but many of the new
potential voters don't show up on Election Day.
Perhaps the most dramatic use of EDR was in Minnesota's 1998
gubernatorial election. More than 330,000 last-minute, previously
unregistered voters were swept to the polls by the enthusiasm around
independent candidate Jesse Ventura and were the decisive margin in his
victory over the two traditional parties. EDR is also credited with
boosting liberal Senator Paul Wellstone into office during his first
run, in 1990.
Alvarez thinks that if EDR is adopted in California--where the
electorate has been disproportionately white, suburban and elderly--an
increase of up to 9 percent in turnout can be anticipated. "That's
something like 1.9 million additional voters in a presidential
election," he says. And that increase would contribute to greater
ethnic, class and age equity. Increases in voters aged 18-25 would
increase by a projected 12 percent, Latino voters by 11 percent and
African-American voters by 7 percent. A 10 percent increase could be
expected from those with a grade-school education or less, an equal
increase from those who have lived at their address for less than six
months and a 12 percent increase from new-citizen voters.
The measure is endorsed by a plethora of nonprofit activist groups and
has also gotten support from top moderate Republicans, including former
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former US Representative Tom
Campbell. No organized opposition to EDR has yet emerged, though
nativist groups are expected to charge that it opens the door to
fraudulent voting by undocumented aliens.
But backers of the measure are taking no chances. The gathering of about 700,000 signatures was financed with $1 million from California businessman and philanthropist Rob McKay,
whose McKay Foundation has an established track record in backing social
justice issues. And plans are to spend another $7 million to see the
initiative through to victory in November. During the 2001-02
legislative session, a dozen other states are expected to take up
"We have to lower the barriers to voting every way we can," says McKay.
"We are no longer dealing with just voter apathy. Now we are dealing
with outright voter alienation. With this measure we are trying to draw
the line in the sand."
When Donna Brazile learned in late May that the Justice Department might
sue three Florida counties over voting rights violations that
disfranchised minority citizens in the 2000 presidential election, the
woman who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign called her sister in
Florida's Seminole County. In one of the milder examples of the
harassment suffered by thousands of African-American and Latino voters
in the disputed election, Brazile's sister had been forced to produce
three forms of identification--instead of the one required under Florida
law--before she could cast her ballot.
Informed that the Feds were riding to the rescue eighteen months after
the fact, Brazile's sister asked, "What took 'em so long?" When the
Justice Department finishes its tepid intervention, the question likely
to be asked is, Why did they bother?
When it comes to missing signs of serious trouble, failing to respond to
clear threats and then botching the cleanup of the mess, the Justice
Department's response to the 2000 election crisis has been at least as
inept as the much-criticized terrorist-tracking performance of the FBI
and the CIA. Although it is charged with enforcing Voting Rights Act
protections, Justice was nowhere to be found when its presence could
have made a difference--not just for Florida but for a nation that had
its presidential election settled by a 5-to-4 decision of the US Supreme
Immediately after the November 7, 2000, election, minority voters who
had never committed crimes complained of having had their names removed
from voting rolls in a purge of "ex-felons," of being denied translation
services required by law, of seriously flawed ballots, of polling places
that lacked adequate resources and competent personnel, and of
harassment by poll workers and law-enforcement officials [see Gregory
Palast, "Florida's 'Disappeared Voters,'" February 5, 2001, and John
Lantigua, "How the GOP Gamed the System in Florida," April 30, 2001].
But after newspaper analyses uncovered evidence of disproportional
disfranchisement of minority voters, and even after a US Commission on
Civil Rights review condemned Florida's Governor, Jeb Bush, and its
Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, for running an election marked by
"injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency," another year passed before
Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd told the Senate Judiciary
Committee in May that the civil rights division was preparing to act.
"Act" is a generous characterization. Eleven thousand election-related
complaints have been whittled down to five potential lawsuits--targeting
three Florida counties, along with St. Louis and Nashville. The Florida
suits focus on the failure of Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola county
officials to provide Spanish- and Creole-language assistance to voters.
Issues of accessibility for the disabled and flawed registration
procedures are also likely to be addressed. And, encouragingly, Boyd
told the Judiciary Committee that his department would examine the
purging of eligible voters from election rolls in a process overseen by
But don't expect to see Harris--now a Congressional candidate--in court
anytime soon. Boyd wants to settle his suits before they are filed,
through negotiations with local officials. That will bring limited
reform to three of Florida's sixty-seven counties and perhaps a bit more
restraint on the part of the Republican-controlled Secretary of State's
office. There is no real evidence, however, that John Ashcroft's Justice
Department is going to call anyone in Florida--least of all the
President's brother or his political allies--to account for the
widespread disfranchisement of minority voters.
Justice Department attorneys continue to limit the scope of an
investigation that should be examining the collapse of voting rights
protections in all Florida counties, from Palm Beach in the south to
Duval in the north and Gadsden in the west--where as many as one in
eight ballots cast by minority voters was discarded. In addition, Jeb
Bush and the Florida legislature continue to reject needed reforms and
to stall the allocation of sufficient funds to bring voting machinery in
predominantly minority precincts up to par with equipment in
predominantly white precincts. And the US House and Senate remain
deadlocked over legislation that would promote and fund reforms in other
states--like Illinois, which had a higher rate of ballot spoilage than
Florida. Until the Justice Department and state and federal legislators
get serious about making real reforms, the 2002 and 2004 elections won't
be any more fair or functional than the flawed election of 2000.
On March 5 San Franciscans will have the opportunity to vote for an
electoral system that elected "Red Ken" Livingstone as London's Mayor and
Mary Robinson as Ireland's President and catapulted
Back in the spotlight, he condemns the trading of political favors for cash.
The problems of people of color show what's wrong with American democracy.
In Gore Vidal's novel of post-World War I Washington, Hollywood, the
toughest ticket in town is a pass to the Senate debate on the League of
Florida revisited: Schadenfreude amid the carnage of the democratic process.
George W. Bush, whose administration is addicted to secrecy, wants presidential papers classified indefinitely, not for the usual 12 years.
Serious shortcomings in voting access were illustrated in the 2000 'recount.'
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