The Bush administration, its political appointees and their cronies have fomented dramatic fears in order to justify laws, policies and prosecutions that suppress the vote of minority and lower-income communities. It turns out that this is nothing more than fear mongering at its worse. Voter fraud has been disproved and occurs “statistically…about as often as death by lightning strike.”
What is true, however, is that voter registration drives are incredibly successful (hence the backlash). The 2004 Census reported that such drives registered 12 million Americans to vote, largely from minority and low-income communities. In Florida alone, activists registered 524,000 new voters, mostly from African-American and Latino communities – almost 20 percent of all registrations processed by the state that year.
A Project Vote reportnotes that just as the Democratic Party felt threatened by an influx of new African-American voters in the late 19th century and responded by erecting stricter registration rules to “protect our democracy,” so too are Republicans now resurrecting baseless fraud allegations to erect new barriers to voting and to thwart voter registration drives:
• In Florida, prior to the 2006 election, the state legislature passed a bill establishing a punitive set of fines – even for accidental mishandling of voter registration forms – that forced the League of Women Voters to halt a major registration drive for the FIRST time in its history. The law was later overturned as unconstitutional but not before real damage was done.
• Less than two months before the 2004 election, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell ordered counties to discard any registration forms not printed on thick, 80 lb. paper. The rule was partially reversed three weeks later due to pressure from voter registration groups and local election officials. (It’s worth mentioning that the Ballot Integrity Act would also prohibit any chief state election official – such as Kenneth Blackwell and Katherine Harris – from serving on any political campaign committee of a candidate for Federal office.) In 2006 in Ohio, a law was passed requiring any individual collecting voter registration applications to personally return them to the Board of Elections within 10 days. Also, individuals compensated for collecting registrations needed to register with the state, complete a training program, and include their name and employer on each voter registration form. In Project Vote vs. Blackwell, a District Court ruled these requirements unconstitutional, noting that the direct return provision “severely chills the voter registration process.”
• In New Mexico, the Secretary of State issued rules limiting the number of voter registration forms to 50 per individual or organization. The state also now requires activists to turn in forms within 48 hours, making it more difficult for organizations to thoroughly check every application for accuracy and thoroughness, and also causing them to spend more time transporting forms and less time collecting them from voters.
• Arizona now requires people registering to vote to provide the local board with proof of citizenship – a copy of a driver’s license, US passport, birth certificate, Bureau of Indian Affairs card, or naturalization papers. Most people, of course, don’t carry copies of these documents and so they often don’t have them when offered assistance by voter registration programs.
Now, a bill co-sponsored by Senators Christopher Dodd and Dianne Feinstein – the Ballot Integrity Act of 2007 – would prohibit states from passing any law that hinders voter registration drives and address other needed election administration reforms as well. There are some divisions within the pro-democracy/voter reform community about some aspects of the bill, but there can be no mistaking the importance of protecting efforts to expand voting participation. As Maude Hurde, President of ACORN told me, “If legislators in Ohio and Florida had their way, ACORN would never have been able to run the kind of successful voter registration drives that helped 1.6 million Americans join the voting rolls in the past four years. Fortunately, Senator Feinstein’s Ballot Integrity Act won’t be leaving the decision up to them, and that is good news for America’s democracy.”
Burying pro-democracy activists in paperwork or forcing them to comply with burdensome and unjustifiable regulations are less violent than the tactics used against civil rights activists 40 years ago. But the impact is similar: minority and lower-income citizens are stopped from exercising their right to vote. Tell your Senator to support the Ballot Integrity Act of 2007 and protect organized voter registration drives today.