By Deborah Otenburg
Election time is upon us again. It is time for us all to exercise our rights as the citizens of a democracy to vote for the candidates and issues we believe will serve us best. But there is some discrepancy in today’s definition of what “us all” means, and that definition is becoming less inclusive by the moment. We are being told that to vote is a privilege, not a right, and we’re being told this in the name of protecting our liberties.
Voter suppression is the act of attempting to influence elections by altering voter turnout through the use of regulations, intimidation, inconvenience or fraud, to tip the scales in a certain direction. The tactics are practically a tradition in our country. At the beginning of our democracy, voting rights had restrictions according to skin color, gender, and property ownership. In the Jim Crow era, we had poll taxes and written tests designed to discourage African-American and working class voters. Now, after having come so far from those prohibitive tactics, we are seeing new limitations placed on our vote. This election has brought about new constraints on early voting, strict new voter I.D. laws and voter intimidation at the polls. The motive of current voter suppression efforts, though blurred by words of freedom and liberty, is a partisan effort. The effects of the effort are felt differently according to class and skin color.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits the denial or abridgement of the right to vote on account of race or color. President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law on August 6th, 1965 in response to the unfair requirements, intimidation of, and violence on African-American voters in the South. One way we can attempt to understand the impact that voter suppression can have is to examine the changes in registered voters after the signing of this bill. In March of 1965, only 19.3% of eligible African-Americans were registered to vote in Alabama while whites had a 69.2% registration rate (Ross). In 2005, the rate for African-American and white registered voters in Alabama was nearly equal, 74% to 77%, respectively (Ross). Registration from the August 1965 signing of the bill to the year’s end saw an increase of a quarter of a million African-American voters nationwide (Our Documents). Enforcement of voting rights does work, and in the opposite way, so does voter suppression.
True the Vote is one of several conservative organizations and politicians behind the effort toward tighter voter restrictions. The organization bills itself as grassroots, non-partisan and non-profit, and says it is dedicated to maintaining election integrity (True the Vote). Its parent organization, however, is the King Street Patriots, a Tea Party organization (King Street Patriots). The organizations are both headed up by Catherine Engelbrecht, the owner of a Texas oil machinery manufacturing company. Engelbrecht became interested in voter fraud issues in 2008, before which she says she was apolitical, and she then spearheaded a campaign to monitor election activities (Saul). Since that time, True the Vote has gathered thousands of volunteer election monitors, whose duties range from scanning voter registration databases to monitoring poll workers and voters at the polls. The organization examines data for what it sees as red flags, such as higher numbers of registered voters per household, to locate possible vote abuses. It then concentrates its efforts on districts where the red flags occur (Saul). When the majority of multi-generational households are those of people of color and of lower income levels, whether or not True the Vote uses race or social class explicitly as a target for inquiries, by its criteria for investigation, it does.
The tactics used by True the Vote and similar organizations have already brought about complaints of voter discomfort. In Ohio, Teresa Sharp and her family members were some of the 380 registered voters in one county who received notices challenging their eligibility due to investigations by True the Vote. Sharp, an African-American woman and a regular voter who had previously been a poll worker, suspects that her race was a factor in singling her out (Saul). Whether or not charges of racism are true, an influx of conservative white poll “guards” hawking over people of color as they cast their ballots is intimidating. Given the history in this country of discrepancies in voting rights, it is an outrage. The criterion for suspicion also has more blatantly racist examples. One True the Vote representative, while speaking to a conservative women’s group, cited a circumstance in which a bus dropped voters off in front of a San Diego polling place “who did not appear to be from this country” (Saul). I grew up in San Diego County. The population has a large percentage of Hispanic citizens, some of whom do happen to ride the bus. At the time of this writing, census figures say that Hispanics make up 32.5% of San Diego’s population (U.S. Census). This being a cause for suspicion hardly seems justified, and it hardly seems without bias.
Methods of voter suppression are many and varied, and the methods equate to institutionalized racism regardless of intent. In Ohio, Republican Congressmen recently attempted, but failed, to stop early vote availability on Sundays. The attempt was made to avoid the mobilization effort of “souls to the polls”, where some African-American church congregations encourage parishioners to cast their ballots following services (London). Many swing states have placed similar restrictions on early voting, a method of voting that more Democrats use, statistics show, cutting back on days and strengthening requirements. In Maricopa County, Arizona, home of the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio, voter information papers were handed out in Spanish and in English, as required. The Spanish versions of two separate documents distributed, however, listed a cutoff date two days after the voting deadline. English versions of the documents had no such mistake (Gye). After a public outcry, Clear Channel Communications (owned by Bain Capital), agreed to remove billboards it erected in predominantly African-American and low-income districts in Ohio and Wisconsin that threatened fines and jail time for voter fraud (Velez). Examples of discrimination and intimidation are in great supply this election season, and the laws to protect citizens against them are becoming fewer than the laws protecting the practice.
New voter I.D. laws have been put into place in 30 states over the course of the past few years (Lee). Of the Southern states, since 2010, all but 3 have passed new restrictive voting laws (Berman). While state issued I.D. is held by most middle and upper class white Americans, according to The Brennan Center for Justice, citizens without such identification make up 11% of the population as a whole and 25% of African-Americans (Brennan Center for Justice). The costs incurred to obtain acceptable identification to vote can include the fees for the I.D itself as well as fees for the documentation required to obtain one. That documentation may no longer be available for many senior citizens. The effects of these laws will ultimately require people to pay to vote, mirroring the poll taxes of the Jim Crow era. With the vote being so central to our democracy, shouldn’t states have to prove their justification before enacting laws that alter its accessibility?
True the Vote and similarly motivated organizations and politicians claim that voter fraud is widespread and rampant. While it is known that mistakes in voter registration occur, there are few documented cases of actual voter fraud. There have been cases of people listed as registered voters who have passed away remaining on the rolls. Clerical errors have led to listings of two addresses for one voter, and on occasion, voters have cast their ballots in the wrong district. Most documented voter fraud cases don’t occur at the polling places at all, where voter I.D. efforts might prevent them. Many occur during the voter registration process, when third party registration workers, incentivized to pad their lists, add names of non-existent people. One investigative group, after an exhaustive search of public records in 50 states, found only ten legitimate cases of voter fraud by impersonation, a number that represents about one in 15 million voters, hardly enough to warrant new voter I.D. laws and volunteer Tea Party oversight committees (Khan). When we examine the problem of voter fraud weighed against the problem of interference with our civil liberties, there is no question as to which is the greater threat.
Why now, we might wonder, would the integrity of the elections process suddenly be raising such concerns? Is fraud brand new? Why does the integrity of the vote seem to matter more this election cycle? Can we still call ourselves a democracy if only some of us can vote without interference? The answer to all of the above is: The concern the “election integrity” efforts have is one of controlling the outcome of elections, not one of protecting the process. While conservative groups may paint the story red, white and blue, they are fighting a battle for nothing resembling justice for all.
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Giving Out Wrong Date for Election Twice in Two Weeks”. Daily Mail, 24 October 2012, Web. 3 November 2012.
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“State and County Quick Facts San Diego, California”. United States Census Bureau.
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