Voter Harassment, Circa 2012

This is how voter intimidation worked in 1966: White teenagers in Americus, Ga., harassed black citizens in line to vote, and the police refused to intervene. Black plantation workers in Mississippi had to vote in plantation stores, overseen by their bosses. Black voters in Choctaw County, Ala., had to hand their ballots directly to white election officials for inspection.

This is how it works today: In an ostensible hunt for voter fraud, a Tea Party group, “True the Vote,” descends on a largely minority precinct and combs the registration records for the slightest misspelling or address error. It uses this information to challenge voters at the polls, and though almost every challenge is baseless, the arguments and delays frustrate those in line and reduce turnout.

The thing that’s different from the days of Jim Crow is the phony pretext of combating voter fraud. Voter identity fraud is all but nonexistent, but the assertion that it might exist is used as an excuse to reduce the political rights of minorities, the poor, students, the elderly and any other group that tends to vote Democratic.

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On the day of the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, the group used inaccurate lists to slow down student voting at Lawrence University in Appleton with intrusive identity checks. Three election “observers,” including one from True the Vote, were so disruptive that a clerk gave them two warnings, but the ploy was effective: many students gave up waiting in line and didn’t vote.

True the Vote, now active in 30 states, hopes to train hundreds of thousands of poll watchers to make the experience of voting “like driving and seeing the police following you,” as one of the group’s leaders put it. (Not surprisingly, the group is also active in the Voter ID movement, with similar goals.) These activities “present a real danger to the fair administration of elections and to the fundamental freedom to vote,” as a recent report by Common Cause and Demos put it.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits intimidation or interference in the act of voting, but the penalties are fairly light. Many states have tougher laws, but they won’t work unless law enforcement officials use them to crack down on the illegal activities, handed down from Jim Crow days, of True the Vote and similar groups.