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Left Out of Obama's Commission on Elections? Race

What I learned from an Al-Jazeera America news segment last night: 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina could be arrested and charged as adults, in one of just two states in the nation where this is law. I also know that in North Carolina, as of last year, this same age group can no longer pre-register to vote, a practice that had lasted almost three years and was responsible for creating over 160,000 new voters in 2012. The message sent: North Carolina’s teens are old enough to go to jail with rapists and killers, but not old enough to prepare for participatory democracy.

In both cases—adult criminal charges and voter pre-registration—these are policies that disproportionately impact Latinos and African Americans. In fact, the North Carolina state conference of the NAACP recently amended their voting rights complaint against the state arguing that the elimination of pre-registration would affect black and brown teens harder than their white peers because they otherwise have less opportunities to register to vote.

It’s these kinds of racial disparities that I think President Obama’s Commission on Election Administration missed the opportunity to address in their report released yesterday. Almost a year ago, during the President’s State of the Union address, Obama honored Ms. Desiline Victor, the 102-year-old Haitian-American voter from Miami who stood for hours in line and had to make a return trip to vote. Standing with Victor, the woman who stood up for our voting rights, Obama said “we must fix this,” so that no one had to endure long waiting lines at the polls again.

The Commission on Election Administration’s report is a catalogue of best practices and recommendations on how to fix it. There’s some good stuff in there, like the push for expansion of early voting periods and online voter registration practices. Then there is the questionable, like the encouragement of states to share voter data with each other, a practice that has spelled purging trouble in state’s like Ms. Victor’s own Florida. To be fair, it probably has some potential to be a beneficial thing for maintaining accurate voter lists until online registration becomes a mainstreamed and secure thing. But it’s a hard thing to endorse when you know such efforts are led by people like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, someone who has a reckless relationship, at best, with race, and is hellbent on purging voters.

People like Kobach simply do not apply any racial analysis to the kinds of policies they propose, which is how racial disparities are allowed to persist. Unfortunately, I found little racial analysis in Obama’s Commission report either, which was unnecessary. Research from Florida elections experts Dan Smith and Michael Herron found tremendous evidence that the wait lines in Florida—where there the longest wait times were found—were the most heaviest for African Americans and Latinos, including in Miami where the woman Obama stood with suffered this problem.

I spoke with Smith, who agreed that there were a lot of constructive recommendations in the report, and that the call to expand early voting could go a long way toward addressing some racial disparities, given people of color rely on it more than white voters. But he also was dismayed about the otherwise absence of race in their findings.

“To not factor in or discuss the important considerations of how the election system affects racial and ethnic minorities is somewhat of a disservice,” he said.

The report mentions that one of the reasons for long lines is that some polling districts are poorly resourced—too few poll workers, too few voting machines—compared to others, but it failed to mention that those problems also fall along racial lines, which was exposed as early as 2008 in states like Virginia. These racial disparities in polling resources were further explored in a hearing held in Virginia last January, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland. The Commission points out the unique challenges posed for disabled voters and those who don’t primarily speak English, but nothing on the unique burdens facing people of color, and the systemic racism that feeds that.

I understand that examining voter ID laws wasn’t in the Commission’s ambit, but scrutinizing provisional ballot systems was. One of the primary reasons for provisional voting is lacking the right form of ID in voter ID states. This was a glaring omission in the report, which was as blinding as the carve-out given to voter ID laws in the new Voting Rights Act Section Five amendment proposed last week.

The irony is that thanks to the original Section 5 provision, the federal government was able to stop voter ID laws in Texas and Mississippi, and modify similar laws in South Carolina and Virginia, because they would have potentially disenfranchised millions of voters cumulatively had they been enacted as passed. Given a court just found a voter ID law in Pennsylvania a violation of state constitutional voting rights, the hall pass given to voter ID in these discussions around election administration seems irrational and random.

I understand from people I spoke with who helped draft the VRA amendment that excluding voter ID was a non-negotiable from conservatives at the table from the beginning. Then consider that Republican party leaders have publicly stated voter suppression intentions for voter ID in:

A Harvard study last year found that Latino Americans encountered significant, unmistakable prejudice when dealing with election officials, particularly around voter ID. Last September, Nevada GOP leader Pat Hickey gloated over the idea that people of color won’t vote in this year’s mid-term elections.

The same racism is baked into how conservatives have approached purges, poll monitoring, how “right church, wrong pew” ballot mistakes happen, college student residency eligibility (which often impacts historically black universities), redistricting, how money influences elections and police conduct during elections.

Given all of that, Smith was kinda being kind when he said the Commission’s failure to address race was a “disservice.” It was a dishonor, especially to people like Desilines Victor. I’m not sure how you can talk and walk around race when in North Carolina right now it’s easier for a black teenager to go to jail than it is for him to vote.