New York, NY — In communities across the country, voters could be subject to intimidation and a variety of suppressive tactics meant to keep them from casting a ballot. Demos, a national, non-partisan public policy center, published the details of these potential challenges to voting rights in a new briefing paper this week.
The Voter Intimidation and Vote Suppression briefing paper, part of Demos' Challenges to Fair Elections series highlighting trouble spots and voting rights problems in the '06 election, shows how campaigns to suppress voter turnout take a variety of forms, are often mounted in communities of color, and that many go unnoticed or unchallenged until after it is too late. Even after many documented cases of vote suppression/voter intimidation came to light in the last several elections, few states have enacted clear and effective prohibitions against these abuses.
"It's unfortunate that, in 2006, we need to be so concerned with potential threats to an individual's right to vote from partisan operatives," said Steven Carbó, Senior Director of the Democracy Program at Demos. "But with so many documented cases of suppression and intimidation in 2004, and recorded abuses already this year in primary elections, we must be as vigilant as ever."
Organized misinformation campaigns often target minority communities in the run-up to Election Day.
* 14,000 Latino residents in Orange Co., California, received a letter in October 2006 warning that it was a crime for immigrants to vote and cautioning that they could be jailed or deported if they went to the polls in November. These are naturalized citizens eligible to vote, as guaranteed by law.
* A fictitious "Milwaukee Black Voters League" distributed fliers intended to suppress black voters in largely African-American neighborhoods in 2004. The fliers claimed that voters could not cast a ballot if they had already voted that year or if any family member had been found guilty of a crime. "If you violate any of these laws, you can get ten years in prison and your children will be taken away from you," the flier warned.
* A memo on bogus letterhead of the Lake Co., Ohio, Board of Elections was sent to local residents in 2004, stating that registrations submitted through the Democratic Party and the NAACP were invalid.
* A bogus advisory purported to be from the Franklin Co., Ohio, Board of Elections in 2004 advised that Democrats were being asked to vote on the day after the November election at their regular polling places, due to heavy voter registration. Republicans would vote on the actual election date. The targeted area, Columbus' near east side, is predominantly African American.
Many states allow partisan operatives to selectively challenge voters at the polls — sometimes resulting in challenges based on voters' race, ethnicity or English-language skills.
* Nearly 50 Asian Americans were selectively challenged at the polls as ineligible to vote in a majority-white, Alabama village in August 2004. A Vietnamese American was running for office there. According to his Anglo opponent, "we figured if they couldn't speak good English, they possibly weren't American citizens."
* Native American voters were prevented from voting in South Dakota's June 2004 primary after they were asked to provide photo IDs, which were not required under state or federal law.
* Voters in African-American neighborhoods in Philadelphia were systematically challenged in 2004 by men carrying clipboards and driving sedans with magnetic signs designed to look like law enforcement insignia.
* Partisans in Atkinson County, Georgia obtained a list of Latino registered voters in 2004, and then used it to challenge 95 of the 121 people listed.
* The Ohio Republican party challenged approximately 35,000 registered voters from predominantly urban and minority areas in late October 2004.
* Widespread challenges to voters' credentials in a current, razor-thin Westchester Co., NY senate race have prompted allegations that communities of color are being targeted.
Partisan operatives often resort to "dirty tricks" in order to depress the votes of the opposing party.
* Over 4,000 potential voters in Florida's Leon Co., all students at Florida State and Florida A & M universities, discovered that their party registrations had been switched to Republican and their addresses changed in 2004.
* Kerry-Edwards campaign workers in Marion Co., Ohio were accused of making misleading phone calls in five Ohio counties in 2004, directing voters to cast ballots at the wrong polling place.
State agencies have been known to abuse their authority in ways that can suppress the votes of identifiable communities.
* Florida was forced to abandon a purge of potential felons from its voter rolls in 2004 after a news report revealed that the removal list included thousands of eligible, primarily African-American voters.
* Students at Prairie View A & M University in Texas, a predominantly African-American school, were erroneously challenged as ineligible to vote in local elections by the Waller County district attorney in 2004.
Ongoing voter intimidation and vote suppression reflect the inadequacy of current legal standards and enforcement. States and the federal government must adopt vigorous policies and procedures for preventing these abuses.
* Arizona, Wisconsin and Missouri have embraced model policies that can help outlaw voter intimidation and vote suppression. They variously prohibit attempts to intimidate voters, the spreading of false information about elections, and efforts to deceive people about the time, place, or manner of elections or voter qualifications. MN and WA also regulate challenges to peoples' voter eligibility.
* Legislation introduced in 2005 by U.S. Senator Barak Obama (D-IL), the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, would enhance the investigation of deceptive practices, establish harsh penalties for those found to have perpetrated them, and establish a process for providing full and accurate information to misinformed and intimidated voters.
"States can take several clear steps to ensure that all eligible voters are afforded fair and full access to the voting booth, and they can start by imposing meaningful penalties on those who would suppress and intimidate the electorate," said Brenda Wright, Managing Attorney at the National Voting Rights Institute, an affiliate of Demos. "We need to get tough on those who attempt to abridge the voting rights of their fellow citizens."
To find out more about the voter intimidation and vote suppression or other election-related issues, visit archive.demos.org to download the 2006 Challenges to Fair Elections briefing paper series or Demos' Election Reform Agenda from the 2006-2007 policy briefing book, Fulfilling America's Promise.
[Previously published briefing papers in this series have examined issues that include: voter ID/ proof of citizenship requirements/fraud allegations; provisional ballots; ballot access for disabled and language-minority voters; felony disfranchisement laws; poll worker training; and the National Voter Registration Act. Upcoming publications will examine: name matching and voter registration databases; campaign finance; and Election Day registration.]