Stealing Democracy

Stealing Democracy

June 7, 2006

While politicians spew shallow sound bites that describe a "free" American people who govern themselves by selecting their representatives, in reality politicians from both parties maintain control by selecting particular voters. Incumbent politicians maintain thousands of election practices and bureaucratic hurdles that determine who votes and how votes are counted —such as the location of election district boundaries, long lines at urban polling places, and English-only ballots.

Spencer Overton uses real-life stories to show how these seemingly insignificant practices channel political power and determine policies on war, schools, clean air, and other issues that shape our lives. He also exposes the pressure points in this Orwellian system and provides strategies toward restoring self-government, such as making voting easier for all Americans, removing redistricting power from self-interested partisans, and renewing parts of the Voting Rights Act that expire in 2007.



"A thorough, brilliant and impartial assessment of continuing problems at the ballot box."
-- Donna Brazile, Campaign Manager for Gore-Lieberman 2000
"With searing detail and the stories of real voters, [Overton] reveals a dirty little secret: our democratic system is crumbling and, with it, the legitimacy of our institutions."
-- U.S. Congressman John Conyers
"This book is a must for every American who cares about the integrity of our electoral system."
-- Raul Yzaguirre, President of National Council of La Raza, 1974-2004


Quick Facts



-In 36 states, state legislators draw their own election districts and the districts for U.S. House members.

-Following the 2000 Census, 49 competitive congressional districts were significantly redrawn. 92% of incumbents representing these areas obtained safer districts and only 8% received more competitive districts. 

-An October 2004 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll indicated that only 40% of Americans approved of the way Congress was handling its job. Nevertheless, in the 2004 elections, 98% of incumbents running for the U.S. House of Representatives retained their seats. 

-In 2002, 53% of Texas voters cast their ballots for Republican congressional candidates. Soon thereafter, Congressman Tom DeLay orchestrated an unprecedented mid-decade redrawing of districts in which Texas Republicans picked up 5 additional seats to control 66% of the Texas congressional seats. 

-Most nations of the world avoid extreme partisan gerrymandering by using proportional representation instead of single-member districts. In the January 2005 Iraq elections, for example, the Kurdish parties received about 26% of the nationwide vote, which entitled them to about the same percentage of seats in the national assembly. 

-Almost all democracies in the world that use single-member districts to elect legislators assign responsibility for drawing districts to independent commissions, including Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.


-Despite the need for objectivity in managing elections, in 33 states the secretary of state or some other elections director is an elected partisan.

-Election administrators often serve in roles that present a conflict of interest. For example, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris served as state co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign during the 2000 presidential election, and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell served as his state's Bush-Cheney co-chair during the 2004 presidential election. Both made decisions alleged to benefit the Bush-Cheney campaign. 

-More than half of the world's democracies use independent officials or commissions to administer elections, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Iraq, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

-Another quarter of the world's democracies allow the government to manage elections but have an oversight body composed primarily of independent judges, including France, Germany, Spain, Argentina, Japan, New Zealand, and Israel.


-The United States is one of the few nations where local officials-who often represent a political party-enjoy extensive control over federal, state, and local elections. 

-Americans do not have a single uniform set of rules for voting, or even 50 separate state election systems. There are 4,600 different election systems.

-Currently, local authorities within 4,600 different election systems oversee 22,000 election officials, 700,000 voting machines, and 1.4 million poll workers. 

-Funding is vastly unequal. In the 2004 elections, Wyoming spent $2.15 per voter while California spent $3.99 per voter. In contrast, Canada spends $9.51 per voter.

-Total spending on U.S. election administration in a presidential year is about $1 billion, compared to over $400 billion a year on defense.

-In 2004, the Franklin County board of elections (Columbus, Ohio) determined they needed 5,000 machines, but decided move machines from urban areas to suburban areas and go with only 2,866 machines. On Election Day 2004, Tanya Thivener waited four hours in line to vote in Columbus, Ohio. Tanya's mother waited just 15 minutes to vote in a Columbus suburb.

-While "states' rights" advocates tout the benefits of experimentation on the local level, few voters want to be lab rats. The "Butterfly Ballot" designed by Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore, for example, cost Al Gore an estimated 6,607 Florida votes and the presidency in 2000 (George W. Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes).


-Over 1.6 million people in the United States had completed their sentences but could not vote in 2000, the number grew to 2.1 million by 2005. 

-Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia prohibit voting by all citizens who have committed a felony for life, even after they have completed their sentences. 

-Felon disenfranchisement rules prevent voting by more than one of every eight African-American adults in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia.

-Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia are alone with Armenia as the only democracies in the world that ban voting for life by all ex-felons who have completed their sentences.

-Seven other states ban voting for life by certain classes of felons who have completed their sentences-Alabama, Arizona, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and Wyoming. 

-Absent the disenfranchisement of citizens who had completed their sentences, Al Gore would have won the 2000 presidential election by an estimated 31,000 Florida votes (instead, Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes)

-80% of Americans favor restoring voting rights to people who have completed their sentences.


-Politicians in races across the nation know that the voting patterns of whites and people of color differ significantly, and use these differences to target messages and suppress votes in particular communities.

-In Mississippi, 90% of African Americans voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, while 85% of white voters cast a ballot for Republican George W. Bush.

-White Democratic candidates enjoy about a ten-point advantage over black Democratic candidates in attracting white votes. 

-In Kilmichael, Mississippi, the town's population grew to over 52% African American, and in 2001 the town's all-white governing board unanimously voted to cancel the election three weeks before election day.

-In the 2003 Louisiana governor's race, white Republicans abandoned Bobby Jindal, a conservative Republican of South Asian descent, and elected white Democrat Kathleen Blanco.

-J.E. "Jackie" Ladnier, a white Alabama native running against an Asian American candidate, repeatedly challenges the qualifications of Asian Americans as they approach the polling place on Election Day 2004.


-The Voting Rights Act was signed into law in August 1965.

-Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires that before "covered" states and localities implement changes to their election laws, they must submit the proposed changes changes to federal officials to ensure that they are not discriminatory.

-"Covered" states and localities are those that, in 1964, 1968, or 1972, required voters to pass a literacy test or similar device and had voter registration or turnout rates of less than 50%. A state or locality may also be "covered" by Section 5 if it in 1972 provided election materials only in English, yet had a language minority group that accounted for over 5% of the voting-age citizens and total voter registration or participation rates of less than 50%.

-The 16 states currently covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act include all of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina, and Virginia (outside of a few counties and cities that have opted out because of their good record), significant parts of North Carolina, and particular counties or townships in California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, and South Dakota

-In the five years following the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as many Southern blacks were registered as had been registered in the previous 100 years. In Mississippi, African-American registration increased from less than 6.7% in 1965 to 60% in 1968. 

-Due to the Voting Rights Act, the number of African-American elected officials in the South jumped from seventy-two in 1965 to almost 5,000 by 1993. 

-Due to the Voting Rights Act, the number of Latino federal state and local elected officials in Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico, New York, and Texas increased from 1,280 in 1973 to 3,677 in 1991. 

-Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was initially enacted for 5 years, extended in 1970 for 5 years, extended in 1975 for 7 years, and extended in 1982 for 25 years. Unless renewed, Section 5 will expire in 2007.

-Withdrawal of federal voting rights protections could have dire consequences. Between 1870 and 1900 Southern states sent 22 African Americans to Congress. As a result of the end of Reconstruction and federal withdrawal, the South sent zero African Americans to Congress between 1902 and 1973.

-Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act does not produce quotas. Americans of color make up approximately 33% of citizens in states covered in whole by Section 5, but they account for less than 13% of the local, state, and federal elected officials in those states. 

-Since 1965, Section 5 has been used to block more than 1,000 discriminatory voting changes. 

-Only 2.25% of election changes submitted under Section 5 to the Justice Department between 1982 and 2004 involved redistricting. 

-More than 90% of the Section 5 election-change submissions are from cities, towns, counties, school districts, and other local political bodies (state submissions account for less than 10%). 

-Between 2000 and 2004, 92% of the Justice Department's objections to were directed at cities, towns, counties, school districts and other localities (rather than states)

-South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, all of which are currently covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, were among the top 15 states in various categories between 1995-2004, including most Voting Rights Act objections and claims per capita, least party competition for voters of color, largest disparities between citizens of color and statewide elected officials of color, and states with the largest minority group.


-Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act provides that "covered" states and localities provide bilingual ballots, oral translators, and other types of language assistance. 

-Under Section 203, a state or locality must provide language assistance if the area has more than 10,000 voting-age citizens or 5% of voting-age citizens who speak a single foreign language and do not speak English well enough to participate in the electoral process.

-A state or locality must also provide language assistance if it, in 1972, provided election materials only in English, while having a single language-minority group that accounted for more than 5% of voting-age citizens and had voter registration or participation rates of less than 50%.

-Section 203 was enacted in 1975 for seven years, extended in 1982 for 10 years, and extended in 1992 for 15 years. The provision will expire in 2007 unless it is renewed by Congress. 

-Countries in Asia and the Pacific Islands accounted for 42.1% of all newly naturalized U.S. citizens in 2003, and 34.1% of all new citizens came from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.

-Latinos jumped from 2% of the electorate in 1992 to 8% in 2004. 

-According to the 2000 Census, more than eight million Americans age eighteen and over admit to speaking English less than "very well." Of this group, 4.5 million speak a form of Spanish and 1.6 million and Asian or Pacific Island language. 

-A survey of Asian-American voters across eight states on Election Day 2004 found that only 14% spoke English as their native language, and 41% had limited English proficiency. 

-Between 2000 and 2005, NBC's Telemundo Spanish television stations increased their average ratings in Chicago by 94%, Houston by 100%, New York by 184%, and Miami by 258%.

-Voter participation among Latino and Asian-American citizens trails that of whites by roughly twenty points. 67% of whites voted in 2004, compared with 60% of African Americans, 47% of Latinos, and 44% of Asian American citizens. 

-In those areas covered by the Voting Rights Act, studies show that language assistance accounts for less than 5% of the cost of elections on average. 

-A 2005 study of election officials in 31 states and 361 localities covered by the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act revealed that 59% of jurisdictions reported no additional costs in providing oral language assistance, and 54.2% reported no additional costs for bilingual language written materials. For most areas with additional costs, oral language assistance represented only about 1.5% of total election costs and written language materials accounted for only 3% of such costs. 

-A 1997 federal study showed that 82% of areas covered by the Voting Rights Act had bilingual employees in their offices or at the polls to assist voters, 15% used volunteer assistants, and only 13% hired special interpreters to provide language assistance.


-Photo ID proponents fail to show that requiring photo identification as a condition to vote will prevent even one fraudulent ballot from being cast for every 1000 legitimate voters excluded. 

-As of 2006, only Georgia and Indiana required photo identification as an absolute requirement to vote. About half the states do not request documentary identification. The remaining states either allowed non-photo identification to vote such as a utility bill or bank statement, or allowed voters without documentary identification to sign an affidavit attesting to their identity.

-According to the 2001 Carter-Ford Commission, an estimated 6% to 10% of voting-age Americans (up to 19 million potential voters) do not possess a driver's license or a state-issued non-driver's photo ID. 

-In the United States, more than 3 million people with disabilities do not have identification issued by the government. 

-A June 2005 study in Wisconsin found that the rate of driver's license possession among African Americans was half of that for whites. 

-Among Wisconsin men ages eighteen to twenty-four, 36% of whites, 57% of Latinos, and 78% of African Americans lacked a valid driver's license. 

-The financial burden of providing the underlying documentation to obtain a government-issued photo ID can be significant. A certified copy of a birth certificate costs from $10 to $45 depending on the state, a passport costs $85, and certified naturalization papers cost $19.95. 

-Incidence of individual voter fraud is negligible. In Ohio, a statewide survey of county election officials found four instances of ineligible persons voting or attempting to vote in 2002 and 2004 out of 9,078,728 votes cast - a rate of 0.00004%. 

-An extensive investigation in Washington state following the 2004 election uncovered less than one case of double voting or voting in the name of another for every 100,000 ballots cast. 

-Most of the established democracies with which we usually compare the United States-such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Denmark-do not require photo ID as a condition to vote.

-A photo identification requirement may drive down voter participation, which is already dismal. The United States ranks 139th out of 172 democracies in voter participation. 

-Only 70% of eligible American citizens are actually registered to vote. In Mexico, where the government affirmatively takes steps to register all citizens, 94% of citizens are registered.

-"Anti-fraud" efforts are often conducted in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner. In anticipation of the 2004 election, Florida Republican Secretary of State Glenda Hood improperly purged 2,100 people from the voting list. 

-During the 2004 presidential elections, Ohio Republicans deployed their poll monitors so that only 14% of new voters in predominantly white precincts would face a poll challenger, whereas 97% of new voters in African-American precincts would face a poll challenger.