Wednesday, October 29, 2008
News reports of state officials in crucial battleground states illegally purging thousands from voter rolls drew a flurry of media and public attention. The crude, dubious, if not outright illegal, tricks to suppress votessuch as the absence of polling places in minority neighborhoods, ballot and voting machine irregularities, using lists of foreclosed homes to challenge voters' residences, rigid time lines for filing voter registrations, the lack of information, or deliberate disinformation about voter-registration forms and materialshas also drawn plenty of media attention over the years.
Yet, the main ploys the GOP will use to damp down minority votes on Nov. 4 have drawn virtually no media attention. They include letter-writing challenges, residence and citizenship challenges of non-native born Latino voters, and reliance on a provision in the Help America Vote Act on provisional ballots. Worst of all, these tactics are all perfectly legal.
One tactic the GOP will use is sending letters to newly registered voters in low-income, black and Hispanic neighborhoods to verify their addresses. If those newly registered voters don't respond, the GOP contends that the recipient's address on their voter registration is incorrect, and the registration is fraudulent. When the voter shows up at the polls, the poll worker challenges him. Federal court rulings flatly prohibit Republican organizations from this practice, but Republicans insist that the legal prohibition applies only to the Republican National Committee and not to state and local Republican organizations and "volunteer groups." Since GOP groups have declared themselves exempt from the court rulings against the tactic, they fully intend to use the letter-writing ploy to challenge the registrations of people in certain designated zip codes. The zip codes just happen to be those in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods.
In April, the Supreme Court handed the GOP an even more powerful weapon to water down minority votes. It upheld Indiana's rigid voter-registration law, which requires government-issued photo identification such as a driver's license, passport, or a state or military ID card. Though Indiana got much of the media attention when the court ruled, it's hardly the only state to require rigid proof of identity. Florida and Georgia require photo IDs, too. Eighteen other states require ID, either photo or non-photo. In four states, poll workers can demand that voters produce a photo ID. Many will. And they'll likely have the blessing of several dozen state election officials whom voters elected in sharply partisan elections.
It's a stretch to think that many will rein in their political biases when it comes to making the narrowest interpretation of the Byzantine tangle of state voting laws, which allow election officials wide latitude to disqualify or assign to provisional/affidavit ballots anyone with even the slightest registration glitch, real or perceived. Poll workers will take their cue from state officials and tightly scrutinize the IDs and registration cards of voters at countless numbers of local polling places. If the election is close, the scrutiny of minority voters will almost certainly ignite an endless and bitter round of legal and court challenges with little certainty that they'll be successful.
The other tactic is to challenge non-native-born Latino voters, mostly newly registered voters. They now make up about 10 to 20 percent of the Latino population in the western battleground states of New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. The states have 19 electoral votes. In a close contest, their votes could be the make-or-break votes for either Obama or McCain. Anti-immigrant-rights groups with active or tacit support from local GOP organizations could station monitors, poll watchers and volunteers at polling places in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods. Their presence would be a powerful disincentive for many non-native born voters to turn out. Polling officials will be on the lookout for any hint of impropriety in their registration.
Then there's the Help America Vote Act passed in 2002. It is supposed to streamline the voting process and make registration easier. But the act is a double-edged sword in that it permits voters who have been rejected for borderline legal reasons to cast provisional or affidavit ballots. But these ballots are set aside, and it could take days or weeksnot to mention court and legal challengesbefore officials determine which ballots can be counted. There will be thousands of these ballots, and the overwhelming majority will be from black and Latino voters.
The aim of vote suppression is the same as it's been for a half-century, and that's to whittle down the total votes for the Democratic presidential contender, in this case Obama. Democrats will pull out all legal stops to fight voter suppression. They will nail the more blatant, patently illegal tactics. But their success in stopping them still won't prevent untold thousands of black and Latino voters from being shoved out into the election cold on Nov. 4. Unfortunately, the law will be on the side of those who shoved them out there.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House" (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).