Battleground States See Pervasive Systemic Efforts to Block the Vote

Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

"I think the days of ballot box stuffing are more or less gone." - Allen Raymond, former GOP operative

Voter fraud by individuals has been a major partisan debate in recent elections, inspiring multiple states to consider or pass laws that purport to stop it, including "no-match, no-vote" list maintenance procedures and strict voter ID  requirements. Despite federal findings that the act of casting an illegal ballot is exceedingly rare, partisans often cite large scale voter registration drives as voter fraud culprits, and perpetuate the myth of voter fraud by spreading the fear that such votes cancel out legitimate ones. With rising registration rates - particularly among historically underrepresented Americans - it is no surprise that partisans are spreading this myth, and the media often perpetuates the hysteria by printing stories on the small numbers of bad registration cards submitted by large scale voter registration drives (including the 1.2 million submitted by Project Vote voter registration partner, ACORN).

Despite the constant trickle of "voter fraud" scares in the media, however, it is becoming more evident that elections are more often compromised by systematic efforts to suppress eligible voters, including the very measures that are meant to protect against the extremely rare instances of ineligible voters attempting to cast a ballot. The real enemy to fair elections are organized voter suppression efforts that are seen in these poorly devised election laws, partisan dirty tricks, and systematic partisan efforts to challenge legitimate voters. From the alleged plan to challenge foreclosure victims in Michigan and Ohio to the potential "no-match, no-vote" fiascoes in Wisconsin and Florida, many Americans have cause to wonder, "will my vote count in November?"

On Monday, September 22, KCRW's To the Point host, Warren Olney, discussed voter fraud and voter suppression in the 2008 presidential election with Project Vote Executive Director Michael Slater, Doug Chapin of the Pew Center, former GOP strategist Allen Raymond, and Wall Street Journal columnist, John Fund.

In "major states like Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania" this year, Slater warned that we can expect some "election administration problems," which run the gamut from logistical issues, such as poorly distributed voting machines, to voter suppression tactics, including voter caging, which historically affect low income and minority communities. These communities, which have historically been systematically shut out of the electoral process, have shown signs of increased political interest and higher registration rates they year, prompting fears of increased partisan efforts to suppress this tidal wave of new voters.

Fund repeated stories of small numbers of allegedly invalid voter registration cards being submitted out of the more than 1.2 million turned in this year by Project Vote voter registration partner, ACORN, and said "some of these voter registration efforts have been questionable." But former GOP operative Allen Raymond, explained that there was a critical difference between a "systematic" voter suppression program "versus one that is part of the process." For one, he said, systematic efforts, like voter caging, are far more detrimental to election integrity than voter registration drive employees submitting bad applications.

Raymond was dismissive of the allegations against voter registration drives.

"Look, those are a couple of people who are just trying to earn a buck, collecting signatures. I've seen it all the time on ballot access petition efforts," he said of the voter registration fraud allegations. "I think the days of ballot box stuffing are more or less gone...and so I think what you really need to address are those systematic efforts," said Raymond.

Election Dirty Tricks

Raymond knows all about partisan use of systemic voter suppression efforts; he has written a book entitled How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative, which describes his years as a dirty-tricks specialist for the GOP. Raymond served time for a 2002 Republican phone jamming scheme. In a September 15 interview with the Michigan Messenger Raymond said "holding down Democratic turnout is a key part of Republican strategy for victory in November." Asked about reports of Republican attempts to challenge the voting rights of foreclosure victims, Raymond said that if he were still in the dirty-tricks business he "would be doing that all day long."

Other stories that have surfaced in recent weeks contribute to fears that partisans are ramping up their voter suppression machines. Last week, a mailer from the Republican National Committee that went to multiple registered Democrats in Florida left many confused about their party affiliation, according to Pam Fessler of NPR. While some Democratic officials consider the mailer an attempt to challenge voters based on returned mail, particularly Democratic senior citizens, Republican officials claim the confusion was not intentional and denied allegations of voter caging, according to the Naples Daily News on Sunday.

But in recent weeks several media and Internet outlets, including Air America, have reported on accounts of massive mailings of absentee ballots from the McCain campaign sent to registered Democrats and Obama supporters in other battleground states as well, including  Wisconsin, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; many of the mailings appear to contain the wrong preprinted return addresses for ballots, which would direct them to the wrong precinct.

Of even greater concern than dirty tricks is the possibility of voter suppression through election administration problems that are expected to run the gamut in key states.

No-Match, No-Vote

Voter advocates claim thousands of Wisconsin voters may "lose their right to vote" as a result of a lawsuit filed by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen just six weeks before the election.  Hollen, who sued the Government Accountability Board - which oversees elections in the state -  to "seek an order requiring the board to compare voter information to the Department of Transportation records for more voters," is being scrutinized for his ties to the McCain campaign (he is the campaign's co-chair in Wisconsin), according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Hollen hopes to quickly implement a notoriously faulty voter list maintenance system known as "no-match, no-vote," which experts say could result in purging eligible voters from the Wisconsin registration rolls. This system was found to incorrectly fail 22 percent of voters during an initial test in August (additionally, four out of six judges on the G.A.B. also failed to match the system). Under "no-match, no-vote", voters could mistakenly lose their registration as a result of "transposed digits, variations in names ("Becky" instead of "Rebecca," for instance) or poor handwriting on voter registration forms," the Journal-Sentinel reports. "Apt to fail are people with apostrophes, hyphens or spaces in their names. Voter records usually drop punctuation and spaces - 'ONeil' instead of 'O'Neil' - while driver's license records often keep them."

A similar practice is being enforced in Florida that could "turn Election Day 2008 in Florida into a catastrophe akin to the hanging-chads debacle of 2000,"Florida Today editorialized this week. "With no time for troubleshooting the system, that could falsely disenfranchise many who've done nothing wrong." The state's dormant  2005 "no-match, no-vote" law was revived by Republican Secretary of State Kurt Browning in early September after challenges failed in court. Browning's decision to enforce this practice caused a critical uproar from voting rights activists, who claim such a move could disenfranchise thousands of Floridians, according to a Miami Herald report earlier this month.

"No-match, no-vote laws" are sold to the public as a way to prevent fraudulent voting, but as Florida Today correctly notes; "few people try to vote under someone else's name. A five-year hunt for voter fraud by the Justice Department under the Bush administration found almost no evidence of organized efforts to tilt national elections."

The Elections Supervisor of Leon County, Florida, Ion Ian Sancho, is quoted in the Florida Today piece as saying that the real problem is not potential fraud by voters but partisan manipulation of the process. Sancho has been vocal about his opposition to the Florida laws he is required to enforce, including how the state makes eligible voters vulnerable to partisan challenges. Speaking on WGCU radio in Florida on September 12, Sancho told host Sasha Rethati that in the past ten years the Florida legislature had written rules to "make sure that the party in power could stay in power." He pointed to a 2005 Florida law that stripped the state's voters of the right to contest challenges at the polls, and how challengers now only needed to express a "good faith belief" that a voter is ineligible to force the voter to file a provisional ballot. "You can supply a list containing 10,000 names to the supervisor of elections," said Sancho, "and I have to make all 10,000 members vote by provisional ballot."

"What we have here is partisans attempting to use anything they can possibly find to gain an advantage on the other party," said Sancho. "Quite frankly, I'm fed up with it as an election official. The reason I came into this field was to make sure Americans had the right to vote, and to have their votes counted properly."

Quick Links:

Minnite, Lorraine. The Politics of Voter Fraud. Project Vote. March 2007.

In Other News:

Same-day voter signup getting serious look - Decatur Herald-Review [Ill.]
...Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, is investigating moving to same-day voter registration in two years. That means a person who was eligible to register but had not done so could walk into a polling place on Election Day, register to vote and be handed a ballot...

GOP: Lose Your Home, Lose Your Vote - The Nation
Senator John McCain was a foot soldier in the deregulation revolution, which triggered the current banking crisis and the wave of foreclosures. In Michigan, his party wants to deny the right to vote to victims of the GOP's misguided economic policies and the sleazy banking practices they encouraged.

Oklahoma election officials disagree with ACLU - Associated Press
State law prohibits former felons from registering to vote until the full length of their prescribed sentence has expired - even if they are not in prison and are no longer supervised by the Department of Corrections, the secretary of the state Election Board said Monday.

Erin Ferns is a Research and Policy Analyst with Project Vote's Strategic Writing and Research Department (SWORD).

Tags: ACORN, Allen Raymond, Dirty Tricks, election integrity, felon voting, list maintenance, No Match No Vote, Project Vote, Same Day Registration, voter fraud, voter registration, Voting Rights (all tags)

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