Cheated at the Ballot Box: Voter Suppression and the 2004 Election

Random Lengths News | October 15, 2004
On October 4, Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry highlighted the issue of voter suppression in a speech at East Mt. Zion Baptist church in Cleveland Ohio.

“What they did in Florida in 2000, they are in the process of doing in battleground states all across this country this year,” Kerry said. “Let me make one thing clear: We’re not going to stand by and allow African American votes to go uncounted in this election. We’re not going to stand by and allow acts of voter suppression.”

“They are trying to take your vote away because they know what we know -- without you we cannot prevail.”

The Bush-Cheney campaign responded that Kerry’s charges of voter suppression "have no basis in reality."

A group of Republicans in Kentucky’s Jefferson County—including two African-American candidates—would disagree. In early August, the Louisville Courier Journal reported, they “called on Jefferson County GOP Chairman Jack Richardson to resign because of plans to use vote challengers in the November elections,” calling his plans "rogue and racist behavior."

Usually, you won’t find Republicans calling their own party on such tactics. But their use is widespread, and apparently growing, according to several recent reports, newspaper accounts, and experts involved in what’s become known as “counter-suppression” organizing and litigation. Furthermore, such overt, retail-style tactics are but icing on the cake of passive structural barriers that keep millions more from casting votes, or having them counted.

One report, from People for the American Way and the NAACP, “The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today,” provides a survey of recent voter-suppression incidents, explaining the rationale for plans to put 3,000 observers into precincts in 17 states this November. One example cited in the report involved the organizing of a fleet of 300 cars cruising minority precincts during Philadelphia’s mayoral race in 2003. The cars, driven by men with clipboards, had insignias similar to those of federal law enforcement agencies. The American Prospect magazine called it a “test run” for 2004.

“There is an increasing pattern of similar voter suppression and voter intimidation tactics over the last several years,” said Steve Carbo, Director of Demos’ Democracy Project, which is just finishing work on its own report.

Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar provides a larger historical perspective. He is the author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, which identified four distinct eras with differing dynamics surrounding voting rights. The electorate expanded throughout the first period of loosening property restrictions, which lasted until around 1850, when mass immigration and the specter of a European-style working class brought on a climate of upper- and middle-class hostility toward mass participation. Measures like registration laws and residency requirements contracted the electorate until World War I, when a third, relatively static period of minor tinkering set in, lasting until the Civil Rights Movement tore down the majority of remaining obstacles to the individual right to vote.

This historical framework helps explain how the enfranchisement of blacks after the Civil War confronted a broader anti-democratic backlash, which made it easier for their rights to be abolished again—along with those of millions of poor whites, particularly in the South. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests and felony disenfranchisement were also used. All but felony disenfranchisement have since been rejected as racist.

Events since the 2000 election leave it an open question whether we’re seeing the beginnings of a new more repressive period, Keyssar told Random Lengths.

“I can’t say it’s unprecedented. It is something that is new, and it is semi-organized. It may be fully organized,” he said. “What we’re seeing is “characteristic of this fourth period,” since no one openly advocates rolling back rights. But there are “patterns of intimidation or fighting over procedural rules of access,” reminiscent of the second period, from 1850 to World War I.

“When it happened in Florida in 2000, it was clearly not an accident,” Keyssar said. “That it’s recurring now over ID requirements and other procedural things, really suggests it is becoming a tactic. In many areas it coincides with race, less because of racial hostility, but because black neighborhoods are the most easily identifiable bastions of Democratic voting.”

Carbo concurred. “These kinds of tactics have become institutionalized as part of the electioneering game. These tactics have been used by operatives of both parties, but much more often by operatives of the Republican Party. They typically take place in the context of a close election, and more often than not take place in communities of color, principally African American communities.”

Suppression is mostly reactive, Keyssar noted. “Sociologically the non-voting population would be more inclined to vote Democratic, but the Democratic Party has been reluctant to target that population. But... where it does, or where other groups outside the party engage in voter registration, there you get this repression response. What went on in Florida [in 2000] was also a response to a multiyear effort by the NAACP to register voters.”

The same dynamic is visible this year, as Democratic registrations far outpace Republicans in a number of key battleground states.

In New Mexico, a record-breaking voter registration drive by independent groups, targeting low-income voters, brought in 112,000 new voters, according to an early count—44 percent Democratic, 24 percent Republican, 32 percent no affiliation.

“Those are pretty grim statistics for Republicans,” said New Mexico lawyer John Boyd, so they turned to the courts, where Boyd defended the registration process. The GOP alleged widespread fraud, and demanded that newly-revised state law be interpreted to require all 112,000 to present ID before voting—ID that many poor people lack, unlike the Social Security used to validate their registration. New Mexico’s Secretary of State ruled that ID was only required from those who registered by mail. At trial, the few examples of “fraud” offered all fell apart, and the Secretary of State was upheld. New Mexico’s Supreme Court later agreed, 4-1.

Albuquerque Alibi ,an Alternative newsweekly, reporter Tim McGivern, warned that another suit is likely if Kerry wins New Mexico, as now expected. But Boyd is unperturbed. “They’ve never produced any evidence that there could be double voting,” he proclaimed.

The most intense fighting can be found in two prize swing states—Florida and Ohio, both of which Bush needs to win, according to most calculations.

In Florida, Glenda Hood, the Secretary of State appointed by Bush’s brother, Jeb, repeated Katherine Harris’s trick from 2000, issuing a felon purge list filled with dubious names. When a judge ruled that the list was a public record, and couldn’t be kept secret, the Tampa Tribune wrote, “Florida's error-prone list of 47,763 suspected felons who could be tossed from voter rolls before November's presidential election contains nearly three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. Almost half are racial minorities.” But just 61 were identified Hispanics, reflected the GOP’s strong support in the Cuban community. Within 24 hours, the Miami Herald had identified 2,100 eligible voters on the list.

Hood has also ruled that thousands of registrations be rejected if applicants failed to check a box saying they are U.S. citizens—despite the fact that their signatures already attest to this fact. Florida judges have repeatedly overruled the use of such technical violations to prevent votes from being cast or counted. In two lower-profile cases in 2000, thousands of Republican votes were counted despite irregularities following rulings by Democratic judges who could have easily handed the election to Gore simply by following the “letter of the law,” rather than Florida’s judicial precedent of favoring the right to vote over technical exactitude.

In Ohio, responding to a massive surge in Democratic registrations, the Republican Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, first said he would reject all registrations not submitted on 80 pound paper—known as card stock. He claimed to be concerned about unsealed registration forms being mangled by postal equipment. But his order applied to all forms—regardless of how they were submitted. He has since rescinded the order, under pressure, but his instructions have been confusing, and may still result in thousands of people not being properly registered.

Blackwell has also directed that provisional ballots not be counted if they are cast in the wrong precinct, while in Colorado, Republican Secretary of State Donetta Davidson has directed that no votes other than President should be counted on such ballots—which are, in effect, no different than absentee ballots.

“Although the system has equal representation of both parties at county level, at the top you find Secretaries of State and their key staff which are clearly partisan,” noted Professor Horacio Boneo, part of a team of international observers here to monitor the 2004 election. The same is not the case in other countries, Boneo noted, citing the examples of Guatemala and Canada, which are non-partisan throughout.

But active voter suppression is only the tip of the iceberg. In 2000, according to the US Census Bureau, 7.4 percent of the 40 million voters who didn’t vote—roughly 3 million people—were kept from voting due to registration problems. Another 2.8 percent—roughly 1.1 million people—didn’t vote because of problematic polling place operations. An MIT-CalTech study concluded that, due to technological failures, “1.5 percent (or 1.5 million people) thought they voted for president but their votes were not counted. Below the office of president the incidence of spoiled, unmarked, and uncounted ballots is much higher.”

Another 4.7 million people couldn’t even register because of state laws barring felons and ex-felons from voting—despite the fact that substantial majorities of Americans oppose such disenfranchisement for ex-felons, parolees and probationers.

In Florida in 2000, a deliberately faulty felon-purge list excluded 57,700 "ex-felons," many of whom merely had names similar to felons from other states. Some 325 of them had conviction dates in the future. Madison County elections supervisor Linda Howell rejected the state purge list after discovering she was listed. Over half on the list—54 percent—were black. BBC researchers estimated the list cost Gore 22,000 voters—far exceeding Bush’s 537 vote “margin.”

Felony disfranchisement laws are overwhelmingly the legacy of post-Civil War efforts to exclude blacks from voting. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literacy tests were also used—and rejected as racist. Only felony disenfranchisement remains. As a result, Carbo notes, “The great preponderance of people losing their right to vote are people of color. If poor communities of color’s voting rights are diminished that translates into less voice on issues of education, housing, jobs, child care, etc.”

According to a recent report from the Justice Policy Institute, “Swing States: Crime, Prisons and the Future of the Nation,” felony disenfranchisement is much more pronounced in Republican “Red States”—and in Florida, which accounts for almost half the disenfranchised felons in all the swing states:

Total Percent Percent

Disenfranchised of all of black

States Voters voters voters

Democratic States 846,486 1.2% 5.4%

Republican States 2,074,837 3.0% 8.6%

Swing States 1,757,617 2.6% 8.4%

Florida Alone 827,207 7.0% 16.0%

Without its denial of ex-felon voting rights, Florida would have gone to Gore by roughly 90,000, according to a study by sociologist Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, “Denying Felons and Ex-Felons the Vote.” This year, once again, voter suppression may well determine the outcome of the election—whether you see it in the headlines or not.

All the above leaves observers wondering: Is it a criminal conspiracy? Or is the real crime that it’s legally allowed?

[Note: The Bush-Cheney campaign was contacted for this story. They referred us to the Republican National Committee, where spokesperson Robert Traynham was initially open, but then said he was the wrong person to respond on hearing our first question. A promised return call was never received.]

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