Down to the Wire: Voter Suppression Is Alive In the Heartland

Random Lengths News | October 23, 2004
Election 2004

It could be Florida, 2000 all over again—or it could be worse. If the 2004 Presidential Election really is as close as most believe, the margin of victory may well depend on the suppression of votes, a practice that reached its peak in the Jim Crow South, but that has always cast a shadow on America’s aspirations to full democracy. Especially targeted are minority and low-income voters, as well as youth—the same demographics that have registered in record numbers, due to extraordinary registration efforts by non-partisan groups, as well as the Democratic Party. The ensuing battle could well surpass the post-election struggle in Florida in 2000 election, particularly since Democrats have vowed not to take it lying down this time, and have drafted thousands of volunteers to fight against suppression efforts on Election Day. To get a feel for the extent of voter suppression already occurring, we offer this roundup.

First, a word of caution. In recent decades, the right to vote has become a hallowed principle. Perceived opposition to it would cost the Republican Party dearly. Hence, the Republican counter-offensive, charging Democrats with promoting voter fraud has been lodged. The only recent comprehensive study of voter fraud, found that “there is no evidence of widespread or even significant voter fraud,” according to Steven Carbo, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos, the non-partisan public policy organization that commissioned the 2003 study, “Securing the Vote: An Analysis of Election Fraud.”

“Voter fraud is at most a minor problem that does not effect election outcomes,” Carbo said. Speaking of those whose voting rights are being challenged, Carbo added, “It is fundamentally unfair and undemocratic to deny their rights to vote by some specious and unfounded allegations and suspicions of voter fraud.”

Democratic counter-suppression expert Tom Lindenfield blasted the media’s knee-jerk tendency toward “balanced” coverage, pointing to a Washington Post story with a subhead that “Both Sides” were “Gearing Up for More” lawsuits.

“Its exactly the headline the Republicans are trying to accomplish, trying to muddy the water, so that the allegations we have are dismissed as partisan,” Lindenfield said.

A Multi-State Suppression Project

Sproul & Associates, a consulting firm owned by the former chair of the Arizona Republican Party, was hired by the Republican National Committee to conduct voting registration drives in several states— Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Florida, Nevada, Oregon and possibly others— which it did at least partly through another company, Voters Outreach of America (VOA). Former employees in several states have said they were instructed not to register Democrats, or people planning to vote for Kerry. When screening failed, registration forms were destroyed—a felony in most states. Sproul/VOA also misrepresented itself as non-partisan, even claiming to be another non-partisan organization, America Votes, as part of its strategy to occupy public spaces—such as libraries—where partisan groups are forbidden. They used the name “Project America Vote” as a cover for this deception.

* In Nevada, a former VOA worker provided KLAS TV News (Las Vegas) with shredded voter registration forms, which the county election department confirmed had not been submitted—a felony. It’s estimated that hundreds, or thousands of registrations were destroyed.

The Democratic Party went to court to re-open registration so that those whose registrations had been destroyed could re-register. The judge, Valerie Adair, a Republican, first told both sides to work out a deal for limited re-opening of registration, then reversed herself and dismissed the case. Criminal investigations are ongoing.

* In Oregon, Sproul and Associates contacted county libraries across the state, misrepresenting itself as working for America Votes, which would have allowed it to register people inside the libraries.

On October 13, Oregon’s attorney general opened an investigation into allegations that Democratic voter registration forms were destroyed or discarded by Sproul/VOA, based on reports from several counties across the state. In addition to direct witnesses, reports cited Klamath County statistics, which were 3-1 Republican in the last month, double the GOPs usual 3-2 edge.

* In Pennsylvania, workers were trained to only register Bush supporters. Sproul/VOA misrepresented itself as America Votes to get permission to register people outside at least one major library.

* In West Virginia, workers were trained in deceptive practices to only register Bush supporters.

Individual State Summaries


Provisional Ballots

* In 2000, almost 100,000 provisional ballots were cast in Ohio.

* Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R) issued a directive that provisional ballots not be provided if a person cannot prove they are in the right precinct.

* On Sept 27, The Ohio Democratic Party and a coalition of labor and voter rights groups sued Blackwell in Federal Court, charging discrimination against minorities and low-income voters who move more often than other voters.

* On October 14, Judge James Carr ruled that ballots must be provided and counted, provided they are cast in the right county.

Rejecting Registrations

* On Sept 7, with less than a month to go, Blackwell issued a directive to County Registrars, requiring that registrations be submitted on "white, uncoated paper of not less than 80-pound text weight."

* Some county boards of elections ignored his directive.

* One Sept 28, he reversed himself--saying all forms should be process—while denying his position had changed, thus sowing further confusion. It’s unclear how many registrations were discarded.

Misinforming Ex-Felons of Voting Rights

* Ohio felons automatically regain the vote on leaving prison. However, the Prison Reform Advocacy Center (PRAC) found that county boards of election frequently told felons otherwise.

* On Aug 17, PRAC sued in federal court to ensure that proper information would be given, alleging that 21,000 potential voters could be disenfranchised. The suit named Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell and 21 county boards.

* On Sept 13, PRAC dropped the suit, after a lawyer in the Ohio Attorney General's (OAG) office, told them that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) "will support your efforts."

* Two days later, another OAG lawyer, Richard Coglianese, told PRAC executive director David Singleton that there was no agreement because the ODRC was not named in the suit.

* Registration closed Oct. 4.

Dirty Tricks

* Watergate-Style Burglary: Tuesday night, October 13, the Lucas County Democratic headquarters in Toledo were burglarized, bypassing cash and other readily-saleable items, and targeted computers with sensitive campaign information—e-mails discussing campaign strategy, candidates' schedules, financial information, phone numbers of party members, candidates, donors, and volunteers. "This can affect our entire get-out-the-vote operation," said party spokesman Jerry Chabler.

* Importing Shady Operators: A scandal in South Dakota surrounding absentee ballot applications lead to the resignation of six Republican operatives, including the state director of the Republican Victory Program, Larry Russell. Four of them were rehired to work in Ohio, with Russell running the Ohio get-out-the-vote operation.

* Misdirecting Voters: In Franklin County (Columbus), calls have been made to voters falsely instructing them that their polling place has been changed, and fraudulently claiming to come from the board of elections.


* Republican operatives have organized squads of “challengers” under a rarely-used 1953 law, “a relic of the past, echoing dark and ugly days in the South, “ according to Akron Beacon Journal Associate Editor Michael Douglas. The law permits challenges on the basis of a voters citizenship, residence or age. The GOP is paying 3,600 challengers $100 each.

* Republicans have challenged 35,000 new registrations in advance of election day.



* In March, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer won re-election, avoiding a run-off by the margin provided by absentee ballots.

* After the loser, Ken Mulvaney, asked for an investigation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) launched an investigation, focused on 73 year-old Ezzie Thomas, who has collected hundreds of absentee ballots in the black community for years—in many cases from elderly, blind or disabled. Armed officers entered people’s homes to interview them, in a manner recalling a long history of intimidation against blacks who dared to vote in the South.

* The U.S. Justice Department is investigating charges of voter intimidation.

Non-Felons Purged In Felony Purge

* In 2000, Florida’s felony purge list contained roughly 57,700 people, many of which were in error. Many counties refused to use the lists. The BBC’s Greg Palast found a number of people whose felonies occurred in the future. Though estimates differ, this list could well have provided Bush’s “margin” of 537 votes—and then some.

* In 2004, Florida produced a new felony purge list of 47,763 alleged felons, which it refused to release to the media. A group of media outlets sued for its release, and won on July 1. Within 24 hours, the Miami Herald identified 2,100 eligible voters on the list. The list was 50.7 percent white, 46.2 percent black, 2.9 percent unknown, and just 0.1 percent Hispanic, reflecting the GOP’s strong support in the Cuban community.

* On July 10, Secretary of State Glenda Hood, under a firestorm of pressure, withdrew the list.

* On October 16, it was revealed that Governor Jeb Bush had been warned of problems with the list two months prior to its release, but ignored the warnings.

Rejected Registrations

* Secretary of State Glenda Hood has instructed county election supervisors to reject registration forms for failure to check off boxes for U.S. citizenship, felony status and mental capacity, or failure to provide an identification number. Over 10,000 registrations are affected.

* Although technically required by Florida law, citizenship and felony status are affirmed by the applicants signature, and thus are redundant. Furthermore, Florida’s election law has historically always favored the right to vote over technical violations of the law. In 2000, for example, Democratic judges routinely rejected two lawsuits that would have invalidated thousands of Bush votes due to similar irregularities.

* Two lawsuits were filed against Hood in federal court. The Democratic Party sued over the citizenship check-off. Civil rights groups and four unions sued Hood and county supervisors from Florida’s five largest counties over the technicalities. Both were pending as of October 22.

Provisional Ballots

* The AFL-CIO and other labor organizations sued in state court, challenging a state law providing that provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct won't be counted. The law arguably conflicts with the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2002 to ensure maximum voter participation.

* On October 17, the State Supreme Court upheld Florida law.

* The Florida Democratic Party sued in federal court, challenging the state law’s application to federal offices.

* On October 14 Judge Robert Hinkle rejected the challenge—a ruling in conflict with that in Ohio.

Dirty Tricks

* Election boards across Florida have received complaints about people posing as election officials collecting absentee ballots—and apparently destroying them. Over 100 complaints were received in Manatee County alone.

New Mexico:

* Voter registration drive by ACORN & PIRG produced 130,000 new registrations, mostly low income, heavily favoring Democrats.

* State Supreme Court rejected challenge alleging widespread fraud & requiring photo ID.

* GOP may sue on different grounds, if state provides Kerry margin of victory.

* Following a complaint by Bernalillo County (Albuquerque) Sheriff Darren White, chair of county's Bush-Cheney campaign, GOP U.S. Attorney David Iglesias has convened a criminal voter fraud task force—with some Dem members for window-dressing.

* Democratic Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron—one of the Dems on the task force says it “may well be aimed at trying to keep people away from the polls."

* Other players: John Boyd, Democratic Party lawyer, argued case up to State Supreme Court. State Sen. Rod Adair, a GOP activist behind the lawsuit. U.S. Senator Pete Domenici (R), introduced legislation requiring voter ID at polls.


* On October 15, Republican operatives submitted last-minute requests to relocate 63 polling places in West Philadelphia, 53 of which have less than 10 percent white votes. One GOP operative, Matt Robb, let his name be used on at least five requests, because the polling places were in heavily-black neighborhoods. "I'm just not going in there to get a knife in my back," he said. The request was denied as too late.

These are only the most noteworthy examples from the states listed. Voter suppression efforts have also been reported in Colorado, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Alaska.

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