Weekly Voting Rights News Update
America's Democratic Promise
But these struggles are not over. Despite these advances, enshrined in the Constitution itself not just in the 26th Amendment, but also the 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments, attempts by powerful forces to exclude historically disenfranchised populations from the electoral arena have not abated. Perhaps the most vivid and pervasive of these attempts in recent history is encapsulated in the exposure of the US Attorneys scandal that engulfed the Department of Justice starting the late winter and early spring of 2007.
The history of democracy in the United States is one marked by the steady, though intensely contested, expansion of the right to vote. Where once only male landowners were permitted the right to choose their representatives, the United States now proudly extends that right to all adult citizens. The most recent expansion of the franchise were the result of years of struggle through the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. The seminal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 26th Amendment ratified in 1971 created enforcement mechanisms to protect minority voting rights and extended the right to vote to 18 year olds.
America's Unrepresentative Electorate
But first, let's give some context to the stakes at risk in this fight for America's democratic legacy. It is no secret that the electorate does not equally represent all Americans. In fact, if minorities voted at the same rate as whites, there would be an increase of 7.5 million voters on Election Day. One of the biggest reasons minority voting rates are so much lower than those of whites, the most enfranchised group in the electorate, rests with their lower rates of voter registration. Only 61% of African-Americans and 54% of Latinos are registered to vote compared with 71% of whites. Consequently, in an effort to ensure that the American electorate reflects the make-up of America's citizens, groups like Project Vote engage in large-scale voter registration efforts among historically underrepresented groups. (Indeed, over the last two election cycles Project Vote, working with local field partners such as unions and community organizations, has helped 1.6 million people register to vote and will assist another 1.2 million do the same in time for Election Day 2008.)
Creating an electorate that accurately reflects America has important implications for public policy choices as candidates are forced to compete for the votes of these new voters by addressing the issues that resonate most deeply with them. However, the intense focus that progressives put on Election Day dirty tricks and the problems of electronic voting machines is wasted if they do not also recognize that systemic attempts to lock entire groups out of the process months and years before Election Day pose just as much - if not order of magnitude more - risk to representative democracy in the United States.
The Conservative War on Voting Rights
Three recent articles made available online this week - including two by Art Levine and one by Steve Rosenfeld - focus on the partisan subversion of the Department of Justice and show how partisan schemes to engage in widespread voter suppression targeted one of the most active defenders of the rights of poor people and people of color. These articles have exposed what amounts to an entire war waged by conservatives against the voting rights gains of the past generation. Taken in total, the picture that emerges shows nothing less than an attempt to take America back to days of segregation and Jim Crow except this time the marauders are wearing suits and ties and carry briefcases rather than wearing white hoods and sheets and burning crosses. Even more disturbing is their willingness to subvert the non-partisan nature of the nation's top law enforcement institution, the Department of Justice and commit the resources of the Federal government to the systematic disenfranchisement of American citizens.
The Myth Of Voter Fraud and Attacks on ACORN
The threat of voter suppression "by propagating the myth of voter fraud" was thoroughly outlined by writer Art Levine at The American Prospect Tuesday: "Using various tactics -- including media smears, bogus lawsuits, restrictive new voting laws and policies, and flimsy prosecutions -- Republican operatives, election officials, and the GOP-controlled Justice Department have limited voting access and gone after voter-registration groups such as ACORN [Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now]."
"The organization has been a favorite target of Republicans promoting the myth of widespread voter fraud because of its success in registering Democratic-leaning minority voters since 2004, according to reports by McClatchy Newspapers, The American Prospect, and other outlets," Levine wrote in the Huffington Post on the community organization, which advocates for low-income families and partners with Project Vote in conducting voter registration drives.
Such efforts by ACORN and other organizations have suffered from voter registration drive restrictions enacted after partisans made bogus claims of voter fraud, including one in New Mexico where ACORN alone dropped their state registration rate from 35,000 new voters in 2004 to just 2,000 in 2006. That same year, former U.S. attorney for New Mexico, David Iglesias concluded there was not enough evidence of voter fraud in the state to proceed with indictments. As a result of his findings (or lack thereof), he was fired in a move that triggered exposure of the systematic politicization of the Justice Department.
The real reason for raising the specter of voter fraud was delineated in clear and comprehensive detail by Levine, from the Huffington Post article, in what amounts to a case study of voter suppression from a 2006 Congressional race in Dallas, Texas.
The Dallas incident, it turns out, perfectly symbolizes the no-holds-barred Republican politics of voter fraud. The intimidating flier was part of a brazen vote-suppression and smear campaign designed to undermine a Democratic candidate, Harriet Miller, in a tight local race in 2006 to challenge Texas House Rep. Tony Goolsby in a racially mixed North Dallas district.
The frightening and deceptive mailer, highlighted with ACORN's trademark red and black colors, was sent to thousands of black residents a few days before the election: "Beware: A national political group suspected of voter fraud [i.e., ACORN] is currently working in your neighborhood to bring people to the polls on election day...Don't be a victim of voter fraud -- it could result in jail time for you."
The flier appeared to have its intended effect of intimidating some black voters. Lawrence Jones, a 63-year-old retiree and an active ACORN member, vividly recalls how it affected registered voters and other ACORN members. "They were dumbfounded and shocked," he says. It caused some members to doubt the group's integrity, while other residents, he says, "just feared to vote." He adds, "A lot of people said they don't think ACORN is powerful enough to protect them -- I'm not going to fool with the federal government."
That anonymous mailer followed a spate of public attacks, ads, and mailers by the Goolsby campaign -- and even a letter to the local district attorney by the county Republican chairman -- all accusing Miller of engaging in voter fraud during her first campaign against Goolsby in 2004. The Republican smears, now the subject of a pending defamation lawsuit aimed at Goolsby and other local Republicans, also claimed she had illegally "retained the services of ACORN," while tarring the organization with flimsy claims that it deliberately engaged in voter fraud.
The district attorney never responded to the Dallas GOP's allegations, but the local CBS affiliate, CBS 11 News, jumped on the story to ballyhoo the bogus charges filed by Republican County Chairman Kenn George with the D.A.
The real fraud involved George's inflammatory letter to the prosecutor, which blatantly misrepresented election returns from 2004 in order to file the false voter fraud complaint against Miller. The letter claimed that as a Democrat running for a state House seat, she suspiciously won more votes than the Democratic candidate for Congress in black districts, when, in fact, there was no Democratic congressional candidate opposing the Republican, just an obscure independent.