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Think Globally, Protect the Vote Locally

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Just as local cities have adopted environmental and wage laws that exceed federal standards, maybe it's time for local initiatives protecting the sanctity of the vote. We've been seeing electoral abuses and manipulations since the Bush administration took power. So we need to ensure the Democrats make national electoral protection a priority. But we can also act on a local level.

Though the Democratic surge took back the Senate and House, some ugly actions quite likely shifted several close Congressional races. The poster race for this election's abuses, appropriately, is Catherine Harris's old Congressional district in Sarasota, FL. Whether through manipulation or error, electronic voting machines in that district logged 18,000 fewer votes in this neck-and-neck congressional race than for governor or senator, and fewer than wholly uncontroversial down-ballot races like the Sarasota Public Hospital Board. Whatever the causes, these votes disappeared in a county that Democrat Christine Jennings carried by 53 percent, and would have likely allowed her to defeat Republican Vern Buchanan.

Harris's district saw more than just voting machine problems. In the Jennings/Buchanan election as in over 50 key races throughout the country, Republicans called voters again and again with automated robocalls that led with the name of the Democratic candidate, and then followed with scurrilous attacks. Because voters tend to hang up on these harassing calls as soon as they begin, or delete them from answering systems, many assumed they were coming from the Democrats, so switched their votes in anger. Volunteers all over the country heard people say they'd never vote for Democratic candidates, they were so furious at the presumed source of this harassment. As a Venice, Florida, man wrote to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, "So Christine Jennings lost by 368 votes. I think I can tell her why. She should sit at home and have the telephone ring twice a day, at lunch and dinner time, for two or three weeks, and then decide if she should vote for the person doing the calling."

In Maryland, the Democrats won, but Republicans bused in homeless men from Philadelphia to hand out fliers in black neighborhoods featuring photographs of former Congressman Kweisi Mfume and Prince Georges County executive Jack Johnson. "Ehrlich-Steele Democrats," proclaimed the flier, and announced: "These are OUR Choices," as if Mfume and Johnson had endorsed Republican gubernatorial and senatorial candidates, Robert Ehrlich and Michael Steele. Since both Mfume and Johnson unequivocally supported their fellow Democrats, it was a blatant lie, as were the accompanying fliers headlined "Democratic Sample Ballot" with boxes checked in red promoting Ehrlich and Steele.

These weren't the only abuses. Republican-linked calls in various states gave misleading information on polling locations or told legitimate voters that they were registered in other states so would be arrested if they voted. A letter to Latino voters in Orange County, CA threatened jail to all immigrants who voted, ignoring that many were naturalized citizens. In Tucson, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund photographed armed men attempting to prevent Hispanic voters from entering polling places. In Texas, a federal judged stopped Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott from prosecuting 13 largely elderly Democrats who took sealed absentee ballots from their friends to place in mail boxes. The abuses probably weren't on the level of 2000 or 2004, in part because of major coordinated voter protection efforts where citizens monitored the polls and had lawyers on call for instant intervention. But they were substantial enough to have probably diminished the margin of their victory.

To prevent similar future abuses, Barack Obama's Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act would make it a felony to give deliberately misleading information on the time, date or location of elections, or about voter eligibility. New Jersey Congressman and former Princeton physicist Rush Holt has offered the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, mandating a verifiable paper trail for all election machines, requiring random audits to ensure ballots are properly counted, and banning wireless connections to make machines less vulnerable to hacking. Holt's bill had a majority of House members supporting it even before the past election, and should have an irrefutable additional argument with the meltdown of the machines in the Jennings/Buchanan race (not to mention the inability of Republicans to do comprehensive recounts in states like Virginia, where most machines lacked a paper trail). An even stronger alternative would be Dennis Kucinich's HB 6200, mandating paper ballots hand counted at the precinct level.

The Democrats need to do all they can to pass this legislation. They also need to ensure that that new state and federal voter identification laws don't disenfranchise poor and minority voters, as seems to be their frequent intent, and that abuses like the misleading robocalls carry the maximum possible penalties (which might mean outlawing robocalls of all kinds). In the process, they can hold visible hearings on the entire Republican legacy of purged voters, tossed provisional ballots, and voting machines pulled from key Democratic districts. If the Republicans filibuster or Bush vetoes these laws, citizens need to ensure the Democrats keep pressing the issue.

But just as local minimum wage and environmental ordinances often surpass federal standards, we don't have to rely entirely on national efforts to protect the vote. Because most of the areas targeted by voter suppression attempts are urban and minority communities, Democratic mayors, county executives and governors already control many of the key jurisdictions. They just need to act on the potential power that they have.

Where useful local laws already exist, elected officials can use them to hold the perpetrators of these abuses accountable for every instance. The New Hampshire Attorney General's office already threatened the Nationa Republican Congressional Committee with prosecution under a state law mandating $5,000 fines for each prerecorded calls to anyone on the national do-not-call list. Activists now need to convince the state to prosecute the NRCC for the 200,000 illegal calls they made before finally stopping-a suit that would potentially bankrupt the NRCC if successful. Former Bush-Cheney New England coordinator James Tobin has already been convicted for an illegal phone-jamming operation during the 2002 New Hampshire Senate campaign. Other states may be able to sue the NRCC and their allies as well. Perhaps former Congressman Mfume and County Executive Johnson could even sue the Republican creators of the leaflets that featured their picture-arguing that this reckless disregard for the truth defames their good name by implying they endorse politicians they diametrically oppose. Whether or not these suits entirely succeed, they'd keep these profoundly antidemocratic actions in the public eye.

Passing tough new local laws to protect the vote could create an immediate check against voter suppression in a situation where the Bush administration is unlikely to prosecute its own political allies. Since the election, elected officials in Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have introduced bills to protect citizens from automated robocalls. Michigan already had a bill on the agenda, and some Connecticut legislators are reportedly interested. If state and local voter protection laws were enacted before 2008, they could prove a major deterrent against the kinds of abuses we've seen in the past several elections, ensuring their perpetrators could be prosecuted no matter who won at the national level.

We still need strong national laws to safeguard elections in Republican controlled states-Florida, for instance, has continued its voter purges, and instituted draconian procedures and penalties that have made it virtually impossible for groups like the League of Women Voters to even begin major registration drives. But even in these situations, local initiatives can mitigate disenfranchisement. In the most recent election, California's since-defeated Republican Secretary of State Bruce McPherson tried to reject 40% of new registrants, primarily Democratic-leaning Hispanics, by claiming they didn't match state databases. In response, the office of Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villagarosa contacted those purged, verified their information, and got almost all of them back on the rolls. Local officials in Miami, Tampa, and Orlando could have done the same to challenge Jeb Bush and Catherine Harris when they gave Bush his 2000 victory by knocking out 94,000 largely Democratic and minority voters for supposedly being disenfranchised felons-a BBC follow-up found that 90 percent of those scrubbed were legitimate voters. Officials in Cleveland and Columbus might have countered Ken Blackwell's purging of 300,000 largely Democratic voters in 2004, his pulling of voting machines from key urban neighborhoods, and his refusal to count ballots cast in the wrong precincts. Strong local laws and aggressive citizen oversight can counter electoral manipulation even while the federal executive branch remains in the hands of a party that's benefiting from its use.

Imagine if the Republicans risked jail for making misleading Robocalls into Philadelphia or Cleveland, Houston, Miami, or Albuquerque, or for telling voters they'd be arrested for voting while being behind on their rent. Imagine if they ran this risk whether or not the Feds intervened. The stronger the local laws, the more they could set a federal standard. The recent election has created a window of opportunity to help protect the vote, for now and in the future. Linking national and local protection efforts could help ensure that this actually happens.

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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