The escalating assault by state governments on voter rights, especially in the previous eighteen months, was the subject of an afternoon strategy session at the Take Back the American Dream conference on Tuesday, June 19. Panelists, led by moderator Robert Brandon of the Fair Elections Legal Network, included Victor Sanchez of the United States Student Association, Cindy Smalls of AFL-CIO, Jotaka Eaddy of NAACP, and Steve Spaulding of Common Cause.
Brandon began by enumeratede the targets of this most recent assault on voter rights: youth, both students and nonstudents; handicapped populations, the poor, prisoners, and senior citizens. Thirty-four states have considered strict photo i.d. requirements for voters; out of these seven passed the legislation and in five Democratic governors vetoed it. Other similar measures are still in process.
The provision of early voting in many states has been a boon to working people, especially single mothers, throughout the country. Fully forty percent of Ohio's voting population use this alternative, but last year this time window was decreased in Ohio from thirty-four to seventeen days and in Florida from fourteen to eight days.
Ohio legislators voted to repeal the change and in counties in Florida that have been the locus of the most electoral controversy the DoJ has challenged it.
In New Hampshire students are required to vote at home rather than school despite a SCOTUS decision in 1974 to allow them to vote where they study. In Texas state officials accept gun permits as legitimate identification at the polls, but not college i.d.s.
The DoJ is challenging similar descriminatory legislation in Texas, Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Alabama and also restrictions on third-party registration by groups like the League of Women Voters. In Florida, the regulation requiring all filled-out registration forms to be handed in within forty-eight hours with a penalty of $1,000 for each handed in late has been blocked, as has the purging of so-called illegal aliens; in this case an original list of 182,000 has already been whittled down to some 2700, which says a lot about the validity of this attempt at illegal discrimination.
Eighty of these voters have already stepped forward to prove their citizenship; the others have a month left to do the same.
The DoJ's challenge is based on the regulation that no purging of voter lists can occur within ninety days of an election, and in Florida one is scheduled for August.
What can we victims, the American people, the vast majority, do to fight back? Education is so important--education without scaring the people away as much as unethical electoral practices. We need high-quality trainers and poll watchers, people who can effectively face down intimidation from the other side, which takes so many forms that must all be understood and anticipated.
AFL's role in this endeavor was the subject of Cindy Smalls's contribution. Members must be educated on all the destructive legislative changes in process with the goal of keeping things clear for the general public. Intimidation must be avoided and all votes counted.
The battleground states, she continued, are Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio. The point is not to overlap with efforts of other organizations to keep elections as clean as possible. One positive effort will be to recruit retired AFL workers, to supplement government efforts with their own, assuming correctly that former workers can communicate most effectively with those still on the job.
Representing NAACP, Jotaka Eaddy. the first black woman to be elected student president at the University of South Carolina and regrettably the only one so far, remarked that this year attempts at pushing back voter repression are the most intense in more than a century--well funded and well targeted toward goals to shift political power and counter fear tactics. Former South Carolina governor Nicky Haley did her best to perpetrate the myth of voter fraud by claiming that in the most recent election nine hundred dead voters voted. The strategy, to misinform and confuse voters, was effective enough at the national level, to absorb 173 electoral votes, even though Haley was ultimately proved wrong.
More encouraging is the news that according to the 2010 U.S. Census, the minorities will soon comprise a majority; more nonwhite babies are now being born every day than white babies. The tidal wave will rise so high that Carl Rove will drown despite all of his paper efforts. The electorate must expand to encompass this reality. The narrative must shift. A federal-level Constitutional right to vote must encompass all the states' provisions and legitimate them at a level that can't be challenged, as the beleaguered (by supposedly unrelated charges from Republicans) DoJ is attempting. The Voting Rights Act is under attack--so far upheld by the Supreme Court, more or less, but stay tuned if you want to.
Eaddy suggests the following counteractive measures: 1) Make the challenge visible; 2) Win and defend in 2012; create a groundswell for the DoJ; 3) Educate voters; and 4) Challenge the game and become the offensive, and overturn voter i.d. laws and restore prisoners' rights.
Working to defend students' rights, Voctor Sanchez reminded the audience of Election 2008, when students turned out in record numbers, up against more political attacks against voters than ever, even, as mentioned above, the Voting Rights Act. People are feeling disempowered; students must reclaim our democracy, bringing in new leaders, incorporating the values of Occupy and our Constitutional right to register to vote. Up against spending cuts on schools, universities and colleges should nonetheless work hard to assure their students the right to vote.