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Voter Suppression Activities Hit Voter Registration Drives

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

This an entry in a series of blogs to keep people informed on current election reform and voting rights issues in the news.

Featured Stories of the Week:
Are Voter Registration Drives Being Put Out of Business? - AlterNet

Legislation Watch: Ballot Integrity Act of 2007 – “Editor's Cut,” The Nation
“American democracy depends on private groups more than the government to register voters. As a result, registration efforts have always been sources of political friction,” wrote Steven Rosenfeld in Thursday's issue of AlterNet on a hidden but crucial voting rights issue. For example, in the last four years, Project Vote partnered with local organizations to help register 1.6 million individuals in 26 states. The success of voter registration activities elicited an organized backlash that came in two parts. The first part was a series of bills, many of which have already passed into law, designed to significantly restrict voter registration drives in a number of states. The second part consisted of exaggerated or inaccurate allegations of voter registration fraud, many of which were uncritically reported by the media.

Following on the heels of record voter registration drives during the 2003-2004 election cycle, GOP-dominated legislatures passed draconian regulations aimed at voter registration drives that had a chilling effect in Florida and Ohio in 2006. Florida's League of Women Voters halted voter registration efforts for the first time ever in advance of the 2006 primary, fearing “punitive fines” for the slightest mishandling of a voter registration form. Similarly, Ohio's newly implemented voter registration regulations stopped community and church groups, including Project Vote partner, ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a group that has accounted for an astounding 37% of all voter registrations submitted by so-called “third parties” over the last two election cycles, primarily in poor and minority communities. Overall, the Census Bureau reports that around 8% of all voter registrations come through third party voter registration drives.

A Florida group, led by the League of Women Voters and an Ohio group, led by Project Vote, sued

in Federal court to overturn the laws. In response, federal judges found both state laws in violation of the First Amendment and had a chilling effect on “efforts to sign up new voters.”

“'The attempts to restrict registration and attempts to smear groups that attempt to register voters comes from people who don't think those voters are likely to support them,' said Kevin Whelan, ACORN communications director. 'I think there is another response to people who don't like to see a lot of minority voters coming onto the rolls. They could campaign for those votes.”

In addition to using voter registration drive regulations as a means of suppressing the participation of disenfranchised voters, opponents have also engaged in a coordinated effort to undermine voter registration drives by making repeated but baseless accusations of so-called “voter fraud”. The continuing scandal over the firing of US Attorneys has exposed how these efforts were aided and abetted by partisans within the Department of Justice in violation of their own rules and possibly of federal law.

In one example, ACORN faced voter fraud allegations and a civil suit initiated by the GOP-funded group The Free Enterprise Coalition, which disappeared after litigation began. In another, temporary voter registration workers in Missouri were found by ACORN’s own internal quality control system to be breaking the law and defrauding the organization by submitting false registration cards before the 2006 election, affecting “'less than a fraction of a fraction of one percent'” of all voter registrations nationwide. Indeed, “ACORN had alerted state authorities and had been cooperating with the FBI, Whelan said, but the interim U.S. attorney, Bradley Schlozman, went against established Justice Department procedure and announced the indictments” in the midst of one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country.

“Burying pro-democracy activists in paperwork or forcing them to comply with burdensome and unjustifiable regulations are less violent than the tactics used against civil rights activists 40 years ago. But the impact is similar: minority and lower-income citizens are stopped from exercising their right to vote,”wrote Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel in this blog Sunday.

“The 2004 Census reported that such drives registered 12 million Americans to vote, largely from minority and low-income communities,” Vanden Heuvel said. Despite these findings, “six other states adopted similar laws – Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, New Mexico, Missouri, Washington – and like-minded bills have been proposed in New Jersey, Arizona and elsewhere, according to the Brennan Center,” Rosenfeld wrote.

Both Rosenfeld and Van Heuvel discussed the Ballot Integrity Act of 2007, which would prohibit states from passing laws that hamper voter registration efforts, among other election administration reforms.

“'If legislators in Ohio and Florida had their way, ACORN would never have been able to run the kind of successful voter registration drives that helped 1.6 million Americans join the voting rolls in the past four years. Fortunately, Senator Feinstein's Ballot Integrity Act won't be leaving the decision up to them, and that is good news for America's democracy,'” said president of ACORN Maude Hurd to Van Heuvel.

See the Quick Links for more information on “third party” voter registration drives.

Quick Links:
Ballot Integrity Act of 2007
Restricting Voter Registration Drives – Project Vote

In Other News:

The Palm Beach County Republican Party sent voter fraud complaints to county, state and federal authorities against 60 people, alleging they may have cast ballots in both New York and Palm Beach County last November, according to the Palm Beach Post. Last fall, the “local GOP” found 11,609 people who seemed to be registered in both states at the same time. Republican Chairman Sid Dinerstein said that it's possible some names might belong to different people, he suspected most fraudulently voted twice. Dinerstein said he did not know the “partisan breakdown” of the 60 people.

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