Election Protection: Guarding Against Election Day Disenfranchisement in Wisconsin

People For the American Way Foundation and National Coalition Marshals Organizers, Poll Monitors, Attorneys to Protect Voters’ Rights in Wisconsin, 19 Other States

People For the American Way Foundation together with a broad coalition of national civil rights and civic participation organizations will conduct the nonpartisan Election Protection program on the ground in Wisconsin and across the country on November 5 to educate voters about their rights and offer same-day assistance to voters who run into trouble on Election Day.

Groups carrying out Election Protection efforts have prepared state-specific “Voters’ Bill of Rights” materials in plain English or Spanish for Wisconsin and 19 other states. All the materials, which will be distributed by state and local groups encouraging civic participation, include a toll-free hotline number for voters to reach attorneys ready to help and solve problems. In addition to Wisconsin, PFAWF and its partners have extensive programs on the ground in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada and Texas, where radio and print ads will buttress the materials and on-site poll monitors will distribute voting rights information and be available to help voters.

On September 10, 2002, when thousands of Florida citizens had difficulty voting due to a combination of faulty machines, poorly trained poll workers, and inadequate planning and oversight by election officials, many Americans were shocked that such problems could remain two years after the fiasco of November 2000. But People For the American Way Foundation and its strategic partners were prepared and on the ground in selected areas with poll monitors and lawyers. Together we documented problems, helped citizens cast their votes, consulted with election officials, and successfully called on state officials to keep the polls open late. The Election Protection program will be back in action in Florida and across the nation this fall.

The design of Election Protection is grounded in the Florida experience. In 2000, Arrive With Five, currently a project of People For the American Way Foundation, helped lead a coalition effort that led to a historic increase in turnout in the African American community. Tens of thousands of new voters registered and went to the polls, but many were unable to cast a vote or have it counted.

A Model of Effective Collaboration

Election Protection’s success rests on its ability to excite and mobilize volunteers by drawing on the expertise, networks, and resources of a broad range of organizations. PFAWF’s national partners include the African American Ministers Leadership Council, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Black Youth Vote, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the NAACP National Voter Fund, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Council on Black Civic Participation, the National Council of La Raza, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the National Hispanic Press Foundation, the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, ADA Watch, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the National Council on Independent Living, and the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems. State-level coalitions include a wide array of civic, legal, religious, and labor organizations.

In Milwaukee, Election Protection is working closely with the CBTU Milwaukee Chapter, Future Milwaukee, Milwaukee County Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Operation Big Vote and Wisconsin Citizen Action Fund.

Proven Success in the Field

In 2001, more than 300,000 copies of state-specific voters’ bill of rights cards and posters were distributed in elections in Virginia and New Jersey, with more than 1,000 participants distributing Election Protection literature and working at polling places. More than 200 student volunteers from Historically Black Colleges & Universities participated. Nearly 200 attorneys and law students were trained, working hotlines, or available for on-the-ground assistance. Knowledgeable volunteers handled many problems at the polling places; other problems were reported to attorneys for potential legal action. Some Election Day problems were reported immediately to the New Jersey Attorney General’s office; hotline lawyers referred one complaint to the Department of Justice for immediate attention.

Election Protection also helps prevent problems. After our highly visible and successful trial run of Election Protection in a June 19, 2001 special election in Virginia, election officials responded with additional training for poll workers and prepared their own voters’ bill of rights. Our Illinois office was invited by Cook County officials and the Joyce Foundation to help address voting problems in Chicago and Cook County, where 6 percent of those voting in 2000 did not record a vote for President. PFAWF helped develop a program that closely mirrors Election Protection and was tested in the March 19, 2002 primary. The Cook County Clerk and the Chicago Board of Elections jointly published a Voters’ Bill of Rights that they mailed to every registered voter and posted in every polling place. They also set up hotlines for voters and judges who had questions on Election Day, developed training manuals for judges, and implemented several other media strategies to get the word out about voters’ rights at the polls. People For the American Way Foundation also served as “precinct advisors” during the primary and is now helping recruit and train poll workers for the fall election.

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