Protecting Against Election Day Disenfranchisement

National Coalition Marshals Organizers, Poll Monitors, Attorneys to Protect Voters’ Rights; People For the American Way Foundation Has Committed $2.5 million to the Nation’s Most Ambitious and Comprehensive Nonpartisan Program for Preventing Election Day Disenfranchisement

People For the American Way Foundation joined other national civil rights and civic participation organizations to announce today that the nonpartisan Know Your Rights / Election Protection program will be on the ground 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.

“We cannot and do not accept disenfranchisement as inevitable,” said People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. “We learned in 2000 that encouraging participation is not enough if voters are wrongly turned away at the polls or cast ballots that do not count. The Election Protection program is a forward-looking response that encourages voters to know their rights and helps them overcome any obstacles to exercising their rights.”

Neas said that groups carrying out Know Your Rights / Election Protection efforts have prepared state-specific “Voters’ Bill of Rights” materials in plain English – and in some areas, Spanish and Creole – for 19 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 step in and solve problems. National groups partnering for the project will have more extensive programs on the ground in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin, where radio and print ads will buttress the materials and on-site poll monitors will distribute voting rights information. Neas said People For the American Way Foundation has committed $2.5 million to Election Protection in this election cycle, including $650,000 in Florida.

“We want to prevent any repeat of the vast disenfranchisement experienced by voters during the 2000 election,” said Delisa Saunders, PFAWF director of civic participation. “Our volunteers and staff will be ready to help any voter who is experiencing problems voting.”

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 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 Know Your Rights / 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 NAACP, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, National Newspaper Publishers Association, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the African American Ministers Leadership Council, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the National Council of La Raza, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, the National Hispanic Press Foundation, 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.

How It Works

Election Protection brings national strategic partners together with state and local coalition members in a comprehensive program of nonpartisan voter education and mobilization, Election Day poll monitoring, and free same-day legal assistance for voters who run into any problems.

It begins with voter education. In each target state, we analyze election laws and produce a “Voters’ Bill of Rights” that tells voters in plain English (and, in some areas, Spanish and Creole) precisely what their rights are at the polls. Copies of the Voters’ Bill of Rights are distributed widely through community groups in advance of the election.

On the weekend before Election Day, Election Protection participants engage in door-to-door canvassing and literature distribution in targeted precincts to remind people about Election Day. The Voters’ Bill of Rights urges people to vote and gives them confidence that they will be able to overcome any problems that arise.

On Election Day, volunteer poll monitors in trademark Election Protection T-Shirts emblazoned with “You Have the Right to Vote” work at targeted precincts, helping answer voters’ questions, encouraging them to assert their rights, and intervening with poll workers.

A toll-free hotline number (1-866-OUR-VOTE) is printed on all materials and publicized via radio and print ads and earned media. Lawyers and law students trained to respond to problems are available by telephone and are on-call to visit precincts and contact election officials if necessary.

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, as well as nearly 200 attorneys and law students who 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.

For more information about Election Protection, call People For the American Way Foundation at 202-467-4999.

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