Report Highlights Need for Election Protection Efforts
Less than ten weeks before the national elections, potential problems with voter registration lists, new and unproven technologies, insufficient resources for poll worker training, and inadequate voter education are increasingly being scrutinized for their potential to rob voters of their right to cast a vote that is counted. These, however, are not the only threats to the integrity of the elections, as a report released by People For the American Way Foundation and the NAACP makes clear.
The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America documents that the vestiges of voter intimidation, oppression and suppression were not swept away by the Voting Rights Act or by subsequent efforts to enforce it. In fact, deliberate efforts to deceive or intimidate voters into staying away from the polls continue to emerge in nearly every major election cycle.
"There is more than one way to deprive people of their right to vote, from systemic and technical problems to inadequate voter education to illegal actions by public officials," said People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. "Although voter intimidation has not historically been confined to a single political party, we are increasingly concerned about recent incidents indicating that Republican officials may be planning to challenge voters this year based on race."
"Minority voters bear the brunt of every form of disenfranchisement, including pernicious efforts to keep them away from the polls," said Julian Bond, NAACP Board Chairman. "This report is a reminder that while we are keeping an eye on state officials and new voting machines, we cannot relax our vigilance against these kinds of direct assaults on voters' rights."
The Long Shadow of Jim Crow reports that the poll taxes, literacy tests and physical violence of the Jim Crow era have been replaced by more subtle and creative tactics. Among recent examples cited in the report:
- This summer, Michigan state Rep. John Pappageorge (R-Troy) was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election." African-Americans comprise 83% of Detroit's population.
- In Kentucky in July 2004, Black Republican officials joined to ask their State GOP party chairman to renounce plans to place "vote challengers" in African-American precincts during the coming elections.
- Most recently, controversy has erupted over the use in the Orlando area of armed, plainclothes officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to question elderly black voters in their homes as part of a state investigation of voting irregularities in the city's March 2003 mayoral election. Critics have charged that the tactics used by the FDLE have intimidated black voters, which could suppress their turnout in this year's elections. Six members of Congress recently called on Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate potential civil rights violations in the matter.
- This year in Florida, the state ordered the implementation of a "potential felon" purge list to remove voters from the rolls, in a disturbing echo of the infamous 2000 purge, which removed thousands of eligible voters, primarily African-Americans, from the rolls. The state abandoned the plan after news media investigations revealed that the 2004 list also included thousands of people who were eligible to vote, and heavily targeted African-Americans while virtually ignoring Hispanic voters.
- In South Dakota's June 2004 primary, Native American voters were prevented from voting after they were challenged to provide photo IDs, which they were not required to present under state or federal law.
- Earlier this year in Texas, a local district attorney claimed that students at a majority black college were not eligible to vote in the county where the school is located. It happened in Waller County - the same county where 26 years earlier, a federal court order was required to prevent discrimination against the students.
- Last year, voters in African-American areas of Philadelphia were systematically challenged by men carrying clipboards and driving sedans with magnetic signs designed to look like law enforcement insignia.
The Long Shadow of Jim Crow also reviews the historical roots of recent voter intimidation and suppression efforts in the days following emancipation, through Reconstruction and the "Second Reconstruction," the years immediately following the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was among the crowning achievements of the civil rights era, and a defining moment for social justice and equality. Yet as The Long Shadow of Jim Crow documents, attempts to erode and undermine those victories have never disappeared. Voter intimidation is not a relic of the past, but a strategy used with disturbing frequency in recent years. Sustaining the promise of the civil rights era, and maintaining the dream of equal voting rights for every citizen requires constant vigilance, courageous leadership, and an active, committed and well-informed citizenry.
This year, with widespread predictions of a historically close national election and an unprecedented wave of new voter registration, unscrupulous political operatives may seek any advantage, including suppression and intimidation efforts. As in the past, minority voters and low-income populations will be the most likely targets of dirty tricks at the polls.
"Forewarned is forearmed," said Bond. "We are reminding voters, election officials, and the media about the kinds of dirty tricks that can be expected. We must be prepared to confront and defeat them."
"The stakes and challenges in this election are unprecedented," said Neas, "and so are the collaborative energies of organizations and individuals working together to protect American voters and American democracy. More than 60 civil rights and other public interest organizations are collaborating in the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition, which is identifying potential problems, holding public officials accountable for conducting fair and honest elections, educating voters about their rights, mobilizing 25,000 volunteers - including thousands of lawyers and law students - and operating a toll-free hotline for voters who run into any problems."