Freedom Fall: Election Protection 2004

An Edit Memo from Ralph G. Neas

In the largest national voter protection mobilization since Freedom Summer forty years ago, thousands of Americans are packing their bags and preparing to travel to other states in order to encourage and protect voters at risk of disenfranchisement this November 2. The nonpartisan Election Protection coalition, a collaboration involving more than 100 national, state, and local public interest groups, is building upon the expertise, experience, passion and moral leadership of the civil rights community and creating a new infrastructure to support and sustain ongoing and future efforts to energize civic participation in America.

Why Election Protection?

The 2000 elections were a wake-up call. In the aftermath of the election fiasco in Florida, it became clear that problems had not been limited to Florida. In fact, according to a 2001 Caltech-MIT study, more than four million Americans from all over the country were disenfranchised in 2000. People were denied the right to cast a vote – or to have their vote counted – by a range of problems, including faulty equipment, poorly designed ballots, and untrained poll workers, as well as voter intimidation and suppression efforts and other illegal actions by public officials.

Many of the people victimized in Florida were first-time voters who had responded to energetic registration programs designed to boost civic participation by minority voters who have traditionally been underrepresented at the polls. Election Protection was created to ensure that voters turned away from the ballot box in 2000 did not turn away from civic engagement, and to provide voters with better information about their rights as well as strong legal backup to help them protect those rights.

In spite of the intensely divisive and damaging problems that influenced the outcome of the 2000 election, and in spite of federal and state legislation intended to address those problems, the nation’s electoral system remains a patchwork of registration and voting systems, with too few meaningful safeguards to protect voters’ rights. In addition, outright efforts to dissuade, discourage, and disenfranchise voters continue at a dismaying pace, as documented in The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America, published in August by People For the American Way Foundation and the NAACP. And the potential for systemic breakdowns is heightened by intensive voter registration efforts and the first-time use of new voting technologies in many areas.

Freedom Fall 2004

In the days leading to the election, some 25,000 Americans will volunteer for nonpartisan Election Protection efforts across the country – already more than 12,000 have received Election Protection training. This week, more than 1,200 volunteers were trained in a single night. Some 6,000 attorneys and law students are volunteering their expertise to voters. More than 2,000 college and high school students will board buses to provide voter assistance at the polls. Volunteers will work through more than 52 field offices and 38 legal command centers stationed around the country.

The Election Protection “Nerve Center” at People For the American Way Foundation’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, continues to operate as a voter assistance and coalition information sharing clearinghouse, with 34 computers and 55 telephone lines. Forty staffers and hundreds of volunteers recruited through Election Protection partner organizations operate the Nerve Center seven days a week from 8am to 9pm EST on weekdays and 9am to 6pm EST on weekends. On Election Day, information will pour into the Nerve Center from the field offices and legal command centers around the country. Reporters are free to call the Nerve Center at 866-204-1941 or People For the American Way Foundation at 202-467-4999 to get the latest information.

Election Protection – the Program

Election Protection 2004 is the nation’s most far-reaching effort to protect voter rights before and on Election Day. The historic nonpartisan program includes:

  • A toll-free number, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, with free, immediate and multi-lingual assistance to help voters with questions about registration and voting, and assist voters who encounter barriers to the ballot box. Thousands of callers have already been assisted in finding out where and how to register and vote.
  • More than five million “Voters’ Bills of Rights” with state-specific information are being distributed by coalition partners across the nation.
  • 25,000 volunteers, including 6,000 lawyers and law students, to watch for problems and assist voters on the spot at more than 3,500 predominantly African-American and Latino precincts with a history of disenfranchisement in at least 17 states.
  • Civil rights lawyers and advocates to represent voters in lawsuits, preserve access to the polls, expose and prevent voter intimidation, work with election officials to identify and solve problems with new voting machines, technology and ballot forms, and protect voter rights in advance and on Election Day.
  • The www.electionprotection2004.com web site, where voter education materials and resources can be downloaded, and volunteers can sign up to contribute their time, talents and money to safeguard a fair election process in 2004.

Election Protection – the Coalition

Election Protection draws its strength from a coalition of more than 100 national, state and local partners. Coalition partners include: People For the American Way Foundation, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, NAACP, the Voter Protection Project of America’s Families United, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, the AFL-CIO, the Advancement Project, Working Assets, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP National Voter Fund, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. The American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, and the Hispanic Bar Association have all endorsed this vital initiative that goes to the heart and soul of our democracy.

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