During the 2008 presidential election cycle, various voter suppression schemes emerged aimed at locking minority voters out of the political process. Those efforts included a “Lose Your Home, Lose Your Vote” scheme that turned on the use of foreclosure lists to challenge voter eligibility at the polls. “Vote caging,” a scheme in which groups use lists compiled from undelivered mass mailings to challenge eligibility inside the polls, was also prevalent. The use of foreclosure lists and caging schemes are all unreliable efforts aimed at locking eligible voters out of the ballot box. Successful litigation brought on the eve of the presidential election helped shut some of these efforts down.
Unsurprisingly, efforts to restrict voter access have taken a turn for the worse this midterm election cycle, creating a racially-charged atmosphere in a number of places.
Groups purporting to combat vote fraud have intensified their efforts and many have unveiled plans to deploy hundreds of poll watchers to polling sites in several states on Election Day. Some groups have already dispatched watchers in states with early voting periods.
One organization, the King Street Patriots, are pushing so-called “ballot integrity” programs and actively recruiting poll watchers — some of whom have already been deployed to early voting sites in Harris County, Texas. In Harris County, the watchers were accused of “hovering over” voters and blocking voters waiting in line. The vast majority of the watchers were witnessed in precincts with large numbers of Black and Latino voters.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, a group called the Minnesota Majority has been working to recruit volunteers to serve on its “voter surveillance team” on Election Day. The group plans to videotape buses and vans that transport large numbers of voters to the polls and take other actions it claims will help combat voter fraud. More recently, the group has announced plans to place a $500 bounty on “the heads of anyone who would attempt to cheat” in the election. Some have expressed concerns about the intimidating impact that such actions might have on minority and elderly voters.
In Kansas, a candidate for Secretary of State and current gubernatorial frontrunner Sen. Sam Brownback have both publicly backed plans to require proof of citizenship at the polls. While there certainly isn’t time for the legislature to adopt such a bill in advance of the November 2nd election, the timing of their announcements could have the effect of causing confusion while discouraging eligible voters, particularly Latinos, from turning out on Election Day.
In Illinois, Senate candidate Mark Kirk has discussed strategies for dispatching “voter integrity squads” to the south and west side of Chicago, Rockford and Metro East – all communities with sizable black populations.
While the impact that these efforts are likely to have this election cycle is uncertain, two things remain clear. First, most, if not all, of these schemes are directed squarely at minority voters. There is no colorblind approach to the decision about where to focus these efforts or how watchers will be dispatched. Second, most of these schemes claim to be premised on the need to combat vote fraud — a problem that does not exist. The myth of voter fraud has been propagated by those seeking to erect restrictive barriers to the franchise including mandatory photo id requirements, caging schemes, and more recently, proof of citizenship requirements for new registrants. The political reality is, however, that there is no evidence that ineligible persons are flocking to polling places on Election Day seeking to cast fraudulent ballots.
The focus on the non-existent problem of fraud should give us pause. It serves as a pretext for those standing behind questionable ballot integrity and poll watcher initiatives that could reduce voter turnout and participation, most especially among black and Latino voters. These efforts stand as a threat to our democracy.
Despite these reports, there are many reasons to remain encouraged. Groups such as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in coalition with other national civil rights organizations, are working on mobilizing thousands of volunteers to man an 866-OUR-VOTE hotline on Election Day to field complaints from voters and help voters overcome barriers to the polls. The U.S. Department of Justice will also be deploying observers to certain communities where there are reports of potential problems on Election Day. Their collective vigilance may help discourage much of the mischief we are witnessing today.
And, finally, many local Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts are underway in communities to encourage high turnout and participation on November 2nd that might mirror the historically high levels of participation that we witnessed during the 2008 presidential election cycle. Just last week, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies issued an important report which found that strong Black voters turnout could determine the outcome of a number of key house, senate and gubernatorial races that will appear on the ballot. The report underscores the influence of the Black vote and helps put in context shameful efforts that seek to discourage and stifle minority voter participation during this election cycle.
After the dust settles from the 2010 elections, states should take a close look at their election laws to find ways to discourage voter suppression schemes, particularly those that are racially motivated and squarely directed at minority voters. Our focus should be on eliminating barriers to the franchise and finding ways to achieve more robust levels of participation among all voters on Election Day. The future of American democracy depends on it.