Salon's shameful six

There was Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. Here are the six states where vote suppression could cost voters their voice -- and Democrats the election -- in 2006.

Published August 15, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

Eva Steele has a son in the military who is supposed to be fighting for freedom in Iraq, but sitting in a wheelchair in her room in a Mesa, Ariz., assisted-living facility, she wonders why it's so hard for her to realize a basic freedom back here in America: the right to vote.

Arriving in Arizona in January from Kansas City, weakened by four heart attacks and degenerative disk disease, Steele, 57, discovered that without a birth certificate she can't register to vote. Under a draconian new Arizona law that supposedly targets illegal immigrants, she needs proof of citizenship and a state-issued driver's license or photo I.D. to register. But her van and purse were stolen in the first few weeks after she moved to Mesa, and with her disability checks going to rent and medicine, she can't afford the $15 needed to get her birth certificate from Missouri. Her wheelchair makes it hard for her to navigate the bus routes or the bureaucratic maze required to argue with state bureaucrats. She's unable to overcome the hurdles thrown in her way -- and in the way of as many as 500,000 other Arizona residents -- by the state's Republican politicians.

"I think everybody should have the right to vote, no matter if you've got two nickels or you're a millionaire," Steele says. "I think it's a shame you have to jump through so many hoops to prove that you're the person who you say you are."

But Steele's plight has gotten relatively little notice from pundits and progressive activists confidently predicting a sweeping Democratic victory in November. Opinion polls show that a majority of the public wants a Democratic Congress, but whether potential voters -- black and Latino voters in particular -- will be able to make their voices heard on Election Day is not assured. Across the country, they will have to contend with Republican-sponsored schemes to limit voting. In a series of laws passed since the 2004 elections, Republican legislators and officials have come up with measures to suppress the turnout of traditional Democratic voting blocs. This fall the favored GOP techniques are new photo I.D. laws, the criminalizing of voter registration drives, and database purges that have disqualified up to 40 percent of newly registered voters from voting in such jurisdictions as Los Angeles County.

"States that are hostile to voting rights have -- intentionally or unintentionally -- created laws or regulations that prevent people from registering, staying on the rolls, or casting a ballot that counts," observes Michael Slater, the election administration specialist for Project Vote, a leading voter registration and voting rights group. And with roughly a quarter of the country's election districts having adopted new voting equipment in the past two years alone, there's a growing prospect that ill-informed election officials, balky machines and restrictive new voting rules could produce a "perfect storm" of fiascos in states such as Ohio, Florida, Arizona and others that have a legacy of voting rights restrictions or chaotic elections. "People with malicious intent can gum up the works and cause an Election Day meltdown," Steele says.

There is rarely hard proof of the Republicans' real agenda. One of the few public declarations of their intent came in 2004, when then state Rep. John Pappageorge of Michigan, who's now running for a state Senate seat, was quoted by the Detroit Free Press: "If we do not suppress the Detroit [read: black ] vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election cycle."

For the 2006 elections, with the control of the House and the Senate in the balance, Salon has selected six states with the most serious potential for vote suppression and the greatest potential for affecting the outcome of key races. In nearly every case, the voter-suppression techniques have been implemented since 2004 by Republican legislators or officials; only one state has a Democratic secretary of state, and only one has a Democratic-controlled legislature. The shameful six are:

Thanks to a legacy that includes denying Native Americans the right to vote until 1948 and decades more of scheming to block minority voters (the state still has to submit its voting regulations to the Justice Department for approval), there's a good reason that voting reformers view the state's latest "voting integrity" weapon with skepticism. The sweeping, Republican-backed Proposition 200, passed by voters in 2004 and enacted last year, was designed to bar illegal immigrants from accessing state services and voting. It makes Arizona the only state in the country to require proof of citizenship for voter registration.

Despite right-wing fear-mongering, hordes of unwashed illegal immigrants aren't lining up at polling places to vote. In Arizona, out of 2.6 million registered voters, a handful of legal resident noncitizens who responded to voting registration drives have been charged with crimes in the last year or so. But, according to the Arizona ACLU, there hasn't been a single case in state history of an illegal immigrant charged with falsely voting.

Yet spokesmen for Arizona secretary of state Janice Brewer, a Republican, praise her for minimizing fraud while "single-handedly" working to increase voter registration. Privately, though, she may hold more disturbing views. A former Republican candidate for the state Legislature, Thom Von Hapsburg of Phoenix, told Salon that he was shocked at a fundraiser when Brewer told him she doesn't want "the wrong kind of people voting." Deputy secretary of state Kevin Tyne flatly denies she holds such views, contending, "I think her record in this area speaks for itself."

"I don't care what they say to deny it, the function of this statute is to discourage people from voting," says Joe Sparks, the veteran voting rights attorney who serves as counsel to the Intertribal Council of Arizona. "It's not about protecting our borders; it's about keeping minorities from voting," including Hispanics as well as Indians born without state-certified birth certificates. In fact, the law asks Native Americans who lack other I.D. to produce a Bureau of Indian Affairs card number or a "tribal treaty card number" -- cards and numbers that don't exist. No tribe in Arizona has them, says Sparks.

But, as Eva Steele's experience shows, you don't have to be a Native American to be denied the vote in Arizona: More than 500,000 registered voters and eligible but unregistered voters lack state-issued photo I.D.s. In the first weeks of the new law, about 70 percent of new voter-registration applicants were rejected in Maricopa County, site of Phoenix, although the rejection rate has been reduced to a still sizable 17 percent this year. Linda Brown of the Arizona Advocacy Network, a statewide progressive coalition, says, "With these I.D. and citizenship proof requirements, we've sealed the fate of the least among us: the elderly, the poor and the disabled, people who are already disenfranchised."

Key races: Republican Sen. Jon Kyl is vulnerable, as are two incumbent GOP representatives.

In the movie "Hoosiers," a plucky team of Indiana underdogs overcomes long odds to achieve victory on the basketball court. But in the real world of politics, Indiana citizens face even more daunting obstacles to win the right to vote, and too often, they fail. Whether it's thousands of voters purged from county registration rolls this year without due process or new and arcane photo I.D. rules that can trip up even the most dedicated voter, state and county GOP election officials are seemingly seeking to discourage voter participation -- perhaps because three of the most competitive U.S. House races this year are in Indiana.

"I think this is all part of a nationwide effort of the Republican Party to suppress votes, because that's the only way for them to stay in power," says William Groth, an attorney filing a lawsuit challenging the voter I.D. law on behalf of the Indiana Democratic Party, a case now on appeal. Between 8 percent and 23 percent of all registered voters in the state may lack the proper photo I.D., so the added costs -- comparable to a poll tax -- and obstacles of the I.D. law are going to make low-income and minority voters far less likely to vote, according to research by political science professor Margie Hershey of Indiana University.

But some determined Hoosiers won't give up trying to vote. Take the never-ending bureaucratic maze Theresa Clemente, a 79-year-old Fort Wayne resident born in Massachusetts, has been forced to navigate. An Indiana resident for 15 years, she'd never had a driver's license when she moved to the state to live near her son. So when she learned that the state required a state-issued photo I.D. to vote, her husband drove her down to the delay-plagued Bureau of Motor Vehicles to get a photo I.D. On her first visit, she brought her Social Security card, her voter registration card, two bills and a credit card, but that wasn't good enough. She had to return three more times, with BMV drones telling her successively she needed a copy of her birth certificate, then a $28 state-certified birth certificate from Massachusetts, and finally a marriage certificate because her birth certificate listed only her maiden name -- although all her various I.D.s carried the married name she has used for 53 years. "I was so angry, it worsened my blood pressure," she recalls.

"My experiences in attempting to obtain a photo I.D. card from the BMV have been humiliating, time-consuming and extremely frustrating," she concludes. In truth, that's the whole point of the law, but how many other Indiana citizens will be willing to jump through so many hoops? Yet Paul Okeson, Indiana's Republican deputy secretary of state, insists, "This law strikes the right balance between voting integrity and access."

The May primary provided a foretaste of what millions of Indiana voters can expect in November who don't have the exact photo I.D. Even a Republican election official, Jackie Rowan of DeKalb County, was upset because she had to turn away veterans whose Veterans Administration photo medical cards didn't qualify as photo I.D. "They all accused us of not wanting them to vote," she said, and they declined to use provisional ballots instead. Only 15 percent of such ballots were counted in the last major election.

Key races: Incumbent Republican representatives Chris Chocola, John Hostetler and Mike Sodrel are all within striking distance of their Democratic challengers.

The secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, now the Republican candidate for governor, is using some new vote-suppressing tricks and, this time, he's got a sweeping if confusing law, HB 3, to back him up. A coalition of voting-rights groups filed suit last month to overturn the law as unconstitutional.

Infamous for such schemes as initially demanding that all voter registration applications be submitted on 80 lb. stock paper, Blackwell also presided over what most investigators regard as the worst election meltdown of 2004. While the allegation that Blackwell helped "steal" the election from John Kerry is debatable, the view that he intentionally suppressed voting by Democratic-leaning groups is less controversial. That the Ohio election was a mess is almost universally acknowledged, although not by Blackwell's office. His spokesman, James Lee, says, "The critics were wrong then, and they're wrong now."

This time around, the law that took effect in May allows the state to pursue felony prosecutions of workers for voter registration groups who turn in registration cards past a 10-day deadline. They face up to 12 months in prison and a $2,500 fine; late returns on less than 50 forms merit a misdemeanor prosecution. At first, Blackwell implied that the workers couldn't even send in the forms by mail. Each registration worker also has to return the forms personally to the local elections board, which prevents voter registration groups from combining and checking large numbers of forms. "It's made registration far more difficult," says Teresa James, Project Vote's election administration coordinator. In fact, Ohio ACORN, the Project Vote-allied group that focuses on low-income neighborhoods, suspended virtually all voter registration activities for two months. Now it's gathering less than 20 percent of the 7,000 registration applicants it signed up monthly before the law was implemented.

Even if people do manage to register, most Ohio election boards don't know that voters are entitled to vote using regular ballots even if their driver's licenses list old addresses. It's a confusion created by a series of misleading or opaque directives from Blackwell.

"I think we could very well have a meltdown in November because of these confusing election rules and poll workers not knowing what to do with the new electronic machines," observes Peg Rosenfield, the Ohio League of Women Voters election specialist. That's already been shown by the voting crack-up in Cuyahoga County, home of Cleveland, where the sudden switch to electronic machines in May led workers to lose 70 memory cards from touch-screen terminals and a six-day delay in counting 15,000 absentee ballots.

Key races: Democrats could take the governor's mansion and unseat Sen. Mike DeWine and four House incumbents.

Back in 2002, the federal government mandated that states create consolidated statewide voter registration lists, a mandate that became effective Jan. 1, 2006. The law required that states attempt to match the applicant's Social Security or driver's license info with the database, but spelled no consequences for the would-be voter if the data didn't match. California is among a handful of states that have been using those comparisons to bar voters from the rolls.

Earlier this year Conny McCormack, the Los Angeles County registrar (and a Democrat), went public with her concerns that 43 percent of all new registered voters in her huge county were being disqualified -- but only after Republican secretary of state Bruce McPherson didnt respond to her private complaints. "Why does anybody need to be dumped over files that don't match?" she asks -- a view shared by a federal court in Washington state that last week blocked that state from enforcing a similar policy. Following negative publicity and pressure from advocacy groups, McPherson has loosened the matching requirements and may eventually drop them, but 11 percent of L.A. County's newly registered voters have been disqualified so far in 2006 -- and it will get worse in November. A spokesperson for McPherson denies any implication of voter suppression. "We're always looking for ways to improve the process and ensure voter accessibility."

In addition, despite its reputation as a progressive, well-run state, some of California's election officials have been remarkably negligent in providing fair opportunities to register or ensuring secure elections with the new electronic machines. "I'm concerned that we're turning away one generation of potential voters after another," says Kathay Feng, the executive director of California Common Cause.

Perhaps the best-known controversy involves allegations of shoddy security for voting machines in the June 6 San Diego special election to replace convicted Rep. Duke Cunningham, an election run by Republican county officials and won by Republican Brian Bilbray. A lawsuit seeking to invalidate the results and demand a recount was filed last month on behalf of voters.

A main target is the legal but questionable practice of allowing poll workers to take home the voting machines for weeks before an election in what critics deride as "sleepovers." You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to be troubled by authoritative reports by researchers about how easily these machines can be hacked -- and the lack of even minimal security precautions in the training provided to San Diego's poll workers. Patty Newton, an assistant precinct inspector in charge of equipment, told Salon how she had just four hours of training with no security instructions -- and then was surprised by the news that she'd be taking two machines home with her. "I left them in the car overnight and took them out of the Jeep onto the floor of the garage," she recalls. "We live in a semirural area and we never lock doors." She also apparently wasn't subjected to a background check: "All you need is a pulse to be a poll worker."

Mikel Haas, the Republican San Diego County registrar of voters, insists he fully follows all state security procedures. "We're not giving the machines out like lollipops," he says. "It would be ridiculous not to address security as part of the training."

Key races: Despite his recent tack to the center, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger remains vulnerable in his reelection bid, as do three Republican House incumbents.

Will the fiasco-prone Sunshine State be the next ... Florida? That's the question that has haunted observers of Florida's election system since the debacle of 2000. Six years later, Florida is still Florida, only more so. Florida still has a Republican governor, Legislature, and secretary of state, and still doesn't have voter-verified paper trails for its vulnerable voting machines. Hundreds of thousands of voters remain at serious risk of being robbed of the vote.

This year, however, it also has a package of new voting rules, like restrictions on voter registration campaigns. The fines for violations are now so stiff that they forced the League of Women Voters to suspend its voter drives in the state for the first time in nearly 70 years. Each misplaced blank registration form means a potential penalty of $5,000. Just 16 misplaced blank forms, even if destroyed by a hurricane, could cost the Florida League $80,000 -- its entire annual state budget.

Another codicil in the new state voting law essentially endorses the thuggery of 2000. It permits roving bands of political partisans -- the same sort of goons who banged on the glass doors at the Miami election board six years ago to halt the recount -- to descend on inner-city precincts to challenge any voter's right to cast a vote on Election Day. The challenged voter will then be forced to use what reformers call a "placebo ballot" -- a provisional ballot that makes the voter feel like he voted, except the vote will count only if he comes back later to offer written proof that he was entitled to vote. "The use of challenges is likely to disenfranchise a lot of people," observes Lida Rodriquez-Taseff, the chair of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition.

Key races: Five Republican House seats are in play.

The Show Me state has an unsavory and very recent history of suppressing black votes. As governor 20 years ago, John Ashcroft tolerated different standards for voter registration in white Republican St. Louis County and the black and Democratic city of St. Louis. Last week, progressive groups mounted a legal challenge to the Republican Legislature's latest attempt to thwart black voters, a rigid voter I.D. law that takes effect Aug. 28.

Missouri secretary of state Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, has expressed public disapproval of the law but will enforce it. She reports that 200,000 voters lack the necessary photo I.D. and could be disenfranchised. Recent elections have been close, and the black urban voters most likely to be purged are crucial to Democratic hopes. John Hickey, the executive director of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, says that Republicans are promoting "mass disenfranchisement" because African-American voters turned out in large numbers in 2004 and are expected to turn out again this fall because Republican Gov. Matt Blunt cut 100,000 people from Medicaid. "Let's say an 83-year-old woman in a wheelchair is kicked off Medicaid," he says. "Guess what, you don't have a driver's license and can't vote: Tough luck, Grandma."

Hickey says the law is also known as the Jim Talent Protection Act, because the Republican U.S. senator is in a close election battle and last time won by only 20,000 votes. As Hickey explains, "If you knock off 200,000 people who wouldn't vote for you anyway, you can win."

Key races: His opposition to stem-cell research has made Sen. Jim Talent one of the GOP's more endangered incumbents.

What is anybody doing about all of this?
The Democratic National Committee and nonpartisan voting rights organizations, including Common Cause, have launched an assortment of initiatives to increase voter participation and challenge onerous laws in court. When the Democratic National Committee announced its expanded voter protection program last week, chairman Howard Dean said, "For Republicans, nothing is more important than their partisan interests, not even the American people's most cherished right to vote and have that vote counted."

True enough, perhaps, but outside of filing lawsuits and telling some voters about their rights, it's not at all clear whether progressives are going to offer enough practical help so that the victims of legalized Republican vote-robbing, people like Eva Steele stuck in her room in Mesa, Ariz., can actually have their votes count.

By Art Levine

Art Levine is a contributing editor at Washington Monthly.

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