Friday, October 10, 2008

How the GOP Will Suppress Minority Votes on November 4—Legally

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

News reports that state officials in the crucial battleground states of Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina were purging thousands from voter rolls illegally drew a flurry of media and public attention. The crude, dubious, if not outright illegal, stuff to suppress votes such as the absence of polling places in minority neighborhoods, ballot and vote machine irregularities, using lists of foreclosed homes to challenge voter’s residences, rigid time lines for filing voter applications, the lack of information, misinformation or deliberate disinformation about voter registration forms and materials has also drawn plenty of media attention over the years.

Yet, the main ploys the GOP will use to damp down minority votes on November 4th have drawn virtually no media attention. They include letter writing challenges, residence and citizenship challenges of non-native born Latino voters, and reliance on a provision in the Help America Vote Act on provisional ballots. Worst of all, these tactics are all perfectly legal.

Federal court rulings flatly prohibit Republican organizations from sending letters to newly registered voters in solely low income, black and Hispanic neighborhoods to verify their address. If those letters aren’t returned, the GOP contends that the recipient's address on their voter registration form is incorrect and the registration is fraudulent. When the voter shows up at the polls they are challenged. Republicans insist that the legal prohibition against this tactic applies only to the Republican National Committee and not to state and local Republican organizations and “volunteer groups.” Since GOP groups have declared themselves exempt from the court rulings against the tactic, they fully intend to use the letter writing ploy to challenge the registrations of people in certain designated zip codes. The zip codes just happen to be those in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods.

In April the Supreme Court handed the GOP an even more powerful weapon to water down minority votes. It upheld Indiana’s rigid voter registration law which requires government-issued identification, such as a driver’s license, a passport, or a state or military ID card. Though Indiana got much of the media attention when the court ruled, it’s hardly the only state to require rigid proof of identity. Florida and Georgia require photo IDs. Eighteen other states require either photo or non-photo IDs. In four states polling workers can demand that voters produce a photo ID. Many will. And they’ll likely have the blessing of nearly several dozen state election officials who were chosen in sharply partisan elections.

It’s a stretch to think that many will rein in their political biases when it comes to making the narrowest interpretation of the Byzantine tangle of state voting laws that allow election officials wide latitude to disqualify or assign to provisional ballot anyone with even the slightest real or perceived registration glitch. Polling workers will take their cue from state officials and tightly scrutinize the IDs and registration cards of voters at countless numbers of local polling places. If the election is close the over scrutiny of minority voters will almost certainly ignite an endless and bitter round of legal and court challenges with little certainty that they’ll be successful.

The other tact is to challenge non-native born Latino voters, mostly newly registered voters. They now make up about 10 to 20 percent of the Latino population in the Western battleground states of New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. The states have nineteen electoral votes. In a close contest their votes could be the make or break votes for Obama or McCain. Anti-immigrant rights groups with active or tacit support from local GOP organizations could station monitors, poll watchers, and volunteers at polling places in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods. Their presence would be a powerful disincentive for many non-native born voters to turn out. Polling officials will be on the lookout for any hint of impropriety in their registration.
Then there’s the Help America Vote Act passed in 2002. It’s supposed to help streamline the voting process and make registration easier. But the act is a two edged sword in that it permits voters who have been rejected for borderline legal reasons to cast provisional ballots. But these ballots are set aside and it could take days or weeks, not to mention court and legal challenges before determinations can be made which ballots can be counted. There will be thousands of these ballots and the overwhelming majority will be from black and Hispanic voters.

The aim of vote suppression is the same as it’s been for a half century and that’s to whittle down the vote total for the Democratic presidential contender, in this case Obama. Democrats will pull out all legal stops to fight voter suppression. They will nail the more blatant, patently illegal tactics. But their success in stopping them still won’t prevent untold thousands of black and Latino voters from being shoved out in the election cold on November 4th. Unfortunately, the law will be on the side of those who shoved them out there.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).