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Is Department of Justice Action on Voter Suppression Too Little, Too Late?

Posted on Thursday, December 15th, 2011 at 12:19 am

Author: s.e. smith

The 2008 Obama campaign’s brilliance when it came to grassroots organising and get out the vote campaigns clearly terrified the right, which has responded with a campaign to eradicate voting rights in some of his key demographics. Tonight, Eric Holder plans to make a speech directly addressing the assault on voting rights in the United States, and the role the Department of Justice will play in voter protection efforts. For many states, this may feel like too little, too late, since the discriminatory laws have already been passed, and it’s going to take time to overturn them, even if they clearly violate the law.

The groundwork has been laid for voter suppression of massive proportions when it matters most, as the country prepares to take to the polls to elect a new President, or reelect the existing Commander in Chief. It stands to reason that the initiative and referendum system used in many states will be heavily abused in 2012, particularly by conservatives, with measures on topics like fetal personhood, further voting restrictions, and other pet conservative topics. Barring liberal voters from voting on these critical measures is one way to ensure they’ll pass—presumably 2012 will also feature its fair share of confusing ballots, ‘lost’ votes, and other forms of disenfranchisement as well.

Voter suppression is an increasingly important topic and in progressive news outlets, it’s occupying a considerable amount of screen time, with good reason. In 2011, 14 states passed laws ostensibly to prevent ‘fraud’ at the polls. These laws, championed by Republicans, were primarily aimed at an entirely different purpose: Limiting voting rights for poor people, people of colour, nonwhite people, people with disabilities, younger people, and older adults. Many voters in this demographic, oddly enough, tend to vote with the Democratic party.

Perhaps that’s not such a coincidence after all.

Much of the attention on voter suppression in 2011 has focused on a series of voter identification laws, requiring people to present a valid state-issued photo identification in order to cast their votes. Critics have rightly pointed out that such laws target people who don’t have IDs or have inaccurate information on them, for a variety of reasons. Young adults, for example, are more likely to have IDs with old data because they choose not to update with a college address. Likewise, poor people may not have the funds needed to collect paperwork and apply for an identification, or don’t have a need for one because they don’t drive or travel internationally.

Suppressing the vote is about far more than these tactics, though, and the sweeping campaigns to restrict voting rights in the United States more than 40 years after the groundbreaking Voting Rights Act are utterly appalling. They also point to the level of control exerted in US politics by the political right, which has managed to push through a number of laws that are probably discriminatory. This includes measures in states with such a bad history of voter suppression that they’re required to clear new voting-related legislation with the federal government.

On voting day, people might not just have to provide IDs. They also have to navigate robocalling campaigns encouraging them not to vote, fliers with misinformation about election dates and polling place locations, and physical intimidation that may prevent them from accessing the polls at all. Voter challenges at the polls are common, and some observers believe they unfairly target voters poll workers may think fall into a specific demographic, which is to say, ‘liberal.’

Voters may also arrive at the polls to find out they’re not registered. In ‘caging,’ mailers are sent out by registered mail to the addresses on file for voters. If they’re returned, the sponsoring organisation argues that clearly the address is invalid and the voter should be struck from the rolls. Purging of voter rolls instituted by county clerks and other officials to remove deceased and disenfranchised voters (because felons in the United States lose the right to vote) often sweep up people who are legally allowed to vote, and have limited or no recourse when they arrive to cast their ballots on polling day.

As if it wasn’t enough to assault voting rights at the polls, the right is going even further. Pushes to require proof of citizenship to register to vote are growing, which excludes people who may not have legal proof of their citizenship; again, a problem more common in low income populations. Many states have eliminated same-day voter registration or provisional ballots, making it difficult for people to vote if they’ve been ‘accidentally’ disenfranchised or they’ve missed the deadline.

Cutbacks in early voting are also a tactic, which unfairly impacts people who may have trouble making it to the polls on election day. Instead of having two weeks to cast a vote, people have a week, or a few days. Working residents may find it hard to make time to get to the polls—even with the time off for voting laws that are supposed to protect them—and the same goes for parents, people caring for family members, college students, and other people with busy schedules. Having a lot on your plate doesn’t mean you should lose the right to vote.

Individual resistance to voter suppression can seem futile, but it’s critically important, from volunteering at polls to working as an election monitor to speaking out if you see something suspicious going on. Hotlines will be available on election day for people to report irregular activity, including attempted voter suppression. Contacting legislators is open to anyone, and people with their voting rights intact should turn out in droves to firmly put down discriminatory ballot measures and support candidates pledging to do the same. The right wins when the left remains complacent.

The NAACP, for one, isn’t waiting for action from the government. It’s taken the matter directly to the United Nations, appealing for help because it has concerns about the suppression of the Black and Latino vote in the United States. A nation which prides itself on being a champion of human rights, one that starts wars over human rights violations, is making a name for itself as a violator of one of the most basic human rights of all: The right to speak, be counted, and participate in the democratic process.

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