This is the conclusion of a two-part article. The first part was posted October 22.
The presidential election of 2000 marked a watershed moment in US history. The right to vote in the US, which expanded after the lifting of Jim Crow restrictions against blacks in the 1950s and 1960s and the lowering of the legal voting age to 18 in 1971, came under new assault.
On December 12, 2000, the US Supreme Court ruled to halt ballot-counting in Florida, handing the election to George Bush. The fact that 57,000 mostly minority voters had already been illegally purged from the rolls in Florida, because their names resembled those of felons, greatly facilitated this reactionary decision.
The lesson learned by Republican strategists in the disputed Bush-Gore election was that voter suppression could play a pivotal role in the outcome of a close election. The Supreme Court decision, as well as the refusal of the Democratic Party to fight it, also definitively demonstrated that that there remains no commitment to the defense of democratic rights within the ruling establishment.
In response to the controversy resulting from 2000 presidential election, in 2002 Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, or “HAVA.” HAVA has the purported aim, as its name would indicate, to make voting easier. Among other things, HAVA mandated that states update voter registration lists by creating central databases. The Republicans, however, have interpreted HAVA’s database requirements as a mandate for purging voters from the rolls.
Since the passage of HAVA, software programs have been developed to automatically cross-check voter registrations, ostensibly in order to comply with the legislation. These programs are designed to check voter registration information with other forms of state data about citizens—for example—information on driver’s licenses and Social Security records. While the software aims to locate discrepancies between the two data pools, it may not distinguish between differences of a purely clerical nature. In various states, registrants are oftentimes flagged for discrepancies such as writing “St.” or “Ave.” instead of “Street” or “Avenue,” by failing to insert a middle initial, or by using “Bob” or “Sue” instead of “Robert” or “Susan.”
In the run-up to the November elections, Republicans are hoping to use such discrepancies to challenge the eligibility of voters in areas that have traditionally voted solidly Democratic, particularly in predominantly black precincts. In theory, HAVA allows voters whose credentials have been challenged to cast a “provisional ballot.” However, many voters may be unaware of this possibility, or may feel intimidated when their votes are challenged. In any event, it falls to the discretion of state and locals officials whether or not the provisional ballots will even be counted. As many as 3 million provisional ballots were cast in the 2004 elections—an indication of the scope of the challenges to registered voters. Less than half of these ballots, 1.2 million, were ever counted.
These methods have been utilized by the Republican Party in Ohio, which has demanded that the state attorney general, a Democrat, turn over a list of about 200,000 names of new voters where discrepancies exist between names and addresses as written on drivers’ licenses and information on registration cards. On October 17, the Supreme Court announced that it would not hear the case. The court based its action not on the merits of the case, but because the Ohio Republican Party did not have legal standing—i.e., it did not have the right to sue. Nonetheless, Ohio Republicans are carrying forward a number of similar cases in a bid to gain access to the list of names.
In the battleground state of Wisconsin, state election officials have admitted that its election database is wrong 20 percent of the time when it flags voters for discrepancies in their registration data. The Washington Post has reported that “when the six members of the state elections board—all retired judges—ran their registrations through the system, four were incorrectly rejected because of mismatches.”
In Montana, a Republican official sought to have about 6,000 registered voters removed from the rolls based on written errors in their addresses. A federal judge ruled that the attempted purge, which was withdrawn, was carried out “with the express intent to disenfranchise voters.”
In Alabama, hundreds of voters have been removed from the voter rolls because they have been incorrectly defined as “felons.” In many states, those convicted of a felony lose the right to vote, a form of “double jeopardy” that punishes working class, and especially black voters.
In a country with the world’s largest prison population, this has resulted in a significant reduction of eligible voters. In Alabama, Republican Governor Bob Riley compiled a list of 480 felony crimes of “moral turpitude” that would prevent former convicts from voting. According to the Washington Post, these included crimes such as “disrupting a funeral and conspiring to set an illegal brush fire.” This list of felonies was shrunk one month ago to 70. However, a document obtained by the Post from a local registration office reveals that of “107 names of purported felons” identified therein, 41 had committed only misdemeanors.
In Colorado, another swing state, over 22,000 newly registered voters have been disenfranchised based on inconsistencies in their registration information. Voters here must prove their identity prior to casting a ballot. But since the state does not publish a list of incorrect registrations, voters have no idea that they have been identified as such before going to the polls. Between 2004 and 2006, nearly one in every six Colorado voters was purged from the rolls by Republican secretaries of state.
In Florida, the “No Match, No Vote” law went into effect in September. By the first week of October, 20,335—15 percent of all new registrants—had been flagged for discrepancies. The Florida law requires a “perfect match” on registrations, i.e., any discrepancy between a voter’s registration form and other governmental records may result forfeiture of the right to vote. Iowa has enacted a similar law.
Also in Florida, the Republican-dominated legislature has instituted fines on voter registration groups of as much as $5,000 for every typographical error on registration forms or for violating deadlines for submitting them. This legislation has effectively illegalized voter registration campaigns. As a consequence, the League of Women voters abandoned its registration drive in Florida. The state has also not complied with a federal law mandating low-income residents be offered the chance to register to vote when they apply for food stamps and other forms of public assistance.
At least two dozen states have recently enacted stringent photo identification requirements. These provisions also affect sections of the population that tend to vote Democratic. Large numbers of young people, the elderly, and the poor do not have photo IDs. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to lack photo identification.
A recent New York Times investigation revealed that a number of swing states—Michigan, Colorado, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, and Nevada— have either carried out large-scale purges of voting roles within 90 days of a federal election or have improperly used Social Security information to bar new registrants from voting. Both practices are violations of federal election laws.
Why the attack on the right to vote?
There is an objective logic to the Republican assault on the right to vote. The Democratic Party is far outstripping the Republicans in the number of new voters registered. The Democrats are also gaining more voters in the fastest-growing sections of the electorate—the youth, minorities, immigrants, and the poor.
The population as a whole is moving to the left. This finds a distorted and temporary expression in the growth of the Democratic Party and the decline of support for the Republicans, the party chiefly associated with the hated policies of war and police-state repression, as well as declining living standards and the current economic crisis.
In fact, due to the set-up in the US that only officially sanctions political participation by the two big-business parties, the vast majority of voters are politically disenfranchised before any vote is cast. The Republican attack on the right to vote is one expression of the incompatibility of extreme levels of social polarization and democratic forms of governance.
The Democratic Party has demonstrated that it will mount no serious defense of democratic rights. The Democrats prefer to conceal the grave political implications of the firings of the US attorneys—that the Bush administration developed plans well in advanced to sabotage the 2008 elections and suppress the vote. For his part, Obama has attempted to distance himself from ACORN, demanding only that any Justice Department investigation into the group’s alleged voter registration violations be turned over to the special prosecutor appointed in the US attorneys case.
Moreover, the Democratic Party has used the same methods to prevent candidates of parties other than the Democrats or Republicans from gaining access to the ballot. In the US, “third parties” are confronted with a series of hurdles to participation in the election. One of these is the requirement that they gather the signatures of thousands of eligible voters on “nominating petitions.” Democratic Party functionaries typically attempt to invalidate as many names as necessary on the petitions of left-wing and socialist challengers to reduce the number of valid signatures below the minimum required for ballot access.
In 2004 and 2006, Democratic Party operatives attempted to invalidate the signatures of thousands of legal voters gathered in the campaigns to place Socialist Equality Party candidates on the ballot in Illinois, utilizing the same methods currently deployed by the Republicans against likely Democratic voters. Signatures were challenged for using short versions of names, for misspelling streets names, for leaving out middle initials, and so on.
The Illinois Democrats’ attack on the Socialist Equality Party in 2004 and 2006 presaged developments to come. As the working class moves into political life, the Democratic Party will demonstrate itself to be every bit as ruthless as the Republicans in the suppression of basic rights, including the right to vote.