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Polling Places in Police Stations? Why Civil Rights Groups Are Still Fighting for Voting Rights

Like too much of this campaign season, the debate over voting rights is steeped in partisan politics and racism.

(Photo: C. Holmes; Edited: LW / TO)

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When civil rights groups learned that a county elections board planned to relocate the polling station for a predominately Black precinct in Macon, Georgia, to a local sheriff’s office, they warned election officials that the move would unfairly discourage turnout. The officials didn’t budge at first.

Allegations of police brutality and the 2012 police killing of an unarmed Black man have raised tensions in this southern community. Nse Ufot, executive director of the non-partisan New Georgia Project, said that requiring voters of color to show up at the county jailer’s office, where they would be under camera surveillance and potentially subject to search, would “have a chilling effect at best.”

“They didn’t give [public] notice … everything about this move was out of order,” Ufot told Truthout.

Ufot said the election board initially ignored requests to cancel the move, so members of the local NAACP chapter and other groups picked up their clipboards, enlisted volunteers from a local college and started knocking on doors, gathering signatures for a petition opposing the move.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Volunteers collected signatures from 40 percent of the voters in the precinct. Georgia law requires signatures from 20 percent of a precinct to petition an election board, but Ufot said volunteers gathered twice as many signatures as necessary, just in case officials tried to invalidate them. They didn’t, and the election board soon agreed to move the polling station to a neighborhood church instead.

“This is the type of thing we have to do because the Justice Department can’t enforce the Voting Rights Act,” Ufot said.

Each of Georgia’s 159 counties has its own election board. Ufot said the New Georgia Project uses a considerable number of resources to monitor each board for plans to close and consolidate polling places, especially in communities of color, and to make sure that voters are properly registered. Boards often close precincts on the pretense of saving money, but Ufot said that sometimes there appears to be a “racial or partisan motivation” as well.

Earlier this year, Georgia’s secretary of state removed an archaic, 90-day “blackout period” to give boards more time to process new voter registrations, but some boards did not comply, creating backlogs that frustrated advocates running voter drives.

“I can’t imagine [how] this would have come to light had we not had massive Black civic engagement project in the state,” Ufot said.

Voters of color in Georgia have reasons to be worried, and not just because of the state’s racist history. A recent review of registration records revealed that Black voters were eight times more likely than whites to have their voter applications rejected, often due to clerical errors, such as one letter missing from the spelling of a name, according to the New Georgia Project.

Partisanship and Racism

This year marks the first major election season since the Supreme Court threw out a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that helped end the era of Jim Crow by requiring 15 states with long histories of discrimination to have polling changes cleared by federal officials. Meanwhile, 14 states have new voting restrictions in effect this election season, ranging from photo ID requirements to restrictions on registration. Six of those states were included in the “pre-clearance” section of the act before the court’s decision, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Three former pre-clearance states — Georgia, South Carolina and Florida — were able to put restrictions on the books before the high court’s ruling, and South Carolina has new photo ID requirements this year.

Earlier this year, a federal court struck down a strict voter ID law in North Carolina, another former pre-clearance state, in a sweeping ruling that called out lawmakers for intentionally targeting African American voters with “surgical precision.” In Missouri, civil rights groups are rallying voters against a ballot proposal that would enshrine voter ID requirements in the state’s constitution.

For advocates like Ufot, assuring that all voters can access the ballot without obstacles and intimidation is crucial for empowering those who have long faced exclusion from the democratic process, especially in the South.

Among politicians, however, the debate over voting rights is mired in partisanship.

Typical voting restrictions include photo ID requirements, curbing early voting opportunities and making it difficult or impossible for people with criminal records to vote, even after they have served their time.

All of these restrictions disproportionately impact lower income voters of color, who tend to favor Democrats over Republicans. The majority of states that have passed voter restrictions since 2010 also had the nation’s highest rates of Black voter turnout in 2008 and/or saw large increases in Latino populations, according to the Brennan Center.

If Republicans did want to rally support from voters of color instead of making it more difficult for them to vote, the candidate leading the party’s ticket, Donald Trump, is not helping. Trump’s reckless and racist rhetoric has alienated allies in his own party, especially Republicans of color. Still, Trump has doubled down on his bombastic claims, telling his supporters that the election is “rigged” against him and they should be actively monitoring polling places on Election Day.

Judith Brown, director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, told reporters last week that voters of color are now under threat from vigilantes due to Trump’s reckless behavior.

“The Trump campaign and other lawmakers at state and local levels have repeatedly lodged false claims about voter fraud that they say is widespread,” Brown said. “The Trump campaign has gone even further, calling for aggressive poll watching and a call to police voters.”

Trump fans are apparently answering the call. One supporter in Ohio told the Boston Globe that he would be at the polls to engage in “racial profiling” of “Mexicans” “Syrians” and “people who can’t speak American.”

Fanning the Flames of Intimidation

At first glance, a recent report by the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) makes it seem as if the state of Virginia is fending off a Martian attack. The front cover features a flying saucer and declares an “alien invasion in Virginia.”

A blog post about the report by PILF director J. Christian Adams, a conservative pundit whose claims to fame include litigating the first case under the Voting Rights Act on behalf of white voters, features grey-faced space invaders holding laser guns.

Upon closer inspection, however, it’s clear that the “aliens” at the center of the report are not aliens at all. In fact, they are human beings who live and work in the United States and, at some point in the past five years, decided to fulfill the legal requirements for driving a car.

If you’ve been wondering where all the accusations of “voter fraud” in the media have been coming from, look no further. Brown says PILF is one of a small handful of right-wing groups that have been on a “witch hunt” for voter fraud, providing Republicans with justification for their racially motivated voting restrictions, and allowing Trump and his surrogates to declare that the election is “rigged.”

In Virginia, PILF used voting records from eight counties to show that 1,046 undocumented immigrants have registered to vote in the state since 2011. The report blames a 23-year-old law that requires states to offer voter registration to people applying for driver’s licenses.

All of these undocumented immigrants were removed from voter rolls when they renewed their licenses, and records show that the vast majority never voted at all. Critics point out that much of the evidence in the report is outdated, and the undocumented immigrants mentioned in the report — their full names and addresses are included — may be legal residents or even citizens by now.

“We are worried that this is going to fan the flames of voter intimidation,” said Sabrina Khan, a staff attorney for the Advancement Project.

Adams argues that Virginia’s voter rolls have been “polluted by an excess of a thousand aliens,” but civil rights organizers say that making it easier for immigrants to gain citizenship and voting rights is good for democracy. After all, immigrants live in our neighborhoods and participate in the economy. They drop their kids off at the same schools as everyone else. If they are left out of the political process, then what does democracy even mean?

Consider Florida, a state where a web of voting restrictions prevents many of its residents — including naturalized and born-in-the-USA citizens — from participating in elections.

“Florida has a low Democracy index,” said Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “This means that a small proportion of the population, about five million residents, make decisions for 20 million Floridians. These five million are disproportionately older white voters.”

Rules barring people who have been convicted of felonies from voting even after they served their sentences will keep 1.6 million Floridians from voting this year, and a backlog of naturalization applications means that 66,000 people who hoped to vote in this year’s election will not, according to Rodriguez and other organizers.

Brown said that, without the protection of the Voting Rights Act, the burden of preventing voter suppression now falls on civil rights organizations and voters themselves. At this point in the election season, it’s too late to put more voters on the rolls by repealing state restrictions.

It’s also too late to impose new voting restrictions — but that doesn’t mean states can’t continue to ramp up suppression.

“State-sanctioned voter suppression can still happen at the state and local level through the actions of local election officials,” Brown said. “The other concern for this election cycle is we may see anti-democracy vigilantes being engaged and erecting barriers to the ballot.”

It’s not easy to hear a civil rights leader bring up “anti-democracy vigilantes” so many years after poll taxes and Jim Crow laws were abolished. Voting is one simple act that, theoretically, makes us all political equals, even if it’s only for a few minutes of one day. It’s a cornerstone principle of our civic society — every one of us gets one vote.

Everyone, that is, except those of us who don’t.

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