They can't vote in the "world's greatest democracy"
October 8, 2004 | Page 8
ERIC RUDER reports on the efforts of Republicans and Democrats to limit voters and candidates in the 2004 election.
"IF WE do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election." In July, Michigan state Rep. John Pappageorge--a Republican--touched off a firestorm of criticism when he said this to the Detroit Free Press.
Pappageorge forgot the cardinal rule about racism and vote suppression in the 21st century. Go ahead and do it--just don't talk about it.
No matter how much they attack each other, Democrats and Republicans can agree on one thing--that the U.S. is a beacon of democracy, where "every vote is sacred." But both parties routinely violate this basic principle of democracy--the right to vote--using race, geography and all kinds of dirty tricks to disenfranchise millions of people. "[V]oter intimidation and suppression is not a problem limited to the southern United States," concludes a report issued by the NAACP and People for the American Way. "It takes place from California to New York, Texas to Illinois. It is not the province of a single political party, although patterns of intimidation have changed as the party allegiances of minority communities have changed over the years."
Election 2004 has already seen reports of blatant intimidation aimed at Black and other minority voters. At Prairie View A&M University, a predominantly Black university in Texas, the local district attorney, a Republican, threatened students with arrest and felony charges, saying that it's illegal for them to vote in Waller County where their school is located. In South Dakota's June primaries, poll workers wouldn't allow Native Americans to vote without photo IDs, though these aren't required under state or federal law.
And in Orlando, Fla., armed plainclothes police from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE)--which reports directly to Gov. Jeb Bush--questioned more than 50 elderly Black voters in their homes as part of a so-called "investigation" into the city's 2003 mayoral race. "FDLE agents showed up at the homes of absentee voters, many of whom were minorities and asked them if they had really voted, if they had actually sold their votes, and otherwise questioned them in an unfriendly manner, while revealing their sidearms," said Alma Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the Voter Protection Coalition.
Stories like these bring back memories of the racist terror of the Jim Crow South before the civil rights movement. But the most common type of voter disenfranchisement today--though just as blatantly racist--is far more commonplace. "In 48 states (with the exception of Maine and Vermont) and the District of Columbia, prisoners cannot vote; in 35 states, felons on probation or parole are disenfranchised; and in 14 states, a felony conviction can result in a lifetime ban long after the completion of a sentence," according to the Sentencing Project.
Because of the systematic racism of the criminal justice system, such laws mean that one in eight Black men in the U.S. won't be eligible to vote in 2004. In some places, the proportion is far higher. In Providence, R.I., 32 percent of Black men between 18 and 34 can't go to the polls in November--compared with 3 percent of white men and 10 percent of Latinos.
Of course, it's no coincidence that states with the most restrictions on voting by ex-felons are in the Deep South--which once used literacy tests, poll taxes, property qualifications, threats of arrest and outright violence to keep African Americans from casting votes or having their votes counted. But "in the 20th century, criminal disenfranchisement became more bald-faced," said Jessie Allen, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
The civil rights struggles of the 1960s uprooted most other legal barriers to voting. But stripping felons of the right to cast a ballot persists as a legal form of vote suppression--despite the fact that polls show 80 percent of Americans support the right to vote for ex-felons who have completed their sentences.
Ironically, the Democrats have wholeheartedly backed the "war on drugs," which accounts for one-third of all felonies that have led to the disenfranchisement of Black men nationally. "This is important because drug arrests are inherently discretionary," said Ryan King of the Sentencing Project.
Rerun of Florida in 2000?
IN 2000, Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris organized an aggressive effort to disenfranchise Florida's Black voters. Using Florida's restrictive laws that strip ex-felons of the right to vote, Harris added another 57,700 names to a list of 600,000 felons--58 percent of whom are Black--who are denied the right to vote.
Harris hired Database Technologies (DBT)--at a whopping cost of $2.3 million--to produce an accurate "scrub" list of ex-felons. But in the end, 90 percent of those on the list weren't guilty of anything, except being Black.
According to investigative journalist Greg Palast, DBT "scrubbed Florida voters whose names were similar to out-of-state felons. An Illinois felon named John Michaels could knock off Florida voter John, Johnny, Jonathan or Jon R. Michaels, or even J.R. Michaelson. Although DBT didn't get names, birthdays or social security numbers right, they were very careful to match for race. A Black felon named Mr. Green would only knock off a Black Mr. Green, but not a single white Mr. Green. That's how DBT earned its $2.3 million."
This year, Secretary of State Glenda Hood, another rabidly pro-Bush Republican, tried to secretly deploy another "scrub" list of felons, but was stopped when news of the list leaked, and public outrage forced her to abandon the plan.
Once again, the list turned out to have a huge number of Black voters--including 2,000 ex-felons who had had their rights restored through executive clemency--and several people with no criminal record at all. Even more transparent for its cynicism, only 61 Latino ex-felons were on the list of 48,000--surely designed to benefit Republicans given Florida's large right-wing Cuban vote.
But even without a "scrub" list, the potential for fraud and disenfranchisement in Florida remains high in 2004. Dr. Brigalia Bam, an international election observer from South Africa who recently toured Florida, was shocked to find a hodgepodge of election rules and exceptions to those rules. "All these different systems in different counties with no accountability," said Bam. "It's like the poorest village in Africa."
The Democrats' attack on Nader
FOR DECADES, pro-segregation Southern Democrats were second to none when it came to using both racist violence and legal technicalities to keep Black voters from going to the polls. Today, the Democrats don't fear Black votes. They take them for granted, ignoring crucial issues like police brutality, affirmative action and the racist "war on drugs."
Instead, the Democrats have found a new target--supporters of independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader--and they'll stop at nothing to keep them from voting for him. But instead of trying to disqualify Nader's voters one-by-one, the Democrats have taken a different approach--prevent Nader from getting his name on the ballot in as many states as possible. In state after state, Democrats have challenged thousands of signatures on Nader's ballot petitions--no matter how outrageous the excuse. The result: Nader's name won't appear on the ballot in some of the biggest states in the country, including California and Illinois.
Opinion polls show Nader winning as much as 6 percent of the vote as recently as the last few weeks. But thanks to the Democrats, not everyone who wants to vote for him will be able to.