Pulse of the Peninsula: Need proved for new voting rights act

Karen Rubin

If you can’t win an election, steal it. And this is how:

This primary election season is proving a testing ground for the techniques that have been implemented since the 2000 election to disenfranchise voters, getting a huge lift from the Scalia right wing majority on the Supreme Court when, in 2013, it disemboweled the Voting Rights Act’s requirement for preclearance by the historically bad actors.

Literally within hours of Shelby County decision, Texas and some other states  immediately moved to enact discriminatory new voter ID laws designed to make it harder for African-Americans and Latinos, seniors, disabled, poor, women, urban and youth — groups which disproportionately vote Democratic — to vote. 

All told, 395 voting restrictions have been passed at the state and local levels in the past five years alone.

Reiterating what a Pennsylvania state senator said in 2012, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin said recently on national TV that he believes his state’s restrictive voting laws will “make a bit of a difference” and help Republicans win in November.

Much has been made of the record turnout among Republicans in the primary elections, and the comparative “enthusiasm” gap on the Democrats’ side, and what this might bode for the general election. 

I would contend that the difference is also a measure of the success in suppressing Democrats from voting. 

here are some estimates that say Democratic voting is down 37 percent (up to 50 percent) in the Republican-dominated states that have imposed the most restrictive Voter ID and voter suppression laws.

But it is more than Voter ID. We are seeing numerous, insidious ways that Republicans are suppressing Democratic voters.

Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina have figured out that you can simply shut down polling places, put them in areas hard to reach for people without cars, limit the number of voting machines so that wait times are impossibly long in areas with significant majorities of Democratic voters.

That was clearly the case in Maricopa County, Ariz., the most populous in the state which also happens to lean Democratic, where ostensibly to save money, officials reduced the number of polling places by 70 percent between 2012 to 2016, from 200 to just 60. 

That worked out to one polling place per every 21,000 voters instead of one polling place per 2.500 (In Phoenix, there was just one polling place for every 108,000 voters, according to the Progressive Turnout Project). 

Lines extended for miles, voters had to wait for 5 hours — that means that people on line at 7 p.m. didn’t get to vote until after midnight — if they waited at all. 

How would a single mother or a minimum wage earner be able to wait that long? The answer is they probably didn’t. (The Department of Justice is investigating, the Democratic National Committee has sued and now Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns have also joined the suit.)

It’s not just requiring Voter ID — it’s making it almost impossible to obtain “acceptable” Voter ID — making the registration places hard to reach, odd hours of operation, and even after the voter has come with original birth certificate, utility bills, etc. etc., are still getting rejected. 

In Texas, a gun permit is okay for voter registration, but a college ID is not, while many women have names different from their birth certificate or driver’s license because of changes in marital status, and few college students get a new driver’s license in the state they go to school. 

The problems for voters are particularly difficult for young voters — not just college, but new graduates who are relocate for new jobs, perhaps not long before an election. 

Or they move to a new city, rent an apartment, and move the next year, the year after and the year after that. They don’t feel connected to a place and don’t think of re-registering or want the hassle. 

Where do they vote? Do they lose their right to vote altogether? 

When I’ve asked this question, I am given vague and different answers— because a lot depends on the state — the state where the young voter had originally registered (when they were 18, before leaving for college), the campus where they registered during college which might be in a different state, or the new state where they may not see as a permanent residence.

Here in New York, which has some of the most restrictive election policies, tens of thousands of voters were dismayed at not being able to vote in the primary— thousands were purged from voter lists because a registration card that was mailed was returned and they had not voted in two prior federal elections (they were allowed to vote and were reinstated). 

I suspect that most of the ire was because voters were not registered in a party (they would have had to register last October, which is absurd), or had not re-registered where they had moved.

This will be the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. 

That means that there can be all sorts of shenanigans but because the ends justify the means and there are no severe repercussions, they go for it. 

The Department of Justice, Democrats, and organizations devoted to voting rights including the League of Women Voters, Progressive Turnout, Brennan Center for Justice, Election Protection (www.866ourvote.org) need to be proactive in registering, assisting people who are having trouble registering, suing (as the justice department and DNC have done in Arizona), challenging the constitutionality of voter suppression laws.

And there needs to be a new Voting Rights Act that among other things, nullifies an election where substantial voter suppression or foul play has been committed, and forcing localities and states to pay the cost of a new election.

Here is what else should be in a new Voting Rights Act:

Make sure people – especially young people, people who are mobile (move around and relocate frequently for their jobs), who rent their apartments— know their rights to vote, whether it is at the last place they registered, or when they need to re-register in time to vote (and making sure that differences in state rules do not shut out a person from voting altogether).  

And having advocates at polling places (especially college towns and places where young people live) on hand to assist and prevent intimidation.

Automatic registration at 18 (as New York just adopted, following Oregon and California), and being able to register to vote when you get a drivers’ license. In addition, you should also be able to change your registration place (and party affiliation) through the U.S. Post Office when you change your address.

Make sure people’s registration is confirmed by the Board of Elections, and that people know their voting place and the hours it is open.

Establish federal standards for locating polling places— such as having sufficient parking and access by public transportation, and that there are enough voting machines for the population so that people in (urban, black, poor, campus) neighborhoods are not forced to wait on line for 8 hours in the rain, only to be shut out because they can’t get in by the time the polls are scheduled to close, while suburbanite (Republican neighborhoods) have so many machines, people just breeze through.

Establish minimal standards for early voting and absentee voting.

Make Election Day a holiday for voting — and if not, insure protections for voters similar to those that protect jury duty.

Require optical scanning machines with a paper ballot as backup so a recount (or audit) is always possible (sorry Millennials — if the Department of Defense can be hacked, so can the election tallies).

No electronic voting machines without verifiable code, paper ballot backup, and random audits, both at the polling place, and at the central tallying center. 

Computer companies should not be able to control the data or the count. (It’s so easy to steal an election by hacking one state’s results to shift electoral votes, as in 2004 when Ohio votes altered). Mandate a hand recount if the margin of victory is 1 percent or less. (I’m less keen than others for electronic and mail-in voting.)

Mandatory random audit — especially if there is discrepancy between exit polls and results. And if election improprieties are found —  including voter suppression that can be demonstrated to have altered the results— require a new election on that state or locality’s dime.

Make it a felony to maliciously interfere with voter registration, purging voter lists without giving recourse to those who have been purged to be informed and defend their right to vote in federal elections, to give false information about voting places or times meant to obstruct access to the ballot (as when they threatened Hispanic voters in Florida with jail if they tried to vote with an outstanding parking ticket), 

Make elections and redistricting nonpartisan: Set rules that require the Secretary of State or whatever officer is in charge of running the election be nonpartisan, rather than the chair of a particular presidential nominee’s election committee (like Katherine Harris in Florida, 2000, chair of George W. Bush, and 2004 Ohio Sec of State Ken Blackwell who was also chair of George W. Bush’s re-election committee). Require the redistricting commissions to be nonpartisan.

If the electoral college is not eliminated altogether, each state should be required to divide up the electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote.

A new voting rights act that is more expansive, defending one person one vote, not just making racial discrimination the measure. Gerrymandering to advantage a political party should be prohibited. 

There is, in fact, a new Voting Rights Act pending in Congress that is aimed at meeting the Supreme Court’s requirements to update the preclearance formula, but the Republicans refuse to take it up, along with all the other reforms designed to restore our democracy, like the Disclose Act.

People are cynical enough about politics, the political parties and the process — that’s what’s fueling the Trump supporters (who is getting tremendous mileage out of saying the system is rigged, is corrupt, and he has been one to rig it before he decided to be president) and Sanders supporters.

And what happens in Maricopa County, Ariz., or Shelby, Ala., or Houston, Texas does impact New Yorkers — stealing votes, nullifying votes, election fraud is demonstrably the more prevalent crime than alleged voter fraud which voter suppression tactics are supposed to “cure.”

The electoral system is broken, the political system is broken and the government has become completely dysfunctional. 

How would you expect this to end?

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Karen Rubin

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