Action urged to ensure all can vote, Groups mobilize to defend voting rights on Nov. 7

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Unless urgent action is taken, millions of Americans may be denied their right to vote and have their vote counted this November, voting rights advocates warn.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School identifies the following “top threats to the franchise”: restrictions on voter registration drives; keeping eligible voters off the rolls by using problematic data “matching”; inaccurate purges of voter rolls; new documentation requirements for voting, especially photo ID; and problems with new voting technology.

Edward Hailes, senior attorney with The Advancement Project, a racial justice legal and policy group, says the most critical problem Nov. 7 will be “a dearth of well-trained poll workers” who are ready to deal with large turnouts, properly handle identification and provisional ballot problems and help ensure that everyone eligible is able to vote.

“Much of the funding has gone for purchase of voting machines and not enough for adequate, community-friendly voter education materials” and for training of poll workers so they can assist new voters, minority voters, non-English speakers, voters with disabilities, seniors and others, Hailes said in a phone interview.

“I still think there’s time left for voting advocates and officials to address these problems,” he said, urging “people on the ground, in communities” to meet with election officials, draw up “checklists of preventable problems” and take steps to address them.

His organization is focusing on Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Missouri — key election battlegrounds this fall — working with local groups to recruit poll workers and get officials to implement voter-friendly training and procedures.

The Help America Vote Act, HAVA, was enacted in 2002 following the notorious voter disenfranchisment scandals of the 2000 presidential election. In that election, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the votes of nearly 1 million Black citizens went uncounted.

“HAVA was designed to increase participation and help people to vote,” said Jenigh Garrett, NAACPLDF assistant counsel. Now, “it is being twisted” to deny people access to voting.

Two key HAVA provisions kicked in this year. One is elimination of lever voting machines and punch-card ballots of “hanging chad” fame. Electronic devices are taking their place. But major problems in Ohio, Illinois and Maryland primaries earlier this year suggested that technical problems may be massive on Election Day, Nov. 7.

The other is establishment of statewide computerized voter databases. But some states are knocking eligible voters off the registration rolls by requiring “matches” of inaccurate or inconsistent data. The Brennan Center notes: “Databases record information inconsistently, which makes it even more difficult to find proper matches: ‘William’ may not match ‘Will’ or ‘Billy’; a name may be spelled ‘Mohammed’ or ‘Muhammad’; a maiden name may not match a married name.” If a state requires a match before a voter can be registered and therefore vote, “huge numbers of eligible citizens may be mistakenly disenfranchised through no fault of their own.”

A number of states have also imposed new documentation requirements for registration and voting. Voting rights advocates say these changes will result in wide scale voter disenfranchisement, especially impacting minorities, seniors, women, youth and low-income people.

In Indiana, voters will have to present ID that contains not only a photo but also an expiration date (thereby ruling out veterans IDs) on Nov. 7, unless a federal appeals court blocks the measure. Federal courts have blocked implementation of photo ID laws in Georgia and Missouri. Florida has tightened its ID requirement for voting, offering provisional ballots as an alternative. But provisional ballots are often counted late or not at all.

Obtaining photo ID requires other documents, such as birth certificates or citizenship papers. These can be complicated and time-consuming to obtain or replace if lost, or may be under a different name — for example, in the case of married women, and the cost poses an obstacle for low-income people. For many people, birth certificates don’t exist.

Arizona is requiring photo ID or two other forms of ID at the polls. But it also now requires proof of citizenship to register to vote.

Claims such measures are needed to prevent ‘voter fraud’ or ‘illegal’ aliens voting are not supported by evidence, she said. “I am only aware of one case of allegation of an ‘illegal alien’ voting and that was about 10 years ago,” said Wendy Weiser, an attorney with the Brennan Center.

All the requirements “lead to a lot of confusion and a lot of people end up being denied the franchise even though under the letter of the law they ought to have been able to vote,” Weiser said.

The ID restrictions “purport to be about identifying eligible voters, but really limit the forms of identification to ones that some groups of citizens don’t have.” She cited a recent Wisconsin study reporting that among African American males 18-24, only 22 percent have driver’s licenses — the most commonly used government photo ID.

Weiser said election machine problems should not overshadow the broader denial of voter access. These problems, which amount to “voter suppression tactics” targeting certain groups of voters, she warned, are “dress rehearsals for what we’re going to see in 2008.”