Labor organizes to protect 2004 vote

MILWAUKEE – About 50 people gathered at the headquarters of the Milwaukee AFL-CIO County Labor Council July 10 for a four-hour training session on voter rights.

The training was headed by Shiela Cochran, secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee County Labor Council, and included extensive presentations by Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the Wisconsin State Elections Board, and Vicky Beasley, deputy national field coordinator for the People for the American Way’s (PFAW) Voter Protection Project. The participants included roughly equal numbers of African American and white activists, many wearing the purple jackets of the Service Employees Industrial Union. Many of those in attendance had experience as election observers, and a few had served as election inspectors or chief inspectors.

The “Election Protection” program is a joint effort of 25 national organizations, including PFAW, the NAACP and the SEIU. According to PFAW, the effort is responding to the denial of the vote to voters of color in 2000 “by a combination of illegal actions, inadequate voter education and poll worker training and faulty voting machines,” and to new dangers in 2004, such as “unfamiliar machines, new identification requirements, and potential voter intimidation and suppression activities in minority communities.”

“We can’t have any repeats of Florida,” Lora Jo Foo told the participants. Foo is national coordinator of the AFL-CIO Voting Rights Protection Program. For the presidential race, Election Protection will be active in 50 states, but it has “targeted 12 battleground states and 32 individual communities, including Milwaukee,” Foo said.

Because voter disenfranchisement is such a problem in minority communities, “are targeting African Americams, Latinos, the Hmong community, and any other communities that are interested,” Beasley said.

The July 10 session was the first of several planned here and one of many being held across the country intended to protect against voter disenfranchisement in 2004. “We wanted to start with a core group right away,” said Cochran. She said PFAW has already established a field presence in Milwaukee. Participants received “Voters’ Bill of Rights” literature that will be distributed in advance of the election, and also discussed at length the current procedures for advance registration of voters. Kennedy said that in Madison election commissioners were already receiving 250 cards a day.

In Milwaukee, Beasley said, one goal is to “have at least three poll members at every polling site at all times on Election Day.” Another objective is to develop a team of lawyers trained in election law to assist the monitors. “We’ll have separate trainings for lawyers and activists,” she said.

Monitors on Election Day will wear T-shirts that say, “You have the right to vote.” The shirts were first used in nationwide efforts in 2002.

Beasley said the T-shirts could be powerful in getting others to stop harassing voters. “We experienced this in 2002, when the suppression activity went on in the city of Milwaukee, and it did,” she said. Those who came to poll sites to challenge voters “took a back seat” as soon as they saw the Election Protection shirts.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.