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Election 2004: Intimidation, Harassment and Suppression of Voters

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As early voting for the presidential election begins in Florida, we take a look at intimidation and suppression of voters in Florida and around the country. [includes rush transcript]

Early voting for the presidential election began in Florida on Monday as activists urged people to opt for early ballots to avoid a repeat of the 2000 election. Black and elderly voters in particular lined up to cast ballots two weeks before Nov. 2nd.

Computer problems and long lines soon emerged in Florida–one of 32 states where voters are allowed to make their choice before Election Day.

Across the country, independent poll watching groups are urging voters to take advantage of early voting to avoid problems.

More than two dozen states offer “no excuse” early voting by either mail or in person, meaning voters do not have to give a reason. Some states, such as Nevada, Iowa and West Virginia, have already begun. Texas, Arkansas and Colorado also started on Monday.

Today we take a look at how voters in states across the country have been suppressed, harrassed and intimidated in this presidential election.

Some examples include:

  • This summer, Michigan state Rep. John Pappageorge(r) was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying, “If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we’re going to have a tough time in this election.” African Americans comprise 83 percent of Detroit’s population.
  • In South Dakota’s June 2004 primary, Native American voters were prevented from voting after they were challenged to provide photo IDs, which they were not required to present under state or federal law.
  • In Kentucky in July 2004, black Republican officials joined to ask their State GOP party chairman to renounce plans to place “vote challengers” in African-American precincts during the coming elections.
  • Earlier this year in Texas, a local district attorney claimed that students at a majority black college were not eligible to vote in the county where the school is located. It happened in Waller County–the same county where 26 years earlier, a federal court order was required to prevent discrimination against the students.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Elliot Mincberg is us with, Legal Director of the People for the American Way Foundation. People for the American Way just released a report in cooperation with the NAACP called, “The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America.” They have monitors deployed across the country. Can you start, Elliot Mincberg, by telling us what you have found?

ELLIOT MINCBERG: Well, as you have indicated, what we have found is that unfortunately in just about every election beginning early in the 20th century, there have been attempts to suppress or intimidate voters, and for the most part, those tend to be minority voters, African American or Hispanic or other minorities, where someone thinks that they will get an electoral advantage by doing that. We have seen it, as you said, as recently as this year, and as far back as in the 1950s and 1960s, and of course, before that, I don’t have to remind your listeners, voting was indeed not even permitted among many minorities effectively in many parts of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you are doing right now, around the country.

ELLIOT MINCBERG: Well, we, People for the American Way Foundation, the NAACP, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Working Assets, many others have combined to form an election protection program. That program tries to offer three levels of protection to voters on election day, not just for intimidation efforts but also just for the typical, routine, but very problematic issues that may occur at the polls when people try to vote but are not able to do it for one reason or another. The program will involve more than 20,000 poll monitors at precincts across the country in primarily heavily minority precincts. It will involve lawyers and others standing by in 50-some locations across the country, and it will involve a national toll free hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, that voters anywhere can call if there are problems either in terms of suppression or intimidation or just people being able to cast their vote. The idea of this program is to frankly restore the democracy that many feel was lost as a result of the problems in the 2000 election, to let people be involved in that, because we have literally thousands and thousands of volunteers that are involved in it, and to try to encourage people to get out there and vote, to cast a ballot that counts, because if you need help, there will be somebody there to help out.

AMY GOODMAN: People for the American Way Foundation president, Ralph Neas, says new revelations from a smoking email about Governor Bush’s involvement in the attempted implementation of a voter purge list in Florida, demand the appointment of a special counsel by the Attorney General, John Ashcroft. Can you explain further?

ELLIOT MINCBERG: Sure can. As many people know, one of the great tragedies of the 2000 election was that thousands of people, primarily minorities, were thrown off the rolls in Florida because of an alleged felon purge, an attempt to eliminate people who had committed felonies from the ballot. Florida is one of the only six states in the country that doesn’t automatically restore voting rights. The problem was that they did it through a series of lists that were fatally flawed, and threw off people who should not have been thrown off the rolls. This year, there was an attempt to do that again. This time around, public interest groups like ours and the media demanded and eventually went to court and got a copy of the state’s list and showed that the list was incredibly flawed again. It significantly overrepresented African Americans and it had a lot of people on it who had been granted clemency. Faced with these embarrassing disclosures, the state sometime in July or August withdrew the list, but what the smoking email demonstrates is that way back in May, before the state began to order the implementation of this program, there was apparently a discussion with state officials and directly with Governor Bush, where state officials said to the governor that there were some serious problems in that list, and the governor, according to this email, directed that they go ahead and implement the list anyway. They did implement it. They tried to keep it secret. The rest, of course, was history. From our perspective, this is a serious potential violation and does require, in our view, the federal government to investigate possible attempts to violate people’s civil rights and particularly in light of the fact that we’re a talking about the president’s brother, ought to involve the appointment of a special prosecutor. Unfortunately, we have heard nothing from the Justice Department on that so far.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Elliot Mincberg, Legal Director of People for the American Way Foundation, which is part of the Election Protection Coalition, a voter education empowerment and protection initiative active in a number of lawsuits challenging decisions made by Florida officials that disadvantaged Florida voters. When we come back, we’re going to stay in Florida, talk about what is happening there. We’re also going to be talking about a threat that the head of the Republican National Committee made to Rock the Vote, telling them to cease and desist talking about the possibility of a draft. [break]

AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about election protection initiatives around the country and what is happening — yes, voting has started in many states around the country, early voting. Our guests are Elliot Mincberg of the People for the American Way Foundation. Also, Joe Egan on the line with us, an Orlando-based attorney representing a number of people and groups who have been harassed for conducting voter registration activities. Joe Egan, tell us what you have found in Orlando.

JOE EGAN: Well, I represent an organization that’s been around since the 50s. It’s largely an African American organization made up of elderly — by elderly I’m talking retired — African Americans who volunteer their time doing voter registration, get out the vote effort, including absentee ballots. They became the target of an FDLE — the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — investigation, about two-and-a-half, three months ago. It’s an interesting — it ties into the comments made a few minutes ago regarding the felony list because it’s the same organization — the FDLE is a state law enforcement agency, the head of which reports directly to Jeb Bush, the Governor, and the head of which is appointed by, of course, the Governor, Jeb Bush. What they did, under the guise of investigating election fraud issues, they did a two-prong attack, we believe, on this organization, and on its efforts. The first thing they did is they launched a press campaign, much that really privately doing private press briefings — background, I guess, briefings, and they made a number of statements saying there was racketeering involved, and they were investigating racketeering. There was done before there was any investigation. This is before they had gathered any evidence. Then they randomly selected African Americans — most, again, mostly elderly — who voted absentee ballot with the assistance of the Voter’s League. And they made unannounced visits to the homes, and the unannounced visits were made by not one, but by groups of armed law enforcement officers. And what I have said so far is not disputed. What’s disputed apparently down here is whether or not it was intentional or just simply reckless. What also is not disputed is the fact that it has resulted in a great deal of uncertainty on the part of many people about the legality of voting by absentee ballot. It’s also intimidated a great many people. There are people who — again, these are mostly elderly African Americans, some might be handicapped but most of them are elderly people, in their seventies and eighties, who use the Voter’s League volunteers. A lot of them just will not participate anymore. That’s what prompted us to go look into this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the 73-year-old African American who has been long involved with voter registration and election issues, who has been targeted recently?

JOE EGAN: Ezzie Thomas is, I think, who you are talking about. He’s the president, he’s a small businessman who was raised in Orlando, and has carried on an absentee ballot program here for about — since he retired, for about eight years, along with voter registration, voter education. He speaks to neighborhood groups, high schools. And it’s all part of this campaign that they do to try to encourage minority participation in politics. What the FDLE has done and what the state’s attorney has done is taken a statute that’s been on the books for a number of years, since 1998, and given an interpretation that is new, very novel interpretation from a very ambiguous statute. They have effectively told him he’s facing potential third-degree felony charges. Among other things, they’re asking about whether stamps were provided to some of these absentee ballot voters. What’s significant about this, and about these allegations, is that, one, they are new, and two, what they are investigating is conduct that was largely evolved from Republican campaign efforts down here for years, and the Voters League copied, really, what the Republican party has done. That is, run these absentee ballot campaigns using volunteers and paying expenses for some of the volunteers to buy gas, but also providing stamps and so forth, and so, the Voters League and Thomas, of course, is in a position where they’re asking, “Why me, why now?” It has effectively shut down — the bottom line is it’s effectively shut down much of the outreach by the Voter’s League in this election. We have got volunteers who are just afraid to go out on the streets. They have had home visits themselves. Some of them — some of the younger ones, people in their sixties, who are still working, had state law enforcement officers show up at their place of employment and interrogate them, and they simply will not — they’re scared to death. They don’t want to do any more volunteer work on this election issue. It’s caused a real split in the community here. The newspaper here, the editors and all, were outraged by the allegations, thinking that Orlando was perhaps being painted as a remnant of the — I guess it was called a few minutes ago, the Jim Crow era. But for a great many people who have, especially people around in the 50s and 60s, this conduct is reminiscent of the voter suppression that went on in the past. And I think what’s significant about it is there’s really no dispute as to the facts. The only dispute down here now is whether or not it was part of a conspiracy or whether it was intentional, but there’s no dispute that the conduct that did occur, that it was unprecedented, that the FDLE had never done an investigation like this before. The visits to the homes were the homes of innocent people, people which they admit were not involved in any criminal conduct at all, and the outcome, of course — that is, people being intimidated by having armed law enforcement officers show up at their front door and elderly people being confused about — when they’re told in the interrogation at their front door in the houses, that you’re involved in a criminal investigation because you voted absentee ballot. I don’t think there’s any dispute — some of those people are convinced that absentee ballot voting either, one, is illegal, or, two, brings The Man to the door — that is, the law enforcement agency. And it has really caused some alarm down here and of course, the organization that I represent, the Voters’ League, has been devastated by it. They’ve seen years of hard work simply go down the drain with this thing. We estimate we have lost probably 1,000 voters who may not vote this time because of the home visits and the concurrent active media campaign run by the FDLE, which put out, we believe, a lot of misleading information suggesting there’s some sort of wide scale criminal conduct on the part of these volunteers, all of which now, of course, there’s no evidence of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Egan, I want to bring in Jehmu Greene, who is president of Rock the Vote. Jehmu, can you describe your organization, and then what happened with this letter that you got from the head of the Republican National Committee, Gillespie?

JEHMU GREENE: Good morning, Amy. Thank you for having us. Well, you know, the draft is a live-wire issue for young voters right now, and Rock the Vote’s street teams and young people across the country are talking to us about how students and young voters are talking about the draft. We have been working on this campaign for several months to just bring to attention of both candidates, both — to all of the candidates running for Congress, how important this issue is to this generation, and that they deserve an honest debate. Unfortunately, after we put out a campaign over our website and had number of public service announcements running, the chair of the Republican National Committee decided that this was not an issue that was relevant for young people. This was not an issue that he thought should be discussed, and has asked Rock the Vote to cease and desist. But talking to an organization that was founded on freedom of expression, and telling them to shut up, basically, is not something that’s going to work, especially with this generation, especially with an issue that’s so top of mind and so important to the young people who are seeing the war against terror being fought out on television and, of course, seeing it on the front lines.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you afraid of being legally threatened?

JEHMU GREENE: We are absolutely assured that we are operating within the bounds of our 501(c)3 status. There are a number of issues that we have been talking about all year, not just the war and the possibility of a military draft, but young people’s need for health care and the financial stress that this generation is under because of the rising costs of college tuition, the — you know, amount of debt that college students are graduating with. And the draft is one of the set of issues that we have been, you know, really highlighting for the candidates and highlighting to this generation as these are the decisions that are going to be made by the people who are like elected to office and we need them to have an honest debate on all of these issues. This is not something that we’re concerned about that’s going to put the organization in jeopardy because at end of the day, we are just saying to the candidates, talk to this generation, talk to us about the issues we care about.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Janet Ryder, the Philadelphia voter protection coordinator of the AFL-CIO. What are you seeing there?

JANET RYDER: Here in Philadelphia, I don’t see as extreme things I’m hearing on the phone. I’m absolutely appalled at the whole thing. Here in Philadelphia, during the last election, there were people that intimidated voters and they rode around in dark cars in the middle of the minority community, white males in dark cars in dark suits. They looked intimidating, it looked like they were the police officers. They wore badges that were not legal, and intimidated voters by telling them if they had not paid they child support, they would not be able to vote, or they held up the process by questioning people in line as to their identity, so they wouldn’t be able to vote as well. So, we have been doing a campaign to educate new voters because we have more than 100,000 absolutely new voters who will need to have identification at the polls on election day. Hopefully, they will bring that identification with them, and we won’t have that problem. We plan on having attorneys at the polling sites that we think will be most troublesome, and in the city of Philadelphia and outlying areas, we have a lot of polling sites where it’s predominantly minority voters coming to vote. We plan to have attorneys at those sites to make sure that their legal rights are not violated.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Elliot Mincberg of the People for the American Way Foundation. Can you talk about what’s happened in both Nevada and Oregon? Same organization, having to do with registration drive and getting rid of certain registration forms?

ELLIOT MINCBERG: It’s very troubling. The reports are that an organization that has been funded by the Republican National Committee to conduct voter registration, that those organizations — that organization — has collected registration forms, and someone in the office has torn up registration forms where people chose to register as Democrats, rather than as Republicans. This information comes from people who have worked for the organizations, and whose conscience led them to report this to the authorities. It’s a very serious and very troubling allegation.

AMY GOODMAN: Now this is in both Oregon and Nevada?

ELLIOT MINCBERG: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: It was reported by a previous employee who watched a supervisor rip up, in the case of Nevada?

ELLIOT MINCBERG: That’s exactly right. In fact, one news station in Nevada, actually showed film of the ripped up ballots. Apparently, the person brought them to the news station before he brought them to the FBI.

AMY GOODMAN: And so what happens in this case?

ELLIOT MINCBERG: Well, apparently there is criminal investigation going on right now. One of the big problems is, how do these voters get a chance to vote? And we, and a lot of other organizations have put the word out in Nevada and Oregon, if anybody thinks that they registered with one of those organizations, to please call that 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline and let people know. There is actually a procedure in Nevada that may be able to be used to get people like that who signed such a registration form on time, but then had it torn up, to be able to get a chance to vote, but only if they are able to report that before election day.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Egan, what about the firefighters?

JOE EGAN: Well, that was a —- that popped up in the middle of this. The same organization again, the FDLE, the state law enforcement agency, under Governor -—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking Florida now.

JOE EGAN: We are. They’re an organization that for years has endorsed mostly Republicans here. And for the first time in, I think, probably 20 years, they endorsed John Kerry, and three weeks after that, they were hit with an FDLE investigation, highly publicized — TV cameras, everything else, showing up. And the interrogation was into their use of what they called union leave-bank time. It’s a provision that’s very common in police and fire department unions in the country. And it allows the union to take its members off duty to engage in union activity. And the union is the sole decision-maker as to how that time will be used, whether they want to use it for grievances or negotiations or for political activity.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds.

JOE EGAN: Well, down here, it’s been in the place for since 1984, and it had never been contested before, and when FDLE jumped in and engaged in this campaign with the press and scared the heck out of people, all in front of the state’s attorney’s office, under subpoena, with the cameras and all, and immediately after a month threw out the investigation, finding no violation. Of course, there was no violation going into it. The law was clear going into that inquiry, as it was coming out of the inquiry. But again, you know, with that organization, those officers and those members, are largely silent. I mean, they are scared to death to engage in the usual political activity.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we have to leave it there. The show has come to an end. Joe Egan, thanks for joining us. Janet Ryder of Philadelphia, voter protection coordinator, AFL-CIO. Jehmu Greene, president of Rock the Vote. And thank you to Elliot Mincberg, People for the American Way Foundation. We’ll continue to follow this issue of voter suppression in the lead-up to the election.

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