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Suppression, Fraud and Breakdown: Voting Problems Emerge in States Across the Country

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Voters in states across the country have already begun to vote as millions more prepare to head to the polls next week to vote in the 2004 presidential election. We take a look at voter suppression and fraud with a lawyer with the Voting Rights Project, focusing on voter protection, a journalist with the London Independent and an international monitor who was part of a team that has prepared a Pre-Election report. [includes rush transcript]

Voters in states across the country have already begun to vote as millions more prepare to head to the polls next week in what many are calling one of the most important presidential elections in U.S. history.

Four years after the battle for Florida in 2000, the country is hoping to avoid another post-election stalemate and with the latest polls showing George W Bush and John Kerry in a statistical dead heat, every vote counts.

But while this election looks likely to be extremely close, the voting system is far from flawless. Voting machines have already begun to break down, accusations of systematic voter suppression and fraud are rampant, and lawyers have flocked to half a dozen states to cry foul.

In addition, a team of international observers who are monitoring the elections for the first time in American history, released a pre-election report that calls for major reforms in the process to promote confidence the voting system.

Today we take a look at voter suppression, intimidation and harassment in the 2004 election.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we look at the issues of voter suppression, intimidation and harassment in this election. We begin with Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JON GREENBAUM: Good morning, Amy. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: Good. It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you give us at this point an overview of what you see the key problems are right now.

JON GREENBAUM: We’re part of a group called Election Protection that involves many civil rights, civic, legal organizations that are — have been brought together to insure that eligible voters are able to register and participate in the process. Right now, we’re seeing a number of problems in the process, a lot of them related to the registration, and I’ll give you one example from Arkansas, where a number of people took forms from the public library, registration forms, filled them out, sent them in and have been told by the registrars that because they used old forms, that they’re not entitled to register to vote on those forms. Another example is early voting in Broward County, Florida, where there have been several problems using the voting machines early on, including voting machines not working, voting machines that had not been set back to zero at the appropriate time. That’s just a small idea of the number of problems that we’re being confronted with right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about some of the legal cases that you have been involved with, Jon Greenbaum, that you have actually litigated?

JON GREENBAUM: Well, very early this year, we brought a case on behalf of students at Prairie View University, a historic Black college outside of — about 40 minutes outside of Houston, Texas, Waller County, Texas, in which the district attorney actually threatened students with felony prosecution if they voted, claiming that because they were students they weren’t residents of the county. We filed a lawsuit basically to get him to retract that position, which he quickly did.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about — and what ultimately has happened now for these students?

JON GREENBAUM: Well, interestingly enough, I mean, what happened for the students is that they were actually a couple of students running for office, including one for the board of commissioners in the primary that year — or earlier this year, and that student ended up winning the election, winning the primary by roughly 38 votes. So, we certainly felt like that lawsuit and then a second lawsuit that we filed to insure that students were able to vote early, which was vital because most of the students were on spring break during the actual primary day, we felt like our lawsuits made a difference there.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the latest news about Ohio with the election, quote, “monitors” being deployed for election day?

JON GREENBAUM: Well, I mean, that’s one of the things that we have — that, you know, we certainly expected because we have been hearing it all year was that there are going to be people that are going to be sent out to challenge voters at the polls. So, it’s something that we have certainly been preparing for in terms of making sure that the process works. Most states will allow political parties and others to make challenges at the polls, and the issue really is not so much whether or not there’s a right to challenge, it’s how the challenges are done. Are the challenges done based on personal knowledge? Is there some attempt to narrow the challenges to the people that you have a legitimate basis for challenging, or is it an all-out attempt to challenge huge groups of people and be disruptive the at polling place? If it’s the latter, we will be prepared to ask to have such challenges removed, and if the people at the polling place or the county election officials won’t do it, we’ll have to go to court, if necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to say that the republicans have challenged the voting eligibility of 35,000 registered voters in Ohio already?

JON GREENBAUM: Well, right — are you talking about the registration challenges that are expected to happen this week?


JON GREENBAUM: Yes. That’s another issue. And once again, we have got to see what the actual facts are, as opposed to, you know, making blanket allegations. That’s something else that we’re preparing for. If you are going to challenge groups of voters, you better have a good reason for doing so. We’re very suspicious when anybody says that they’re going to challenge a large group of voters. I’ll give you another example, smaller example of something like that, which is going on in Atkinson County, Georgia, where basically the — there in Georgia you have racial identification registration, and a few people in the county went down to the registrar’s office, got the names of all of the Hispanic voters who had registered, and they have challenged most of the Hispanic voters in Atkinson County, Georgia, based on citizenship grounds. Once again, that sort of thing makes us suspicious when you’re challenging large groups of voters without having personal knowledge, necessarily, as opposed to more narrow challenges where do you have personal knowledge of why somebody might be ineligible to vote. So hearing that they’re contemplating, any group is contemplating challenging 35,000 voters makes us very suspicious.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for a minute. We’ll come back to Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. We’ll also be joined by Andrew Gumbel, who is a Los Angeles-based reporter with the London Independent. His latest piece, “Portrait of a Country on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” We’ll also talk to an international election monitor. A group of such monitors has come out with a report of recommendations for the U.S. elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest on the line is Jon Greenbaum. He is the lawyer with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. We are also joined by Andrew Gumbel. Andrew Gumbel has written a piece, “Portrait of a Country on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Andrew Gumbel, why the title?

ANDREW GUMBEL: Well, the reason for saying that this just because everybody has been asking themselves whether or not this year we’re going to see another meltdown along the lines of Florida in 2000. Obviously, we don’t know that yet, because it’s going to depend on the arithmetic that comes out as the results are announced. So what we do know is, everything is in place for everything to go very badly wrong. Even if the margins of victory in each state are large enough to avert Florida, we’re not going to get a free and fair election. That’s been well establish by a number of people, including the various international election monitors who already have been coming to the country and having a look at what the provisions are in place for the reasons that you have been talking about already on the program. Voting machines don’t work. They’re susceptible to tampering. They’re all of the incredible, massive problems to do with provisional voting, absentee ballot voting, there’s all the various rulings by — apparently part of them motivated the secretaries of state in the different states. Jimmy Carter has come out and said that he wouldn’t certify an election in Florida, and Florida is only one place where there’s problems. There’s a sense that the things could go horribly wrong. So there’s that sense that the country is on edge, but there’s also the real sense in which the meltdown is not something that the people have to worry about possibly happening. It’s really already here in terms of the integrity of the voting system.

AMY GOODMAN: You have also specifically written about electronic voting, and you’re writing a book on this issue that will be coming out in the coming months, but we’re not just talking about what will happen next week. We’re talking about what is happening. Cause in dozens of states, people are already at voting booths, and they are voting for example, in Florida.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happened so far?

ANDREW GUMBEL: Well, the experience — the other thing that’s worth underlining is that the experience is varied across the country. One place where I spent some time and was actually pleasantly struck by how well things are working is Arizona. They have a lot of very progressive measures in place to have elections work well. There are problems, too, especially with the issues of felons and ex-felons voting, but in terms of for example, absentee ballots, they call it mail-in ballots, they don’t like to call it absentee, because they want you to be more included. You can apply very simply by a single phone call or you can fill out a very straight-forward, single-sheet application. It arrives the very next day at your house and I have asked around every conceivable group as to if there are problems, the answer was no. So it is possible to get this stuff right. And forgive me, I didn’t hear the whole of the first section, so I don’t want to repeat too much of what’s going on, but in terms of early voting and problems, Florida they started early voting the beginning of last week. There were breakdowns in the internet links apparently between laptop computers linked to the voter registration databases so people couldn’t find out if they were eligible to vote. That caused hours of delay. In Duval County in Florida, the head of elections there, who is the one who is responsible for disenfranchising thousands of predominantly core, predominantly black, predominantly Democrat-voting voters in 2000, suddenly decided to resign on the very first day of voting, throwing them into complete pandemonium. He cited it where health reasons. There had been accusations that he wasn’t providing sufficient early voting facilities in black areas of Jacksonville, which is the main town in Duval County. His successor is now going some way to remedy that. Then there are various legal challenges that are going on everywhere over early voting and specifically over the issue of provisional voting. And forgive me, I don’t know if you have already discussed this but there are in a lot of states, Florida being one, Ohio being another, there are many others as well, there’s this question of what happens if you don’t know where to go vote, because you have either recently moved house or your precinct has moved, and you may or may not have been informed because the information flow is not as sufficient as it should be. And in some cases as one can suspect information flow is deliberately slowed down. There is discussion of where do you go vote. A lot of voting rights groups and in the states where they feel like it’s to their advantage, the Democratic party has well have been pushing to allow people to vote in any precinct near where they live on the understanding that, of course, if the voting ballot that they receive is then going to be inaccurate for the local races, and that they would be restricted to voting for president and Senate and Congress and whatever races they are eligible to vote for. This has been a subject to rulings by Secretaries of State, by court hearings, by court appeals and things are in sort of a state of flux. But what I can tell you from my reporting on the ground is Florida is that this is a very, very important issue in certain places. This other places where things are organized better, it’s less important, but where you have a situation where you have a large immigrant population. A large student population, a large population of people who may not have steady jobs where they’re moving around a lot and specifically because of these population flows where the precincts keep changing and where in some cases the district boundaries keep changing, the whole thing is mired in tremendous confusion and this is not a trivial point at all. One can imagine tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of votes being affected in any given state.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like Jon Greenbaum to expand further on this issue of provisional ballots. A federal appeals court panel Sunday put on hold a judge’s order requiring some provisional ballots in Michigan to be counted even if they’re cast in the wrong precinct, the panel’s second ruling in two days against Democrats seeking to ease voting restrictions. Six U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in Cincinnati issued a stay of the lower court ruling that reversed Michigan’s policy for counting provisional ballots, saying it will hear on appeal on the issue quickly. On Saturday, the same three-judge panel rejected a similar ruling out of Ohio. Can you talk further about these provisional ballots and their significance?

JON GREENBAUM: Well, we’re very concerned about that. Provisional ballots were something that were required in the Help America Vote Act. But the one thing that the act did not directly address is setting the standards for when they should be counted or when they shouldn’t be counted. What’s disturbing about the way the states have — some of the states have applied provisional ballots and now the courts interpreting state law and the Help America Vote Act, is that you have a situation where you’re going to have voters who are eligible voters who are eligible voters in the county in which they vote. They go down and cast a provisional ballot. They think that ballot is going to count and then it turns out not to. It turns out not to because they didn’t go to the right precinct. And in most situations, whether or not you go to precinct A in one count county or whether or not you go to precinct B shouldn’t matter for most of the offices on the ballot. For example, it shouldn’t matter for president, it shouldn’t matter for U.S. Senator, it shouldn’t matter for any county-wide office or any state-wide office. And the end result is a lot of people are going to get disenfranchised. Good example of that was in Chicago earlier this year, in the primary election in Illinois where there were over 1,000 voters in Chicago, who lost their vote this way. They saw it when they went down to the polls, and they were — they were given this provisional ballot. They thought that ballot was going to count. It turned out it didn’t. You are giving people the expectation that their vote is going to count, then you take that — you’re taking that away.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Jon Greenbaum, about Broward County in Florida and what you have found there?

JON GREENBAUM: Well as I mentioned before, we have already found some problems. We have a hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE. And people are calling in to the hotline and telling us about problems that they’re having when they’re trying to vote in Broward County, including waiting in long lines because machines are down, including machines that don’t appear to have been properly set up in advance, including machines that weren’t tested prior to being put out in the field. It’s very troubling. Because once again, we have a situation where it’s hard to have full confidence that people are going to be able to participate in the way they should be able to participate in the system.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jon Greenbaum, who just shared the phone number of people calling in if they have problems with voting, 866-OUR-VOTE. Jon Greenbaum, director of Voting Rights Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Andrew Gumbel, whose latest piece in The London Independent is called, “Portrait of a Country on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” We’re also are joined by Irene Baghoomians, who is part of a pre-election observation delegation that compiled a report on the whole system here of elections, a pre-election report. Human rights lawyer and professor at the University of Sydney Law School, part of this international delegation that’s observing the U.S. elections, in the same way that observers go out to other countries to observe, and she will be coming back for the actual elections. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Hi. As you listen to the discussion and having been here, can you share your observations, your observations and recommendations in this pre-election report and who were you with?

IRENE BAGHOOMIANS: I’m sure. Let me start from the latter question. This entire project is organized by Global Exchange, which is a human rights organization based in San Francisco, but the project basically organized as a stand-alone project involving initially for the phase one, comprising 20 delegates from five continents. We basically focused on five states, including Ohio, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and Missouri, and they were each chosen for a variety of reasons. I don’t know whether you are interested in — in me mentioning quickly why they were chosen.


IRENE BAGHOOMIANS: Arizona was chosen primarily because of the clean system of, you know, politics, the publicly financed campaigns that they have. Florida, I think is self-explanatory because of the widely publicized irregularities during the constitutional crisis of 2000. Georgia was selected because it is one of the two states that will vote uniformly on DRE’s, direct recording electronic ballots. Missouri also experienced serious troubles on election day and Ohio, because it’s a battleground state and Bellwether. These were the reasons why the five were chosen. We went there for — four-member teams went to each of these five states during September and we spent a week prior to going to the states speaking and meeting with experts in Washington, and then going to the states, and we spent one week in each state, and we met with kind of a variety of groups. We met with civil society groups as well as election boards, and wherever possible we met with Secretaries of State and staff. We were unable to actually meet with any of the secretaries themselves, but we tried to meet with the staff as much as possible. So, after that, we went back to San Francisco and compiled the report, which was released two days ago.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you find?

IRENE BAGHOOMIANS: The report basically contains as number of recommendations. It’s divided into both state reports, but generally, there are recommendations basically are divided into kind of short term and medium and long term ones. The immediate term ones are that election officials at all levels really should open the electoral process to a non-partisan observers from both the United States as well as from overseas countries. And the medium and long term recommendations include to eliminate partisan administration of the electoral apparatus, and move towards a non-partisan electoral management as well as modifying or replacing the DRE machines to provide all voting equipment with a voter verified re-countable paper record. Also, to try to restore as much as possible the franchise to excellence, because we did find as part of our consultations that there were a number of states, including Florida, that deny the franchise to excellence, and last, but not least, to adopt public campaign financing to help level the political playing fields. Thereby avoiding perceptions of corruption and try to raise voter confidence. So, these were our general recommendations, but then we have specific recommendations for each of the five states.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to be certifying or not these elections?

IRENE BAGHOOMIANS: No. We are only observers, so we don’t have a mandate to intervene. And as we currently stand, unfortunately, we have not been given permission to attend the actual polling stations in a number of counties that we’ll be visiting. If you are interested, I can actually mention that really briefly.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.

IRENE BAGHOOMIANS: Okay. Basically in Missouri we have been given permission to attend tabulation centers in polling booths in Columbia and St. Louis. In Ohio, in Cleveland County, we only have been given permission to attend the tabulation centers and we’re waiting to see if we can attend polling stations, and in Florida, we have only been given permission by Leon County to attend both the polling stations and tabulation centers. We’re waiting hopefully to hear from Ft. Lauderdale, Broward and Miami Dade.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow this issue, and I just wanted to ask Jon Greenbaum very quickly, how many calls have you gotten on this voting problems line, 866-our-vote?

JON GREENBAUM: We’re getting several hundred a day at this point and actually, we anticipate that on election day, we’re going to be getting tens of thousands. We have planned for it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Irene Baghoomians, part of the pre-election observation delegation that has been put together by Global Exchange talking to us from University of Sydney Law School, and also Jon Greenbaum, director of Voting Rights Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. That voting hotline is 866-OUR-VOTE. And Andrew Gumbel with The London Independent who is covering our elections for The Independent. Thanks to all for being with us.

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