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How Safe Is Your Ballot? Tracking Voter Suppression, Intimidation on Election Day

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As millions of voters head to the polls, Democratic and progressive groups are concerned with reports of voter intimidation and efforts to suppress minority and poor voters from casting their ballots. They point to the mushrooming of Republicans and Tea Party-affiliated groups who are raising the specter of voter fraud in states across the country. We speak to Wendy Weiser of the Voting Rights and Election Project at the Brennan Center for Justice. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today is Election Day. Millions of voters are heading to the polls to decide more than 500 House, Senate and governor’s races across the country. But many Democratic and progressive groups are concerned with reports of voter intimidation and efforts to suppress minority and poor voters from casting their ballots. They point to the mushrooming of Republicans and Tea Party-affiliated groups who are raising the specter of voter fraud in states across the country. Even though fears of widespread voter fraud have repeatedly been shown to be overblown and without merit, state GOP chapters, local Tea Party groups and organizations like Americans for Prosperity are mobilizing about how to challenge so-called “suspicious” voters.

In Illinois, Republican Senate candidate, Congressman Mark Kirk, has come under fire for being caught on tape saying he wanted to dispatch “voter integrity” teams to heavily African American areas to prevent voter fraud. Alabama’s Secretary of State Beth Chapman, meanwhile, has promised a $5,000 reward for information that leads to a felony conviction on voter fraud. And in Minnesota, the Tea Party-backed “Election Integrity Watch” is offering $500 rewards to those who provide tips about voter fraud.

In Texas, however, the Department of Justice is sending federal personnel to monitor election proceedings in Harris County outside of Houston following reports that poll watchers from a Tea Party-affiliated group had intimidated minority voters during early voting.

For more, I’m joined here in New York by Wendy Weiser. She’s the director of the Voting Rights and Election Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. She just co-wrote a report on ballot security and voter suppression.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s start on this issue of voter fraud. What is it? Is it a buzz word?

WENDY WEISER: I mean, voter fraud is an illegal act, and it’s one where somebody who is ineligible votes at the polls. This is something that almost never happens. We do have election fraud, which is still very rare, that typically involves insider schemes. But voter frauds where voters scheme to vote ineligibly at the polls is something that investigation after investigation shows is really extraordinarily rare.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go through some of these cases. For example, the Republican Senate candidate Congressman Mark Kirk coming under fire for saying, let’s dispatch, quote, “voter integrity” teams to black neighborhoods.

WENDY WEISER: Yeah. We are seeing this happening all across the country. People are mobilizing to supposedly look for and stop voter fraud in many different states, especially where there are tight races. And we’re very concerned that this could very easily turn into a voter suppression effort, even with the best of intentions. The tactics that people use frequently do, in these operations, turn into voter intimidation, discrimination based on race, or other forms of interference with the vote.

AMY GOODMAN: This case of Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman promising $5,000 reward for information leading to a felony conviction of voter fraud?

WENDY WEISER: Yeah, we are seeing a few bounties like that in other parts of the country, as well. There’s a group in Minnesota offering $500 rewards. And there are other people that are encouraging citizens to try and monitor their fellow citizens and look for voter fraud, really contributing to an atmosphere of mistrust and confrontation in our polling places.

AMY GOODMAN: What do they do when they’re checking for this?

WENDY WEISER: You know, that’s the problem, is this isn’t something that you can actually detect at the polling place. They’re often questioning voters. That is not allowed in —

AMY GOODMAN: As they’re walking in?

WENDY WEISER: As they’re walking in or as they show up to sign in to the poll books. That is not allowed in most states. Sometimes they have a list of voters that they’re worried about that they’ve prepared in advance, and when those voters show up, they question them.

AMY GOODMAN: But what do you mean? They say, “Are you so-and-so?”

WENDY WEISER: They question them, or in many cases they will question the poll worker or an election judge about the voter, since they can’t speak directly to the voter. And they’ll launch challenges against the voter. In many states, ordinary citizens or political operatives can challenge voters at the polls, saying, “I don’t think this person is eligible.” And that will start a proceeding. And this voter will have to answer questions, and it might end up with the voter being denied their right to vote.

One thing I do want to encourage viewers is, if you know your rights and you assert them, you know, this should not interfere with your right to vote. And if you have any problems, you should just call 866-OUR-VOTE, a nonpartisan election protection hotline that can help you make sure that you vote and that no one interferes with your vote.

AMY GOODMAN: What about what happened in Harris County, the reports of poll watchers from a Tea Party-affiliated group intimidating minority voters?

WENDY WEISER: We have heard many complaints across Harris County throughout the early voting period. In Harris County, they can vote for almost a month leading up to Election Day. And there were poll watchers placed in many neighborhoods, largely minority neighborhoods, that were supposedly hovering over voters, preventing them from going into lines, at time confronting them, even though it’s not allowed under Texas law. And we’ve had other complaints in Harris County, as well, like fliers going up in African American neighborhoods giving misinformation about how to vote and the effect of your vote.

AMY GOODMAN: What about immigrants, what they’re facing now?

WENDY WEISER: Yeah, a lot of these operations are taking place in neighborhoods where there are a lot of immigrants or in heavily Latino communities, and they are directed to supposedly prevent non-citizens from voting. Again, this is something that almost never happens. It is a very serious crime when somebody does it, and it yields very little benefit. But nonetheless, these operations are being targeted in these communities, and it’s something of great concern, and we hope that it doesn’t dissuade Latino voters from turning out. Certainly, there are a lot of folks that are there to assist them. You should not have your vote denied because of this. But people feel intimidated, and people are upset by this.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about other kind of voter challenges and voter caging.

WENDY WEISER: We have been concerned with challenge operations, where a citizen can actually confront and challenge somebody else at the polls, because those not only have the tendency to turn intimidating, but they have been discriminatory in the past. A very significant challenge operation that was planned in Ohio in 2004, for example, was examined by a federal judge, who found that 97 percent of new voters in African American precincts would face a challenger, but only 14 percent of new voters in predominantly white precincts would face a challenger. So they’re targeted in a discriminatory way frequently. And they could be based on really unreliable grounds that could threaten somebody’s voting rights for no good reason.

Now, many states have started issuing rules explaining that this is not legal, that you can’t deny somebody the right to vote from caging or from — because their name is on a foreclosure list. But there is confusion. And caging is when — the practice of when somebody sends a non-forwardable mailing to a list of prospective voters, and if — they take the — they make a list of the names that are returned and try to challenge those voters, saying that they are not residents and are not eligible to vote. And we’ve seen this is misused before. For example, in 2008 in Montana, a caging list uncovered a large list of students and military personnel who were living away from home but eligible to vote from their home addresses, but they had temporarily forwarded their mail. That is what caging operations typically yield: eligible people who are temporarily away or else mail problems. They don’t yield ineligible voters. So this is a tool that states are not allowed to use to uphold challenges. But yet, people bring this, time and time again, as a basis to try and knock out eligible voters.

AMY GOODMAN: If you went to the poll and someone is challenging you and they’re saying, “Sorry, you won’t be able to vote,” what can you do? What can you insist on?

WENDY WEISER: Well, the rules do vary from state to state as to what happens if you’re challenged. You will always get to have a hearing and to state the reasons that you’re eligible. And nobody should leave without casting a ballot. In every state, you will either be allowed to cast a regular ballot or a provisional ballot. If this happens to you, you should also call for assistance to make sure that you’re doing everything you can. Again, 866-OUR-VOTE can help you.

AMY GOODMAN: The Brennan Center has also found registration patterns vary from state to state. But more than 26 percent fewer new voters registered in Florida this year than in 2006, along with 21 percent fewer in Maryland, almost 17 percent fewer in Tennessee. What does this mean?

WENDY WEISER: Yeah, we’ve been seeing a troubling pattern this year of dropping registration rates. They are much lower than they’ve been in many states from prior midterm elections. And one of the reasons for this — and this has raised some concern — is that there are far fewer efforts to register voters. We don’t see large-scale voter registration drives out there the way there have been in past election cycles.

AMY GOODMAN: Like the disbanding of ACORN.

WENDY WEISER: Like the disbanding of ACORN, but this is — it’s not only ACORN that’s been affected by this attack on voter registration groups. Many groups that used to register voters aren’t out there registering voters now.


WENDY WEISER: I think there was some kind of climate of fear created by those attacks on registration groups that have made it much more difficult for people to do that. This was a civic good that people were doing out of civic virtue, and they were worried about being attacked for engaging in these kinds of activities. In some cases, it’s been laws that were passed that make it very difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: So this, the right’s attack on ACORN and the congressional attack on ACORN, which was unprecedented, the disbanding of ACORN, not only affected this largest voter registration organization in the country, but had ripple effects everywhere.

WENDY WEISER: That is what we think has happened, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of different schedules for voting. I mean, you have people who can vote early. You also have places where people can register the last day, which is very rare. We have some of the greatest obstacles to voting in the industrialized world. Can you talk about that and what people should understand in their state?

WENDY WEISER: Well, people should know when the registration deadline is in their state. At this point, it has passed. But there are a number of states where there is Election Day registration, so if you’re not registered and you live in one of those states, it’s not too late, you can still show up and vote.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Wisconsin one of those states?

WENDY WEISER: Wisconsin is one of those states.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is why — that’s very interesting, because there you have Ron Johnson, who in the polls is slightly ahead of Russ Feingold. But this issue of same-day registration and voting could have a tremendous effect and could make a difference for the incumbent, Russ Feingold.

WENDY WEISER: Well, it could make a difference if a lot of — a lot more people turn out that aren’t currently registered. So, that is true.

AMY GOODMAN: What about people who have been imprisoned, their rights around the country? I bumped into someone recently. I asked him if he was voting. He said, “No, I can’t vote; I was in prison.” And it turned out he could vote. He just didn’t know.

WENDY WEISER: Yeah, this is very confusing to people. The rules do vary state by state. The diversity of election rules across the state are confusing for everyone across all issues, but really, for people with past felony convictions, it’s especially confusing. As they move around, their rights change. In some states, you can vote just out of prison. That really is the easiest rule to administer, and you’ve done your time, and now you should be able to be a fully participating member of the community. But in some states, you can vote only after a term of probation or after a term of probation and parole. It really does vary. And in a number of states you can also get your voting rights restored.

AMY GOODMAN: And you can vote in some states from prison.

WENDY WEISER: That is true. There are two states where you can vote from prison.


WENDY WEISER: That is Maine and Vermont.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how do you find this out? Someone wants to find out right now, today is Election Day, what do they do?

WENDY WEISER: Well, on Election Day, you should call 866-OUR-VOTE, and people will be able to explain to you what the rules are in your state.

AMY GOODMAN: In all of these cases.

WENDY WEISER: In all of these cases, all the rules should be made available to you. There are other websites with helpful information, like canivote.org or your state’s official election official website. But your easiest bet right now is to call 866-OUR-VOTE. There are trained nonpartisan volunteers with all the information you need to help you vote successfully.

AMY GOODMAN: Wendy Weiser, thanks so much for being with us, director of the Voting Rights and Election Project of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be broadcasting at democracynow.org tonight starting at 8:00 covering the elections. And we’d like to check in with you, Wendy, at the end of the day and see what is happening and how voters, well, were able to cast their ballots throughout the country. That’s 8:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. We’re doing it ’til 2:00 in the morning.

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