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As ID Laws Risk Disenfranchisement, Intimidation Fears Grow with Tea Party Group’s “Poll Watcher”

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A coalition of groups are planning to stage a protest outside the Republican National Convention today to decry new voter ID laws and cutbacks in early voting. To discuss voting rights ahead of November, we’re joined by two guests: the Rev. Charles McKenzie of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and organizer of a protest today at Tampa’s Centennial Park in Tampa against voter suppression, and Brentin Mock, a ColorLines reporter covering the challenges presented by new voter ID laws, suppression of voter registration drives, and other attempts to limit electoral power of people of color. Mock’s latest article reveals how a tea party-backed organization called “True the Vote” is building a nationwide “poll watcher” network for November that critics say is designed to intimidate voters. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to speak with two guests about voting rights ahead of this 2012 race. Here in Tampa, we’re joined by Reverend Charles McKenzie, state coordinator for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He’s organizing a protest at 5:00 p.m. today at Centennial Park in Tampa against voter suppression.

And we’re joined in Houston by reporter Brentin Mock. He is a reporting fellow on voting rights for ColorLines_, covering the challenges presented by new voter ID laws, suppression of voter registration drives, and other attempts to limit electoral power of people of color. His latest network.html”>article reveals how a tea party-backed organization called True the Vote is building a nationwide “poll watcher” network for November that critics say is designed to intimidate voters. We’re speaking to him in Houston. He was here in Tampa, raced home to New Orleans to prepare for the hurricane and just evacuated yesterday to Houston. We’ll talk about the hurricane, as well, after this discussion.

Reverend Charles McKenzie, Brentin Mock, thanks so much for joining us. Reverend McKenzie, why are you going to be marching today outside the Republican convention?

REV. CHARLES McKENZIE: We are going to be marching today—and, by the way, thank you, Amy. It’s a pleasure meeting you and being on the show today. We’re going to be marching because, as Dr. King said, there are times when we must take moments in history to dramatize the underlying conditions that are not in front of the public in order to place those issues squarely before the conscience of the state, local and national community. And we are marching today to highlight the fact that vote suppression laws have a disproportionate and negative impact on the African-American community, our seniors, our students, disabled people and Latin Americans, because these laws are not designed to protect us from the fraudulent claim of voter fraud, but to suppress the vote that might go in the direction that certain partisan interests do not want them to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what’s happening in Florida. I mean, there’s a real standoff between Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, and the Obama administration, Eric Holder, the attorney general.

REV. CHARLES McKENZIE: Well, what has happened in recent days is that a federal court issued a decision to deny Florida preclearance for shortening the voting days and implementing some of the other changes that it wanted to do through a bill, a House bill, H.B. 1355, that would have shortened the voting days, would have limited access to the voting booth in the minority community. The federal court decided that Florida could not shorten the voting days, that it could not restrict this access in five preclearance counties—Hendry, Collier, Hillsborough, Monroe and Hardee.

After the court decision was issued, Governor Scott began to make phone calls and reach out to the supervisors of elections in those five countries and say, “Well, we have a proposal, because the court left a window and said that if we could increase the hours to the level that they were before our recent law was implemented, that we could go forward with it.” And four of the counties agreed to the eight days for 12 hours, 96 hours, which is an increase in hours, but not an expansion of days.

One Republican supervisor of elections down in, I believe, Monroe County said that he was not going to go along with that. He felt that this law disproportionately and negatively impacted the African-American community. And so, he was not going along with it, because it was an extension of hours, but not an extension of days, and he intends to continue with his 14-day cycle. And, of course, the governor has threatened to take legal action against him. He has pressured him in other ways. And we think this is political theater, that it is an intimidation tactic, and that it is immoral.

AMY GOODMAN: Brentin Mock, you were just here in Tampa. You have been covering the voting rights in the Republican platform. And if you could talk about Rick Scott today, the trajectory from him today backwards to Ken Blackwell in Ohio in 2004, the interview you just heard here on Democracy Now!

BRENTIN MOCK: Well, I mean, I think we hear Florida Governor Rick Scott trying to pull off a lot of the same things that Ken Blackwell pulled off in 2004. You know, this is a democracy. We’re all supposed to be in this together. And I think the kinds of laws that Florida Governor Rick Scott has passed and championed have stood in the way of democratic participation.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is happening right now in the Republican national platform that is being passed here in Tampa?

BRENTIN MOCK: Yeah, well, the voter ID language that was in—that was already in their platform from 2008, which basically was an endorsement for a strict photo voter ID law, has this year been expanded to include now an endorsement of proof of citizenship for first-time voters. That means, if you happen to be walking down the street and the NAACP is having a voter registration drive—you’ve never voted before—you can go up to their booth, fill out an application, but if you don’t have some kind of document that proves that you are a citizen of the United States, then—guess what—you can’t register to vote. And, I mean, this is a rather draconian measure that has been added.

It was ushered in by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and Kris Kobach would make Ken Blackwell look like a smurf, basically. I mean, Kobach is the author and the architect of not only some of the strictest photo voter ID laws in the country, but he’s also the architect of some of the strictest immigration laws in the country, notably the laws in Arizona and Alabama. And Kris Kobach has been known to also fraternize and work with a number of tea party groups and other, you know, groups that have a reputation for voter intimidation, such as True the Vote. And so, basically what we’re seeing is a vertical integration of right-wing groups that are trying to make it tougher for people to not only vote at the booth, but just to register to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your exposé, True the Vote. Who is this organization?

BRENTIN MOCK: Yeah, so, I mean, True the Vote is a dangerous right-wing organization which is seeking to train a million people for what they’re calling a “poll-watching network,” although it sounds a lot more like a poll-harassing network. Their whole agenda is basically to gather any tiny irregularity or mistake that’s made in the voting area and then chalk that up as voter fraud. They then take these cases or these incident reports of voter fraud, so-called voter fraud, and then they go to legislators and policymakers, lawmakers, and say, “Look, see, we have all these cases of voter fraud,” even if they are unsubstantiated accusations, and use that as a way to justify or push for restrictive voter—photo voter ID laws and other such laws, you know, that affect voter registration, early voting, and so on and so forth.

True the Vote, which is a tea party group, it’s just another name for a group out of Houston, where I’m at right now, called the King Street Patriots. They were successful in getting the photo voter—a very strict photo voter ID law passed here in Texas. And this is the strategy that they used. They went out in the 2010 elections, dispatched a few hundred of their volunteers, and again, very aggressive and obtrusive in the way that they did their poll monitoring. But also, they looked for any little tiny mistake or infraction that was made, reclassified it as fraud, sent it to the legislators. The legislators then used that as a premise to pass the photo voter ID law in Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the recent summit that was held this past weekend in Ohio?

BRENTIN MOCK: Sure. I mean, so, in Ohio this past Saturday, True the Vote had a state summit, what—you know, they go around to various states and have what they call these state summits, basically recruitment tools, meetings that they have where they bring in a number of, you know, far-right-wing individuals from far-right-wing organizations to talk about—or, rather, drum up and lionize cases of so-called voter fraud. You know, they’ll inflate myths around groups like ACORN and then, again, like use that basically as a recruitment tool for people to come in and volunteer with their network. And they had one a couple of weeks ago in Colorado.

And just this past weekend, they had one in Ohio, which featured the former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who we just heard from. It also featured Tom Fitton from the organization Judicial Watch, who I just heard Ken Blackwell name-drop. Fitton has come to these True the Vote organizations and has said that President Barack Obama stole the election in 2008, and he’s planning to do it again in 2012 with the help of the, quote-unquote, “illegal alien” vote and also the, quote-unquote, “food stamp army.” The current secretary of state of Ohio, Jon Husted, was a scheduled speaker this past weekend at the True the Vote Ohio summit, to speak actually right before Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch. Shortly before that summit, our story at ColorLines and The Nation came out, basically exposing the voter intimidation network that True the Vote has amassed over the past few years. And the morning of the summit, Secretary of State Husted pulled out as a speaker. He did not attend. I yesterday spoke with his office about the reasons why he pulled out of the event, and they said it was due to a schedule change. They would not elaborate with me on more details about what actually changed the schedule.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the states that’s recently passed a strict voter identification law is Wisconsin, home of Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan and Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus. Wisconsin’s law would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID before casting ballots. It’s been struck down by two judges, but Wisconsin’s attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, has petitioned the state Supreme Court to overrule the lower court decisions and reinstate the law before the November elections. Democracy Now! caught up with Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin Monday here in Tampa at the convention center and asked him what he thinks of voter ID laws in Wisconsin and other states.

SEN. RON JOHNSON: I’m a big supporter of voter ID. I mean, you need an ID to, you know, fly an airplane. It’s not an onerous requirement. Almost, I think, all of those states, if you don’t have an ID, they’ll provide one to you for free. I think it’s just a basic right, in terms of voting, that your vote isn’t canceled by an illegal vote. And I think it’s just perfectly reasonable to simply ask people to make sure you prove that you are a legitimate voter.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson here at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Reverend McKenzie, your response to both the issue of True the Vote and what Johnson has just said?

REV. CHARLES McKENZIE: Well, I would think that, in very real terms, this is nothing more than interposition and nullification when it comes to these secretaries of state and other entities refusing to follow the court’s decisions and trying to push it up to another level. It’s the same kind of tactics that were used during the '60s to prevent civil rights laws from being fully implemented. This is one of the most egregious assaults on voting rights laws that we've seen in this country in perhaps five to six decades. It is absolutely disgusting.

News 21—I think you’re familiar with that organization—recently did research of some 2,000 supervisor of elections offices in the country over about a 10-year span, and they said that this so-called impersonation that is the heart of this fraud claim that Republicans have come up with, that kind of incident occurs one in maybe 15 million. It’s virtually nonexistent. This is disingenuous. I’m not surprised at all that Ken Blackwood, I believe—

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Blackwell.

REV. CHARLES McKENZIE: Ken Blackwell, who was the former secretary of the Ohio—secretary of state for the state of Ohio, has gotten on this bandwagon. I tell people often, when they say to me, “Well, you know, there are African Americans who support these kinds of things,” well, we had over 100,000 African Americans who fought during the Civil War with the Confederacy against their own freedom. So now that we have a small army of African Americans who are self-seeking, who are being disingenuous, and not surprising at all. We’ve always had people who put their self-interests above the interests of the group and the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we end this segment, I would be remiss if we didn’t go back to Brentin Mock just to ask about the situation where you live in New Orleans. You’ve evacuated. You’re now in Houston. Talk about how the city is preparing for—well, it’s expected Hurricane Isaac will make landfall tomorrow morning, very frightening on this anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

BRENTIN MOCK: Yes. Well, I was in Tampa to cover the Republican National Convention for ColorLines and The Nation. And the day that I arrived, the mayor of New Orleans declared a state of an emergency. Governor Bobby Jindal followed through, as well. My wife is in New Orleans. She was in New Orleans at the time. She suffered through Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav. And so, I rushed back to be by her side and to make sure that she was able to evacuate safely.

Right now, I think the major concern should be with, you know, all of the people in New Orleans who suffer from all of the tragedies and the—and, you know, PTSD and other emotional disorders based off of that tragic experience of Hurricane Katrina, which was, you know, the worst disaster that this nation has ever experienced.

Also, I want to also point out the—all of the fisherfolk along the coast, particularly in Plaquemines Parish, which is right below New Orleans. These are communities that go back decades, where you have African-American fishermen who have lived off of the Gulf, who provide a lot of the seafood for a lot of the seafood restaurants and grocery stores. And they’ve had their homes and their boats wiped out every time a major hurricane comes through, and also from the BP oil disaster, which happened in 2010. And so, you can read a lot of the stories of those fisherfolk in bridgethegulfproject.org. Again, these are people along the coast who, again, lose their lives, lose their livelihoods, almost every year, you know, when these disasters come through. So, our concerns are with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will continue to follow certainly what is happening in New Orleans. Brentin Mock, thanks so much for being with us. You have had a really rough few days, as you’ve raced from Tampa to New Orleans, now evacuated to Houston, a journalist reporting with the ColorLines.com and The Nation magazine. His latest piece is called—his latest piece, we will link to at democracynow.org. Reverend Charles McKenzie, thanks so much for being with us.

REV. CHARLES McKENZIE: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to cover the protest you have today at 5:00 here in Tampa for voter rights. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to the Corries in Haifa to talk about the verdict in the Rachel Corrie killing. Stay with us.

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