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Election Protection Force Fights Voter Suppression: Racist Poll Workers, Vigilantes, Missing Ballots

StoryNovember 08, 2022
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We speak to Damon Hewitt, the head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is spearheading nationwide efforts to protect the vote in Tuesday’s midterm elections. Republicans at the national and state levels have tried to disqualify thousands of absentee and mail-in ballots in an effort to swing close races in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Hewitt describes how litigation has become a major part of the election process, given the increased number of election deniers and white supremacists who now hold positions as election officials. “When the casualness of racism is weaponized in the electoral process, that leads to voter suppression if we don’t stand up,” says Hewitt, who cautions that the final election results in Tuesday’s midterms may take a couple of days. He suggests people report problems to the Election Protection hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We are continuing our midterm election coverage. And again, tune in tonight at 9 p.m. for our three-hour election special at democracynow.org, or watch if your station, wherever you are, is broadcasting the show.

We end today’s show looking at Election Protection efforts in the 2022 midterm election. In Georgia, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center won a victory late Monday after suing Cobb County, which includes Atlanta, for accepting voters’ applications for absentee ballots, then failing to mail those ballots to hundreds of absentee voters. The ACLU asked a judge to require the county to send ballots by overnight mail and extend the state’s deadline to return them. Georgia has two of the most closely watched races in the country: Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock versus the Trump-backed Herschel Walker, and the gubernatorial race between Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Democratic voting rights activist Stacey Abrams.

Election workers have also faced threats around the country. Reuters has documented more than a hundred violent threats faced by election workers in Arizona’s Maricopa County in the run-up to today’s election, including, quote, “menacing emails and social media posts, threats to circulate personal information online and photographing employees arriving at work.”

Meanwhile, Republicans at the national and state levels are also trying to disqualify thousands of absentee and mail-in ballots in an effort to swing close races in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which coordinates a national nonpartisan Election Protection coalition. They have an Election Protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE.

Damon Hewitt, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what Election Protection means, including the emergency litigation you’ve just filed in Texas challenging voter intimidation practices at a historically Black polling site in Beaumont.

DAMON HEWITT: Well, thanks so much, Amy, for your coverage.

So, the Election Protection coalition came together after the debacle in the 2000 election. A number of organizations came together to develop a program, an entire cohesive approach to how we can stand in the breach to protect voters. So, we have the hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, which is active right now. In fact, it’s active 365 days a year, that voters can call. And when voters can report problems or ask questions — but when they report problems, we can deploy lawyers to act. And sadly, this is necessary, because, as you see in Georgia and Arizona, whether it is problems in the fundamental apparatus of simply getting out mail-in ballots or whether it’s people with weapons menacing people at the polls, these things require action.

Just last night in Beaumont, Texas, we had to file a lawsuit in federal district court just to address the fact that in a particular polling place white poll workers were menacing, harassing and turning away, improperly, Black voters. We had people submit affidavits indicating that they had poll workers standing over them as they were completing their ballots, so that they could see exactly how they were voting. Some people were turned away improperly. It was so bad, Amy, that Black poll workers at the same site had to submit affidavits complaining about the white poll workers. And so, it just shows that when the casualness of racism is weaponized in the electoral process, that leads to voter suppression if we don’t stand up.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of this unprecedented situation here, as we saw in Arizona and we may see in other places, of people standing at drop boxes with guns as people are dropping off their ballots, what’s your sense of how this can be prevented? Because by the time the challenge goes into court, hours may have passed, and already people may have been dissuaded from voting.

DAMON HEWITT: Well, that’s exactly right. You know, the legal process last night worked for us because we did get a favorable court order. The presiding election poll worker, or poll election judge, as they call it, in that county in Texas will be removed, and the others have been banned from those practices that are discriminatory.

But sometimes the legal process takes more time than we have on Election Day. And so, that’s why it’s so important that we have both deterrent and prophylactic effect. Part of the deterrent is our volunteers. We have over 11,000 volunteers just for this cycle, attorneys who have been trained to take these calls. We have partners on the ground in various communities, including lawyers ready to fan out as needed. But also, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is sending monitors to 24 different states. That’s part of the prophylactic.

But at the end of the day, we also need the chief election officials at the state and local level, your secretaries of state, your county boards of elections, to actually do the right thing. And the more that these are coopted by people who actually want to disrupt the process in a discriminatory or unhealthy or nondemocratic way, then we’re in trouble.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, it’s not just what happens before or on Election Day, but then in the counting process, as well, the tabulation of the votes. And there are expectations that there will be much more controversy and legal battles during the — either challenging votes or the process of counting votes. How are you preparing for that?

DAMON HEWITT: Well, we’re preparing for it just the way we did in 2020. We learned a lot of lessons. After the 2020 Election Day, we actually participated at the Lawyers’ Committee in 15 post-election lawsuits where there were people who were trying to overturn the legitimate results of valid elections. And so, we know that this type of election threat is persistent. We’ve been partnering with other organizations, legal organizations, to get ready for that. And it’s really a matter of understanding state law in all of the hot-button, high-impact states where we think this activity is likely to happen. But we have heard so many claims and fears and even plans from those who want to disrupt democracy, who say, “We want to disrupt the vote count,” or that they intend to challenge absentee or mail votes.

And, you know, Americans have to be prepared. I want the audience to know that elections can take time. You may not know the results in your jurisdiction tonight. You may not know the results even for the federal balance of power in Congress for a few days, because in some states the poll workers can’t even start the canvassing process, the process of counting the mail, absentee or even provisional ballots, until after election night is over, until the polls are closed. So, these things take time. And there probably will be some litigation, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the lawsuit that the senatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, has just filed. On Monday, he filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to have mail-in ballots be counted even if they’re undated or improperly dated. Republicans have sued to disqualify thousands of mail-in ballots, as you’ve mentioned, in key swing states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. Specifically in Pennsylvania, I mean, we’re talking about how you write — if you put in the date on the envelope that contains your ballot, if it’s improperly dated, if it’s there at all, and the Republicans are attempting to disqualify thousands of these.

DAMON HEWITT: Yeah, it’s just — it’s basically, you know, a very simple, quote-unquote, “rule,” but also another one of these devious methods to try to make it either harder for people to vote or to make sure that even if you vote, that your vote doesn’t count. And I think that’s the new frontier, Amy. It’s not just voter suppression before you get to the polling place; as you said, it’s after you’ve cast your ballot, as well. They’re trying to block off all of these means.

And so, hopefully, the litigation to free the vote, to allow people’s votes to be counted, will be successful on a nonpartisan basis. These battles are always framed as Democrats versus Republicans, Republicans versus Democrats. But who gets stuck in the middle are Black voters, are young voters who are first-time voters especially, and also elderly voters. They’re people who are most likely to not fill out that one little piece of information, that date, or to maybe think, “Oh, they want my date of birth,” or to be distracted by your kids and scribble scratch in a way that may not be legible. It really shouldn’t matter. And so, the litigation is designed to make sure that the voters’ intent is actually honored, respected and held high.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering your evaluation of the tactic of President Trump, his supporters in the MAGA movement, to have those who support their viewpoints vote in person on Election Day as opposed to voting by mail, which makes it possible to do mass challenges of mail-in ballots. It also means that their votes get counted first and then create a sort of a perception of who’s the actual winner. The possibility that more and more of the country is developing and that Democrats mostly vote by mail and Republicans vote in person?

DAMON HEWITT: Well, it’s Bizarro World, because pre-pandemic, for Black voters, whom I’ve served — you know, we’ve served throughout our career and our organization’s career over 60 years here, we know that Black voters, pre-pandemic, tended to vote in person — Souls to the Polls, for example, during early voting on the Sunday. And so, the idea was that during the pandemic there were more avenues open. So, all of a sudden, when Black folks, Brown folks start voting by mail, all of a sudden it becomes a problem for a political party or a problem for those who want to suppress their vote.

And so, you know, every pathway to voting should be open to everyone, regardless of race, creed or political party. That includes mail voting and absentee voting. And so, you know, the idea that one could or should discredit somehow a particular pathway to voting is absolutely ridiculous. It’s almost as if they’re trying to racialize, somehow, mail-in voting, as if it’s something —

AMY GOODMAN: Damon Hewitt, we’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you so much for being with us, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Election Protection hotline is 866-OUR-VOTE, if anyone has any trouble. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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