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Suppressing the vote by hook and crook

Just weeks before Election Day, a federal judge ordered Georgia election officials to stop trashing absentee ballots because of mismatched signatures. A state law had recently been introduced in Georgia requiring an exact match between voter registration applications and driver or Social Security records. A dropped hyphen, initial, or letter in an ID could suspend a citizen from voting Nov. 6.

Until the order was issued, more than 53,000 voter applications, most from minorities and immigrants, had been summarily tossed due to the extreme verification process. According to Associated Press, the list of suspended voter registrations is nearly 70 percent black, a severe and suspicious racial disparity given that Georgia’s population is approximately 32 percent black, according to the U.S. Census.

In North Dakota, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a state law requiring voters to bring proof of residential address in order to vote. Typically, rural tribal lands are without named and numbered roads. The law, according to news reports, specifically aims to suppress American Indians from turning out to the polls. Tribal leaders and other groups are fighting to bring maps to voting sites in order for voters to visually identify and provide their addresses, which will then be officially confirmed by tribal representatives.

Community activists say the residence requirement amounts to a bid by North Dakota Republicans to prevent the re-election of Democratic incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who won by a slim margin of votes in 2012. Some analysts suggest that the court decision could cost Heitkamp, a strong supporter of Native American rights, the election.

In these and other states across the nation, voter suppression has become a Republican Party tactic targeting low income communities, minorities, and immigrants.

Eligible Voters Blocked

As head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama, Tom Perez sued states that tried to block eligible voters from the ballot box.

“Democrats believe that our democracy works best when more people participate, not fewer,” said Perez, in an editorial for CNBC. “And whether it’s in North Carolina, Ohio, or Washington, we will hold Republican leaders accountable.”

Perez, who is chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that these and similar tactics “only serve to discourage Americans from exercising their constitutional rights, especially people of color.”

In North Carolina, republicans are using their supermajority in the state legislature to make voting harder for blacks. In June, the state general assembly voted 74-44 to move forward with a renewed voter ID bill that could force voters to produce photo identification in order to cast a ballot.

North Carolina’s last voter ID law, passed in 2013 and considered one of the most egregious of its kind in the country, did not allow student IDs or public employee IDs. During the 2016 election, a significant number of college students were blocked from the polls because of the law.

Suppression with Impunity

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

In Texas, one of the states named, it was announced shortly after the decision that a voter identification law that had been blocked would go into effect immediately, and that redistricting maps there would no longer need federal approval. Changes in voting procedures in the places that had been covered by the law, including ones concerning restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.

Another state named in the Court’s decision was Georgia, where the consequences of that ruling are being felt this campaign season. For example, before the October 24 federal ruling, hundreds of absentee ballots had been thrown out in Gwinnett County because of signature discrepancies, new addresses, and minor errors such as filling in the wrong date on the registration envelope.

A law suit filed by civil rights organizations, which prompted the ruling, argued that nonexpert election officials were allowed to judge and interpret the validity of signatures, ballot envelope data, and other information without giving voters the chance to contest the decisions.

Voter suppression took another form in Jefferson County where county officials blocked an advocacy group from driving a group of elderly voters from a county-run senior center to the polls for early voting. Officials said political activity is not allowed on county property during business hours.

The close race for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp has amplified the strict “exact match” law given that Kemp is the Georgia secretary of state in charge of elections and responsible for enforcing the state’s restrictive voter laws. Abrams is a former state lawmaker and voting rights advocate who founded the New Georgia Project with the goal of registering more minority voters. Although Kemp has accused the organization of improper registration practices, an investigation found no wrongdoing, according to news reports.

Signs of Hope

In June, a national progressive organization filed a lawsuit against Missouri’s voter ID law on behalf of a 70-year-old woman. The suit was filed by Priorities USA, a Democratic-aligned group that advocates for voting rights and works to identify “opportunities for progressives to stand up to the Republican agenda,” according to its website.

Under the law, people without photo ID may still cast ballots if they sign a sworn statement attesting that they do not possess the required documents. Historically, the Republican Party’s campaign to use photo ID requirements was presented as a way to deter fraud. However, Missouri’s ID rules — and similar ones adopted in other states — are intended to deter voting by blacks, poor people and other groups that are less likely to have driver’s licenses, according to media reports.

A ballot measure in Florida (Amendment 4) could restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation. Currently, people with prior felonies never regain the right to vote in Florida, until and unless a state board restores an individual’s voting rights.

Further north, a federal judge in Indiana recently blocked state election officials’ plans to purge voters before the November election because they may be registered in another state.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis granted an injunction that stops a new state law that would have removed thousands of voters off the rolls based on a database that compares names with registered voters in other states.

Pratt said in her ruling that the harm to wrongly purged voters far outweighs any possible harm to Indiana election officials seeking to protect the integrity of the process.

Voters, Pratt said, “face the imminent and irrevocable consequence of disenfranchisement of thousands of Indiana voters, only months before a federal election.”

Jane Henegar, executive director of the Indiana ACLU, told the IndyStar.com that election officials should promote voter engagement.

“Voting is our constitutional right,” Henegar said in a statement, “and we must ensure every voice is heard.”

By John Rosales

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