Feb 4 / Erin Ferns Lee

Living the Past in the Present: Voter Intimidation Tactics Still Thrive in America

In observance of Black History month, it is fitting to revisit America’s less than stellar record in the ongoing effort to move toward true equality. The key to equality was recognized more than 100 years ago when newly freed African Americans were given the basic rights of citizenship and voting under the 14th and 15th Amendments, though it was not until the 1960s that equality for African Americans and other disadvantaged groups was finally acknowledged on both a legal and cultural scale with the passage of the cornerstone Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Yet citizens of color continue to be underrepresented in U.S. electorate, and as recently as 2008 have been the target of thinly veiled voter intimidation and suppression efforts.

Several federal voting laws, including the VRA and the National Voter Registration Act, were designed to protect citizens from being intimidated, threatened, or coerced from voting: tactics that, throughout history, have often been aimed at low-income and minority groups. According to a newly released Project Vote legislative brief on voter intimidation and caging, little has changed in terms of voter suppression targets, and tactics that skirt around the law are thriving. Where there were once literacy tests and polls taxes, there are now stealth misinformation tactics and “voter caging”—most commonly by sending non-forwardable mail to targeted populations in order to compile a list of voters to challenge at the polls on the basis of residency.

“Challenge laws are currently on the books in many states, although they were rarely utilized until the relatively recent ascendance of pre-election voter caging operations by Republican state and national entities,” according to 2007 Project Vote report by Teresa James, Caging Democracy: A 50-Year History of Partisan Challenges to Minority Voters. “The state challenge laws are racially neutral, but they can and have been widely used to disenfranchise minority voters.”

Between the 1980s and 1990s, minority voters were specifically targeted by the Republican National Committee in caging and voter intimidation efforts in several states. In 1981, the RNC and the New Jersey Republican Party sent a mass mailing to voters in predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods, from which a caging list of 45,000 voters were compiled based on returned mail. The RNC attempted to have the listed voters purged before the election. When the request was denied, the RNC announced plans to challenge those voters at the polls instead and used intimidation tactics, including the posting of off-duty law enforcement officials at polls in targeted areas and the placement of posters in heavily African American neighborhoods, warning that violating elections laws is a crime. Subsequently, the Democratic National Committee filed suit in the New Jersey court, contending that the RNC program harassed and intimidated African American and Latino voters, in violation of the VRA. In a settlement to the suit, the RNC entered into a consent decree, in which it agreed to refrain from discriminatory activities in their “ballot security” efforts.

However, the consent decree was modified in 1986 after a Louisiana case was brought forward, involving a caging operation and an RNC memo that said its caging program “’will eliminate at least 60,000 to 80,000 folks from the rolls…If it’s a close race…this could keep the black vote down considerably,’” according to the report. As a result of this case, the consent decree was tightened to require the RNC to obtain approval from the District Court before implementing a ballot security program.

Still, in 1990, the DNC filed suit against the RNC again, alleging it violated the N.J. consent decree by using voter suppression tactics against African American voters in North Carolina. The N.C. Republican Party had mailed misinforming postcards to 125,000-150,000 voters, 97 percent of which were African American. The cards had misinformed recipients for voter eligibility, warning of criminal penalties of voter fraud. While the RNC successfully defended itself against the DNC charges, alleging it was a state operation and therefore did not violate the N.J. consent decree, the Department of Justice stepped in and monitored the elections to ensure voters were not discriminated against.

“Between 2004 and 2006, the Republican National Committee challenged more than 77,000 Americans voters in targeted communities,” the new brief states. Threats of caging persisted just before the 2008 presidential election, when the Republican Party in Montana matched the statewide voter database with the USPS National Change of Address database and filed challenges against 6,000 voters in democratic strongholds, “even though Montana voters who have moved may legally vote in one election at their old precinct.” Similarly, partisan operatives in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio were allegedly planning to use lists of foreclosure victims to challenge them at the polls. Public backlash, lawsuits, or administrative action prevented such “foreclosure caging.”

According to the new brief, “a few states prohibit the abuse of state challenge laws through caging. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, for example, issued a 2008 directive that pointed out that the practice of granting a challenge based solely on returned mail violates the National Voter Registration Act. Minnesota, Rhode Island, and California have also passed legislation to prohibit the use of returned mail as grounds for challenging a voter’s eligibility. As part of this encouraging trend towards prohibiting partisan voter caging, an anti-caging bill is currently pending in both houses of Congress.”

“Voter intimidation, groundless challenges, and partisan caging are tactics that should be relics of another era. Yet they persist to an alarming degree,” the brief states.  In 2010, as we reflect on a both ugly and triumphant history, it is imperative for our nation’s leaders to set a precedent and truly rid our voting systems of these “unjust anomalies.”

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