by Ari Berman, The Nation
There are so many different voting problems in this election, it’s difficult to keep track. In Texas, voters are wrongly being asked to show strict photo ID to cast a ballot. In North Carolina, voters are being purged from the rolls and early-voting locations have been cut. In Wisconsin, voters are being turned away from the DMV without getting voter IDs and polling places have been denied on college campuses. In Ohio, thousands of ballots could be thrown out because of minor technical errors.
On top of all this, Donald Trump is working his supporters into a frenzy by claiming the election is rigged and recruiting poll watchers to “Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!” His white-nationalist allies, including neo-Nazis and Klan members, say they’re planning to deploy thousands of poll watchers to urban areas. And Trump adviser Roger Stone is sending volunteers to nine Democratic cities with large minority populations, like Cleveland and Las Vegas.
The question I’m asked more than any other is: What can be done to protect voting rights? This question is more salient than at any time since 1965, since this is the first presidential election in 50 years without the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Fortunately, the GOP’s campaign to suppress the vote is being combated by a vigorous effort to defend voting rights.
The Election Protection coalition, spearheaded by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, is running the 866-Our-Vote hotline, which is a great resource for voters who experience problems at the polls. Election Protection will have 22 nationwide call centers fielding questions from voters and an on the ground presence in 26 states, with 5,000 lawyers and 3,000 organizers deployed nationwide. More than 120 organizations are part of the coalition, from the NAACP to the National Association of Latino Election Officials to the Arab-American Institute.
“The fact that this is the first presidential election cycle without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act makes it extra important for us to be on the ground, making sure voters have the information they need to cast a ballot but if there are problems, having people to address the issue,” says Chris Melody Fields, manager of legal mobilization at the Lawyers Committee.
Here are some groups in the Election Protection coalition that were recommended to me by voting rights advocates: VoteRiders and Project Vote are helping people obtain voter IDs. Local chapters of national groups like the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and the ACLU have been very active on the ground. State-based groups have been incredibly important in the fight for voting rights, including State Voices, Democracy North Carolina, New Florida Majority, New Virginia Majority, and Arizona Advocacy Network.
In addition to these nonpartisan efforts, the DNC is suing the RNC and GOP state parties in Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania to stop coordinated voter-intimidation efforts, which are prohibited by a consent decree against the GOP dating back to the 1980s. The lawsuits say the Trump campaign, RNC, and GOP state parties are violating the VRA and Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 by “conspiring to threaten, intimidate, and thereby prevent minority voters in urban neighborhoods from voting in the 2016 election.”
Voter intimidation efforts are especially concerning this year because the gutting of the Voting Rights Act “severely curtailed” the Justice Department’s ability to send federal election observers to areas with a long history of discrimination, according to Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Now the DOJ can dispatch observers only to areas where there’s a specific court order authorizing them. Thirty-two thousand federal observers have monitored elections since the VRA passed, and in 2012 the DOJ sent 780 federal observers and personnel to 51 jurisdictions in 23 states, including cities like Cleveland, Dallas, and Phoenix. In 2016, the DOJ will send federal observers to only seven counties in Alaska, California, Louisiana, and New York, according to press reports.
The DOJ says it’ll make up for the loss of federal observers by sending lawyers and other staff as election monitors in roughly half the states in the country. “But unlike the specially trained election observers, monitors are not allowed inside unless local election officials invite them,” The New York Times reports.
The federal observer program was one of the most important and little-known parts of the VRA, writes Julie Fernandes, director for voting rights at the Open Society Policy Center and a former deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights:
There are countless examples of the federal observer program being used to protect voters from racial discrimination at the polls. In 2012, federal observers monitoring an election in Shelby County, Alabama, documented the closing of doors on African-American voters before the voting hours were over, as well as voting officials using racial epithets to describe voters. That same year, observers were sent to Alameda and Riverside Counties in California to gather information regarding reports of serious failures to provide language assistance to voters who needed it. In 2011, a federal court relied on observer reports to conclude that Sandoval County, New Mexico, had effectively disenfranchised members of the Keres tribe. In 2010, during the early voting period in Harris County, Texas, federal observers documented intimidation and harassment targeting Latino and African-American voters by an organized, well-funded Texas-based organization with clear partisan electoral goals. And during a primary election in Grenada, Mississippi in 1999, white poll watchers showed up at polling sites with cameras that were used to take pictures of black voters who needed assistance casting their ballots, in an effort to intimidate them. Thankfully, as soon as these individuals found out that there were federal observers monitoring the election, they exited the polling site.
At a time when there’s the greatest threat to voting rights since 1965, the federal government has the fewest tools at its disposal to protect the right to vote. That makes the work of groups like Election Protection all the more important.