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Equal Voting Rights Still In Question in 2009

Cross-Posted at Project Vote's Voting Matter's Blog

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

by Erin Ferns

After the voters spoke last November by turning out in record numbers, we enter a new year with a new president and multiple new agendas for election administration in the states that bring both excitement and concern from voting rights advocates. Whether the discussion is about  upholding the landmark Voting Rights Act, the disenfranchisement that comes with voter ID, or even the distribution of provisional ballots, the conclusion remains the same: we should work to protect and facilitate every eligible citizens' right to vote, not impede it.

In spite of our advances as a nation, the New York Times argues that we still face political and racial tensions, necessitating protections guaranteed under a currently challenged section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Saturday editorial writes on the origin of the law, particularly Section 5, which was explicitly written to halt voter suppression tactics that were brazenly used to “stop blacks from voting or being elected to office.” The law, reauthorized by Congress in 2006, is being challenged by a municipal utility district in Texas that argues that Section 5  of the law “is unconstitutional, and…imposes too many burdens on jurisdictions covered by it.”

“Discrimination against minority voters may not be as blatant as it was then, but it still exists,” the Times wrote. “District lines are drawn to prevent minorities from winning; polling places are located in places hard for minority voters to get to; voter ID requirements are imposed with the purpose of suppressing the minority vote.”

Meanwhile Voter ID, a leading election issue that also disproportionately disadvantages minority voters, is facing debate in at least 12 state legislatures this year, including Alabama and Minnesota.

The recently introduced “Voter Integrity Act of 2009,” a photo ID bill, brings warnings from Minnesota voting rights advocates who claim the law is at best unnecessary and, at worst, a deterrent for voters, according to local broadcast news outlet, KARE 11.

“There is no evidence of voter fraud in Minnesota,” said Dan McGrath, Executive Director from Take Action Minnesota. “On November 4 we received calls from people who couldn't figure out what they needed to register to vote. If this [bill] is passed I think it will make an already confusing process more confusing…and will make it difficult for the elderly and other's who don't have a driver's license.”

Despite the lack of evidence of voter fraud in the state, bill author, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Delano) attempted to justify the risk of disenfranchising voters by saying “every law that has to do with voting will inconvenience someone in some way.” he said.

Allegations of “voter fraud” are not only used to create unnecessary and potentially harmful laws like voter ID, but also to undermine efforts to facilitate voter participation like Same Day Registration, which, studies show, can increase voter turnout by as much as 10 percent.

Last fall, Ohio implemented a new procedure that allowed voters to register and cast in-person absentee ballots during the early voting period, a procedure that Hamilton County, Ohio Prosecutor Joe Deters alleged to be rife with voter fraud. However, the allegation was recently found to be a grossly misreported and highly partisan effort to negate legitimate votes, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer on Tuesday.

Deters, “who was Southwest Ohio regional chairman of Republican John McCain's presidential campaign” had “specifically asked at that time that more than 600 votes cast between Sep. 30 and Oct. 6 – the 'golden week' – be investigated because of the allegations of widespread voter fraud.”

“Ultimately…the investigators discovered `get-out-the-vote' practices, sponsored by community organizations, which took full advantage of this unique absentee-voting period, but no evidence these practices violated Ohio law,” according to a report by Special Prosecutor Michael O'Neill.

And, “the only criminal case stemming from Deters allegations of widespread voter fraud last fall was against a Connecticut man,” who ended up turning himself in, the Enquirer wrote.

Ohio remains in election-related news not just for voter fraud myths and Same Day Registration battles, but for its “inaccurate voter-registration lists and a needlessly confusing voter-identification law” that cause the state to rely too much on “potentially disputed” provisional ballots, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.

Provisional ballots, given to voters who find that they are not enrolled to vote at their polling place, were publicly scrutinized during the 2008 presidential election for the uneven treatment across the states. “In 2004, 1.9 million provisional ballots were cast nationwide, of which 676,000 weren't counted,”according to an October 2008 Wall Street Journal report. “In the 2006 election, 20% of the 800,000 provisional ballots were discarded.”

“No election will ever reach perfection, and it is difficult to envision a battleground state such as Ohio escaping lawsuits given the scrutiny that has grown common since the 2000 presidential meltdown,” the Beacon Journal editorializes. “But in the end, reducing the number of provisional ballots is not just about avoiding lawsuits, although that's a worthy goal. It's about making the system as user-friendly as possible, expanding turnout even beyond what Barack Obama achieved last year.”


Quick Links:

In Other News:

Perry delivers speech to Legislature – Associated Press
…Perry said he agrees with Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on requiring more voter identification…

Early option for polls gets Gov. Henry's vote – The Oklahoman
Oklahoma voters should have more time to take part in early voting, Gov. Brad Henry said Wednesday.

LAWRENCE: Felons' voting rights debated – The Princeton Packet [N.J.]
Charles Holman has a simple request. He wants to register to vote.

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