The Republican fight against voter rights has garnered the lions share of press attention, but as The Nation reports, the fight for voting rights extends well beyond the fight over Voter ID and includes the fight over who gets to raise the question over who is eligible to vote.
In at least twenty-four states any random person is authorized, if they feel so inclined, to question individual voters and ask them to “prove” their eligibility to vote. As restrictive and complicated Voter ID laws have passed state-by-state, conservative groups have realized there’s good leveraging in voter registration challenges and poll watcher trainings.
Tea Party loyalists have created True the Vote, an advocacy group which pushes Voter ID laws and training “patriots” to protect the polls. But as a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, “Voter Challengers” spells out, these groups rely on American’s historical amnesia when it comes to race in order to promote their activities. Poll-watching can’t be divorced from its racially motivated roots, and groups like True the Vote understand that, even if they won’t acknowledge it.
“This history of discriminatory voter challenges casts doubt on the fraud-prevention arguments traditionally used to justify these laws,” writes Nicolas Riley, author of the Brennan Center report.
As it stands, thirty-nine states allow private citizens to challenge voters at the polls. According to the Brennan study, election officials in those states are “under immense time pressure to decide challenges quickly in order to avoid voting delays.” True the Vote is aware of this, but they put it differently, saying at a recent poll watcher training that election officials are “under immense pressure to do the wrong thing”—namely let undocumented immigrants vote, and let people vote multiple times.
As detailed in The Nation, even in 2012 voting restrictions are intimately tied to our collective history of racial segregation and discrimination.
In those states, people can make up a reason to challenge a voter’s rights without any evidence backing them up, and do so with impunity. It’s the same as when people drum up charges of voter fraud to pass voter ID bills and go unpunished when it’s revealed that no such fraud exists. You can’t fabricate a police report by saying you were mugged if you weren’t; you can’t file a false claim saying you lost possessions in a disaster. In both cases, you face jail and fines for bearing false witness, but not if you fabricate voter fraud or voter ineligibility in many states.
The Brennan report points out that South Carolina and Virginia allow people to challenge voters even if it’s nothing but a whim. Consider that both South Carolina and Virginia both have passed voter ID laws. In South Carolina, that law is currently being challenged in a federal court, where it was discovered that the law’s author Representative Alan Clemmons made racist comments about black voters in an e-mail while discussing how to pass the legislation.
Both states have strong True the Vote connections. In South Carolina, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Cibby Krell, is a True the Vote volunteer with the Spartanburg Tea Party. In Virginia, the Virginia Voters Alliance is a group that trains Tea Party groups in challenging voters while pressuring Virginia election officials to engage in reckless purging processes.
Like other forms of evolved and modern discrimination, poll watching has become more sophisticated. But that doesn’t make it any less toxic to our democracy.
Photo from DonkeyHotey via flickr.