July 17, 2008

A Bush League Zimbabwe

The electoral chaos in Florida during the 2000 presidential election has - aside from HBO's recent and excellent Recount - largely faded from the public mind. If, however, anyone believes that the problems underlying the Sunshine State's ballot have been resolved - or that they are even unique to Florida - they are sadly mistaken.

In this month's issue of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel has an excellent article on the need for electoral reform in the United States, and in it, she includes a list of some of the major obstacles to free, fair and truly representative elections in this country. Although news stories about the lack of participation among eligible adults in the U.S. appear nearly every election cycle, the broad assumption made within these reports that this lack of involvement stems solely from laziness and apathy appears to be highly simplistic. Unfortunately, while sloth and indifference are certainly contributing factors, there are a multitude of other more sinister barriers as well.

In June, for instance, the U.S. District Court of Northern Florida upheld the state's "no-match, no-vote" law, which allows county officials to reject new voter registration applications if the names on the forms do not match up with those in other state databases. The court ruled that the law does not penalize voters, even though database errors made by government employees - in addition to those made by the applicants themselves - can cause the improper rejection of registrations. With Florida's questionable use of voter purge lists 8 years ago under then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris, it is not hard to understand concerns over this ruling:
"Voters who do everything right, who submit forms that are complete, timely, and accurate, will suddenly find themselves unregistered when they go to vote, because someone somewhere slipped on a keyboard," Levitt said. "It's unjust and it's unnecessary."

"The most senseless part is that the state creates these errors, and then makes it unnecessarily hard to fix the problem," said Elizabeth Westfall of Advancement Project, another attorney for the plaintiffs. "You can't show a passport. You can't show a military ID. And though you can show your driver's license itself, it doesn't count if you show it at the polls - the very place where voters have to show a photo ID anyway."
Likewise, Indiana's new law requiring photo identification was upheld in time to turn way some students and several elderly nuns from primary voting in May.

At first blush, the idea that accuracy in voter roles is a pressing, or even important issue, might seem reasonable. The fact is, however, that voter fraud of any significance whatsoever is a complete myth. There is simply no empirical evidence at all that multiple votes, the use of a false identity to vote, or even that the names of dead voters are being used to stuff ballot boxes is occurring. Instead, these laws represent part of a campaign, largely by Republicans, to disenfranchise voting blocs like immigrants, minorities, the poor and the elderly, who often vote Democratic. In may ways however, these legislative efforts to exclude represent only the most visible element of the hidden war on voters.

In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) was passed into law with the intent of making voter registration easier and more accessible. The NVRA is perhaps best-known for its "Motor Voter" provision, which requires motor vehicle offices to offer voter registration to individuals renewing a driver's license, but the law also requires public assistance agencies to offer voter registration to clients and applicants. As it turns out however, many states aren't complying with the latter provision, and, unlike citizens who renew their licenses, people applying for Medicaid and Food Stamps aren't being registered to vote. While this might appear to be a less blatant means of keeping traditionally under-represented groups from the polls, the net effect is the same, and it must be remembered that this federal statute was enacted specifically to correct this problem.

Missouri, for instance, has seen the number of voter registrations originating with public assistance offices fall from almost 143,000 in 1993-1994, to less than 16,000 during the last election cycle, despite increases in both state population and participation in the Food Stamp program since that time. While the Missouri Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) successfully sued the state to ensure voting rights are maintained, the sheer scale of the state's de facto disenfranchisement efforts make it clear that it doesn't take explicit laws like Indiana's to have a profound effect on the composition of the electorate:
  • State documents confirming that over one million Food Stamps applicants could not have been offered voter registration from 2003-2008 because Missouri's Department of Social Services (DSS) did not order enough of the forms it is required to give each client. The court also viewed field surveys by plaintiffs of agency offices as persuasive evidence of poor compliance.

  • eMails from a DSS employee acknowledging that half the counties in a 21-county survey were not routinely providing voter registration to DSS clients.

  • eMails from one county DSS office showing that voter registration applications completed by clients had been permitted to pile up for an entire year without being turned in to the local election authority for processing.
Add to this the extensive and well-documented problems with the electronic voting machines that are being forced on wide swaths of the country, as well as new voter ID laws, and it is difficult to arrive at any other conclusion than that the fundamental right of Americans to representative government is being subverted - actively and passively - on a widespread basis. While things have clearly not degenerated into the type of outright voter intimidation witnessed in Zimbabwe, there is no escaping the fact that the United States has more in common with Robert Mugabe's personal fiefdom than we should want or hope.


lokywoky bitter & sad said...

The voter id meme to me is yet another indication of a far larger problem. The people in power (the so-called government) are profoundly distrustful of the citizenry. While the 'government' has given the people plenty of reasons to distrust it/them, the reverse is not true. However, the idea of transference (believing that everyone else is doing what you yourself are doing) fits here.

The government is performing all kinds of illegal, immoral and unjust acts (by government, I mean the particular people in political power) all the time. Every day a new scandal. The response?

Voter ID. Airport Security. NSA warrantless spying. Restrictions on the ability to sue for redress. On and On. New secret detention facilities.

Who is the enemy in the GWOT? To my jaundiced eye, it appears to be the citizens of the USA.

PBI said...

That's an excellent point, and I don't think your eye is all that jaundiced. It is indeed like the unfaithful spouse who believes his mate is having an affair because he is, and sees signs of infidelity everywhere.

That said, I'm not sure it's an issue entirely of trust. It seems to me that there is also a healthy dose of the good old fashioned desire to maintain power, wealth and influence interacting with a belief that if people really know what's going on, positions of advantage for certain people and groups will be taken away. (As it should be!)