22 September 2014

Just as local cities have adopted environmental and wage laws that exceed
federal standards, maybe it's time for local initiatives protecting the
sanctity of the vote. We've been seeing electoral abuses and manipulations
since the Bush administration took power. So we need to ensure the Democrats
make national electoral protection a priority. But we can also act on a
local level.

Though the Democratic surge took back the Senate and House, some ugly
actions quite likely shifted several close Congressional races. The poster
race for this election's abuses, appropriately, is Catherine Harris's old
Congressional district in Sarasota, FL. Whether through manipulation or
error, electronic voting machines in that district logged 18,000 fewer votes
in this neck-and-neck congressional race than for governor or senator, and
fewer than wholly uncontroversial down-ballot races like the Sarasota Public
Hospital Board. Whatever the causes, these votes disappeared in a county
that Democrat Christine Jennings carried by 53 percent, and would have
likely allowed her to defeat Republican Vern Buchanan.

Harris's district saw more than just voting machine problems. In the
Jennings/Buchanan election as in over 50 key races throughout the country,
Republicans called voters again and again with automated robocalls that led
with the name of the Democratic candidate, and then followed with scurrilous
attacks. Because voters tend to hang up on these harassing calls as soon as
they begin, or delete them from answering systems, many assumed they were
coming from the Democrats, so switched their votes in anger. Volunteers all
over the country heard people say they'd never vote for Democratic
candidates, they were so furious at the presumed source of this harassment.
As a Venice, Florida, man wrote to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, "So
Christine Jennings lost by 368 votes. I think I can tell her why. She should
sit at home and have the telephone ring twice a day, at lunch and dinner
time, for two or three weeks, and then decide if she should vote for the
person doing the calling."

In Maryland, the Democrats won, but Republicans bused in homeless men from
Philadelphia to hand out fliers in black neighborhoods featuring photographs
of former Congressman Kweisi Mfume and Prince Georges County executive Jack
Johnson. "Ehrlich-Steele Democrats," proclaimed the flier, and announced:
"These are OUR Choices," as if Mfume and Johnson had endorsed Republican
gubernatorial and senatorial candidates, Robert Ehrlich and Michael Steele.
Since both Mfume and Johnson unequivocally supported their fellow Democrats,
it was a blatant lie, as were the accompanying fliers headlined "Democratic
Sample Ballot" with boxes checked in red promoting Ehrlich and Steele.

These weren't the only abuses. Republican-linked calls in various states
gave misleading information on polling locations or told legitimate voters
that they were registered in other states so would be arrested if they
voted. A letter to Latino voters in Orange County, CA threatened jail to all
immigrants who voted, ignoring that many were naturalized citizens. In
Tucson, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund photographed
armed men attempting to prevent Hispanic voters from entering polling
places. In Texas, a federal judged stopped Republican Attorney General Greg
Abbott from prosecuting 13 largely elderly Democrats who took sealed
absentee ballots from their friends to place in mail boxes. The abuses
probably weren't on the level of 2000 or 2004, in part because of major
coordinated voter protection efforts where citizens monitored the polls and
had lawyers on call for instant intervention. But they were substantial
enough to have probably diminished the margin of their victory.

To prevent similar future abuses, Barack Obama's Deceptive Practices and
Voter Intimidation Prevention Act would make it a felony to give
deliberately misleading information on the time, date or location of
elections, or about voter eligibility. New Jersey Congressman and former
Princeton physicist Rush Holt has offered the Voter Confidence and Increased
Accessibility Act, mandating a verifiable paper trail for all election
machines, requiring random audits to ensure ballots are properly counted,
and banning wireless connections to make machines less vulnerable to
hacking. Holt's bill had a majority of House members supporting it even
before the past election, and should have an irrefutable additional argument
with the meltdown of the machines in the Jennings/Buchanan race (not to
mention the inability of Republicans to do comprehensive recounts in states
like Virginia, where most machines lacked a paper trail). An even stronger
alternative would be Dennis Kucinich's HB 6200, mandating paper ballots hand
counted at the precinct level.

The Democrats need to do all they can to pass this legislation. They also
need to ensure that that new state and federal voter identification laws
don't disenfranchise poor and minority voters, as seems to be their frequent
intent, and that abuses like the misleading robocalls carry the maximum
possible penalties (which might mean outlawing robocalls of all kinds). In
the process, they can hold visible hearings on the entire Republican legacy
of purged voters, tossed provisional ballots, and voting machines pulled
from key Democratic districts. If the Republicans filibuster or Bush vetoes
these laws, citizens need to ensure the Democrats keep pressing the issue.

But just as local minimum wage and environmental ordinances often surpass
federal standards, we don't have to rely entirely on national efforts to
protect the vote. Because most of the areas targeted by voter suppression
attempts are urban and minority communities, Democratic mayors, county
executives and governors already control many of the key jurisdictions. They
just need to act on the potential power that they have.

Where useful local laws already exist, elected officials can use them to
hold the perpetrators of these abuses accountable for every instance. The
New Hampshire Attorney General's office already threatened the National
Republican Congressional Committee with prosecution under a state law
mandating $5,000 fines for each prerecorded calls to anyone on the national
do-not-call list. Activists now need to convince the state to prosecute the
NRCC for the 200,000 illegal calls they made before finally stopping-a suit
that would potentially bankrupt the NRCC if successful. Former Bush-Cheney
New England coordinator James Tobin has already been convicted for an
illegal phone-jamming operation during the 2002 New Hampshire Senate
campaign. Other states may be able to sue the NRCC and their allies as well.
Perhaps former Congressman Mfume and County Executive Johnson could even sue
the Republican creators of the leaflets that featured their picture-arguing
that this reckless disregard for the truth defames their good name by
implying they endorse politicians they diametrically oppose. Whether or not
these suits entirely succeed, they'd keep these profoundly antidemocratic
actions in the public eye.

Passing tough new local laws to protect the vote could create an immediate
check against voter suppression in a situation where the Bush administration
is unlikely to prosecute its own political allies. Since the election,
elected officials in Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and
Wisconsin have introduced bills to protect citizens from automated
robocalls. Michigan already had a bill on the agenda, and some Connecticut
legislators are reportedly interested. If state and local voter protection
laws were enacted before 2008, they could prove a major deterrent against
the kinds of abuses we've seen in the past several elections, ensuring their
perpetrators could be prosecuted no matter who won at the national level.

We still need strong national laws to safeguard elections in Republican
controlled states-Florida, for instance, has continued its voter purges, and
instituted draconian procedures and penalties that have made it virtually
impossible for groups like the League of Women Voters to even begin major
registration drives. But even in these situations, local initiatives can
mitigate disenfranchisement. In the most recent election, California's
since-defeated Republican Secretary of State Bruce McPherson tried to reject
40% of new registrants, primarily Democratic-leaning Hispanics, by claiming
they didn't match state databases. In response, the office of Los Angeles
mayor Antonio Villagarosa contacted those purged, verified their
information, and got almost all of them back on the rolls. Local officials
in Miami, Tampa, and Orlando could have done the same to challenge Jeb Bush
and Catherine Harris when they gave Bush his 2000 victory by knocking out
94,000 largely Democratic and minority voters for supposedly being
disenfranchised felons-a BBC follow-up found that 90 percent of those
scrubbed were legitimate voters. Officials in Cleveland and Columbus might
have countered Ken Blackwell's purging of 300,000 largely Democratic voters
in 2004, his pulling of voting machines from key urban neighborhoods, and
his refusal to count ballots cast in the wrong precincts. Strong local laws
and aggressive citizen oversight can counter electoral manipulation even
while the federal executive branch remains in the hands of a party that's
benefiting from its use.

Imagine if the Republicans risked jail for making misleading Robocalls into
Philadelphia or Cleveland, Houston, Miami, or Albuquerque, or for telling
voters they'd be arrested for voting while being behind on their rent.
Imagine if they ran this risk whether or not the Feds intervened. The
stronger the local laws, the more they could set a federal standard. The
recent election has created a window of opportunity to help protect the
vote, for now and in the future. Linking national and local protection
efforts could help ensure that this actually happens.


Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A
Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of
2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous
books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time.
See www.paulloeb.org To receive his monthly articles email
sympa@lists.onenw.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles

This article ran originally on www.thenation.com