November 1, 2004
Time to Stand up for Voting Rights - An Open Letter to the Attorney General
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Nearly four years ago, for the first and only time in our nation's history, the Supreme Court intervened to stop the counting of votes and anoint George W. Bush as President. Many American believe to this day that Mr. Bush's victory was premised on widespread and illegal minority voter disenfranchisement. In Florida alone, African-American voters were nearly 10 times as likely as whites to have their ballots discarded, thousands of minority voters were improperly purged from the voting lists, and numerous language minority voters were denied language assistance. I can think of no more fitting means to healing the scars from that dark time in our history than your using the full force and weight of your office to immediately and forcefully reaffirm our commitment to voting rights.
The evidence of the continuing threat to our citizen's voting rights is overwhelming and grows more serious every day:
* In Ohio, the Republican Party has gone to unprecedented lengths to put a system in place to question minority voters on election day. They have registered 3,600 individuals - concentrated in urban precincts -- to challenge the casting of votes on election day. The Republican Party also plans to target some 35,000 individuals - again disproportionately minority - for legal challenges based on mailing information, even though many of the individuals are homeless or serving in the military abroad.
* In Florida, the Republican Party has also created a hit list of predominantly black voters for targeting on election day. The Republican Secretary of State has rejected thousands of registration applications by new voters - again disproportionately minority - who inadvertently failed to check a citizenship box, even though they separately swear elsewhere in the form that they are citizens. The same Secretary of State was recently forced to abandon her secret plan to purge thousands of black voter from the voter rolls who are entitled to vote.
* In Wisconsin, a flyer is being circulated in African-American neighborhoods in Milwaukee containing numerous falsehoods and threatening individuals who vote with prison and the loss of their children. Republicans have also sought to challenge the registration of 5,600 mostly minority voters in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee.
It is no surprise that these incidents are taking place in hotly contested battleground states. What is surprising to me is that Republican operatives freely admit that their strategy is to suppress the minority vote. Republicans are also subject to three separate consent decrees concerning minority voter suppression, yet in Pennsylvania, the Republican Speaker of the House, John Perzel admitted that "it's important for me to keep [the African-American voter] number down." In Michigan, a Republican State Representative declared "if we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election."
As you are no doubt aware, these actions all violate the spirit, if not the letter of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits efforts to intimidate or suppress voting by minorities. This seminal act was enacted in response to years of Jim Crow prohibitions, and was only passed after national outrage over the murder of voter activists in Philadelphia, Mississippi and the unprovoked attack by state troopers on peaceful protestors in Selma, Alabama. If we backtrack on our nation's commitment to voting rights now, we will be doing a disservices to the many courageous Americans who fought and died so that we would all be able to cast our vote without fear of discrimination or recrimination.
To be blunt, this Administration's record on voting rights is a weak one. You overruled your staff in approving a Texas redistricting plan that undermined hundreds of thousands of Black and Hispanic voters. You dragged your feet in approving a Mississippi redistricting plan so that a federal court could replace it with another plan that impaired minority votes. You have brought fewer and less significant voting rights cases than any Justice Department since the adoption of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The non-partisan Government Accountability Act has found that your Department is not fully prepared to address voting irregularity problems in the upcoming elections.
Even at this late juncture in your tenure, you can take a huge step to help remove the taint of this record if you take actions to protect our precious right to vote. In the short term you can join the civil rights groups in seeking to prevent these suppression efforts before the election takes place. You can also make it abundantly clear that any action to suppress legitimate minority votes on election day will be immediately challenged and ultimately face criminal sanctions. This message should be forcefully conveyed to secretaries of state, political parties, poll challengers, and persons disseminating knowingly false voting information.
Your recent announcement increasing poll monitors is insufficient and potentially misleading. At a time when we face a veritable avalanche of evidence concerning voter suppression, you are diverting energy and resources responding to anecdotal and unproven allegations of voter fraud. This only gives succor to those who aim to depress minority voters. As a matter of fact, your enlistment of inexperienced U.S. Attorney offices to prevent fraud, violates your own regulations which insist that such investigations be deferred until after the election in order to avoid intimidating voters.
In the long term we can work together to take several steps to increase turnout - which after all should be the goal of our democracy. Steps like same day registration, an election day holiday, and eliminating antiquated and racist felony disenfranchisement laws will go along way towards increasing voting from our present levels.
Forty years ago Lyndon Baines Johnson feared that enaction of the Voting Rights Act might harm the interests of the Democratic Party, at least in the short run. But he also knew that when it came to the sacred right to vote, he had to put the national interest above political concerns. At the present time minority voters tend to skew to the Democratic Party, however, there is little doubt that the nation's oldest democracy needs to show the world that we welcome all those who are entitled to vote. If the Republican party is ever to reclaim its mantle as the party of Lincoln it is imperative that you stand up for voting rights now, when the nation needs you most.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
You can find out more about Congressman Conyers at his web site.
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