Ending voter suppression

In November 2008, the Republican National Committee unsuccessfully attempted to exit a 1982 consent decree with the Democratic National Committee in which they’d agreed to stop targeting minority voters, voter caging and voter suppression. That ’82 agreement was reached after the DNC sued the RNC for allegedly targeting 45,000 New Jersey voters in low-income and minority areas. A 1986 memo from then-Midwest RNC political director Kris Wolf to the Southern RNC political director that read, “I would guess this program will eliminate at least 60,000 to 80,000 folks from the rolls. ... If it’s a close race ... this could keep the black vote down considerably,” resulted in a second consent agreement. 

Recognizing that images of civil-rights heroes like John Lewis, bloodied and beaten for trying to register or cast a ballot, were shifting public opinion, vote suppressors changed their tactics. Cloaked as “voter fraud” and “ballot security,” efforts were refocused on tactics at the state and local level, such as providing insufficient numbers of voting machines in African-American neighborhoods, sending misleading fliers, phone jamming, list purging, voter caging, setting up restrictive voter ID laws and cumbersome regulations on voter registration and scaling back successful early-voting efforts and same-day registration — each of which has historically worked to suppress and intimidate predominantly minority and low-income voters.

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By 2004, voter suppression was outsourced to GOP state parties, which engaged in a massive voter-caging program disproportionately targeting minority Americans in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky. It was later revealed that Tim Griffin, a protégée of George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove who served as the interim U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Arkansas, was involved in voter caging while working on the former president’s reelection.

Between hard-fought reforms and unprecedented outreach efforts, the 2008 presidential election was the most ethnically, racially and economically diverse in American history. 

An analysis of the 2008 election in Florida showed that African-American and Hispanic voters were more than twice as likely to register through voter-registration drives than white voters, with 54 percent of Florida’s 1.1 million African-American voters — who overwhelmingly supported President Obama — casting ballots through early voting. Overall, more than 4.3 million people cast ballots through early voting, registered Democrats comprising 52 percent and Republicans just 30 percent. 

But upon taking office, Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott quickly moved to reduce early voting and impose near-impossible regulations on voter registration and extensive list purging. According to The Miami Herald, the process was more likely to inaccurately remove Democrats and independent voters and target mostly minority American citizens, — about 58 percent who were Hispanic. Even county elections supervisors have flagged the current list of 2,700 for numerous errors, and the U.S. Department of Justice is now looking at possible violations of the Voting Rights Act.

As the 2012 election nears, an estimated 5 million Americans could again be disenfranchised by new waves of suppression tactics. 

As America works to help fledgling democracies around the world, we should also recognize the need — once again — for comprehensive reforms to make our own democracy stronger by ensuring that every eligible American has the opportunity to make his or her voice heard.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant, and co-host of POTUS/Sirius XM’s “The Flaks.”

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