Millions of Americans are kept from voting

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Getting beyond chads and dimples to fix the system

When he was a U.S. senator many years ago, Oklahoma’s Bob Kerr would occasionally express amazement at some bit of political mischief by declaring, “I thought I’d seen everything, and I’ve been to the state fair twice.”

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But even a state-fair sideshow could not be as bizarre as the political aftermath of the last election, when America’s democratic process crashed. The upshot of the crash is that Little George Bush sits in the White House today, not so much having been elected as selected–put there by a combination of electoral mischief in Florida and a rank bit of judicial activism by five of the nine Supremes.

The media and the politicos have mostly focused on the minutiae of uncounted ballots in the Sunshine State, giving us a blizzard of stories about pregnant dimples and hanging chads, counts and recounts, claims and counterclaims about whether Bush or Gore actually won.

But what about the qualified voters who showed up at the polls all across the country, yet were not allowed to cast their ballots? Behind the chads, claims, and recounts in Florida, there’s another alarming story about a long-standing flaw in our democracy–a flaw that was briefly raised to the level of public consciousness during the flap in Florida, but since has receded, receiving practically no media examination and no political action.

The dirty secret of our red, white, and blue democracy is that there is a routine, orchestrated effort by political operatives each Election Day to prevent millions of eligible voters from getting into their polling places–especially minorities and low-income folks. This is a deliberate disenfranchisement that is winked at and sometimes sanctioned by election authorities, lawmakers, political parties, and the courts.

It’s nothing new, and it doesn’t just happen in Florida. In the forthcoming useful compendium entitled The Unfinished Election of 2000, Alexander Keyssar writes that, from the start, ours has been a history of elites striving to keep the masses from meddling in the election of America’s leaders. From outright exclusions of minorities, women, and the unpropertied, to the erection of such artificial barriers as poll taxes and literacy tests, our election system is experienced at keeping people out.

Keeping the voters from voting

Especially offensive, but in wide practice, are what GOP agents refer to as “ballot-integrity programs.” These are rationalized as being necessary to prevent voter fraud, but they really are crass intimidation programs operated solely in the voting precincts of minorities, recent immigrants, and others with a tendency to vote for Democrats.

Chances are that your polling place is free of menacing attorneys or other guys in suits demanding to know if you’re a citizen, if you can prove where you live, if you are a “qualified” voter, if your registration is current. Chances are that there’s no authority figure at your precinct thrusting a tape recorder at you or snapping your picture while shouting that any voting infraction could land you in jail.

All of this has gone on for years across the South and Southwest, and such intimidation raised its ugly head again in Florida and elsewhere last November.

One example was in Hillsborough County, where a reporter (who happens to be a white former police officer) witnessed numerous cops stopping African-American voters, asking for ID and demanding to know “What are you doing here?” In a rough display of public intimidation, the police stopped an elderly black man, who had just left the polls, ordering him to “assume the position.” He tried to explain he wasn’t doing anything but voting (he even had one of those little “I voted” stickers on his lapel). When the reporter tried to stand up for him, she was told in no uncertain terms to leave or she would be arrested.

When authorities failed to look into complaints that thousands of minorities had not been allowed to vote, the NAACP conducted its own public hearings. The media wasn’t interested–only C-Span covered the hearing, while the big networks continued their interminable coverage of local election officials staring intently at dimples and chads. Here’s some of what the NAACP learned by going to the people:

  • lHostile poll workers demanded that African-American voters produce both a current voter-registration card and one or more photo IDs. No photo ID, no vote–even though the law requires only the voter card.
  • lTwo poll workers testified that they were instructed to look for any typos or other paperwork flaws in assessing the “qualifications” of minority citizens to vote–and if there was the slightest doubt, to reject them. They were also instructed not to issue any written verification or affidavit that a voter had been turned away, even though the law requires this so the voter can challenge the decision.
  • lThousands of African-Americans arrived at the polls to learn that their names had been purged from voter rolls without anyone notifying them–in the Miami area, for example, African-Americans are 20% of the population, but they were 65% of the voters who had been purged.
  • lIf there was confusion at the polling place about whether a minority voter was registered, the voter was simply told to “come back later,” rather than having the poll worker verify the registration with the county elections office, as required by law.
  • The New York Times reports that Florida provided laptop computers so local election officials could tap straight into the state database to verify registrations on the spot. Out of hundreds of majority-black precincts, only one got a laptop. The computers mostly went to Bush precincts. If diligent poll workers in the unwired precincts tried to call Tallahassee, they got a busy signal.
  • lPolling places were changed without notice (“You had to go all over town to find out where you were supposed to vote,” said a Baptist minister), and if you were in line when the polls closed at 7 p.m., you had the door shut in your face–contrary to rules that allow all who are present at closing time to vote.

Then there is the ugly game of the “felon exclusion.” Most states disenfranchise imprisoned felons, with many states extending the voting ban through an ex-convict’s probation. A dozen states, including Florida, ban ex-felons for life, even after they’ve paid their debt to society and even if they’re restored to a productive life. Florida Republicans jumped on this by hiring a private computer firm to crossmatch felon lists from around the country with Florida’s voter registration list, striking all matches from the rolls.

With computers, of course, stuff happens. For example, some 8,000 Floridians who had been convicted in Texas of misdemeanors, not felonies, were illegally stricken from Florida’s voting rolls without even being told.

Others were rejected because their names resembled those of felons–Keyssar reports, for example, that Rev. Willie D. Whiting wasn’t allowed to vote because officials thought he was Willie J. Whiting, a convicted felon.

Numerous African-American witnesses testified that they were grilled about whether they had ever been convicted of a felony–a line of questioning that one doesn’t see in affluent white precincts.

If we are to keep asserting that voting is a sacred right and every citizen’s patriotic duty, then it’s time to outlaw these exclusionary and racist tactics, declare voting to be a constitutional right, and fully fund this most democratic expression of citizenship by providing both the best available voting equipment and the best-trained poll workers in every precinct.

Republicans won’t fight for this in Congress . . . but will Democrats?


Lee Cooke, a former mayor of my fair city of Austin, once set the Olympic record for mixed metaphors in a single sentence by a politician: “I wanted all my ducks in a row, so if we did get into a posture we could pretty much slam-dunk this thing and put it to bed.”

I thought of Lee’s verbal contortions when I heard a gaggle of Bush Dynasty apparatchiks come rushing to the microphones in May to put their spin on a family embarrassment: W.’s teenage daughters, Jenna and Barbara, had been arrested for illegal drinking in Austin.

With a couple of friends, the underage twins had ordered a round of margaritas and tequila shots in a good-time bar named Chuy’s, and Jenna had tried to pass off someone else’s driver’s license as her own. They got caught by the management, the cops were called, and almost instantaneously, Bush operatives were everywhere, scrabbling to get their little duckies in a row, take a defensive posture, slamdunk the police charges, and try to put it to bed.

This wouldn’t be much of a story if it merely concerned a couple of teenagers–albeit high-profile ones–getting twisted up in state drinking laws, as many other young folks do. But it’s not about teenage drinking. It’s about the constant assertion of privilege that is key to George W. Bush’s character–an expectation that he and his wealthy family will get special treatment, whether it’s to get into Yale, avoid going to Vietnam, be bailed out of business failures, get the Supreme Court to lift him to the presidency . . . or have the authorities bend the law to help his daughters.

The Bush spinners wailed that the twins were treated harshly solely because they were the Shrub’s girls, loudly insisting that underage drinking and using a false ID in a bar doesn’t get regular citizens arrested. That’s not spinning; it’s a lie. I called the county attorney’s office and found that at the time of the Bush incident, the county attorney had more than 150 active cases of teens who had been arrested by the police for doing what Jenna and Barbara did. These kids were charged, as the law requires, with a “Class B” misdemeanor. The Lowdown filed a freedom-of-information request and got these case files, along with the police reports on the handling of George W.’s daughters. The non-Bush teens not only were arrested, they were also hauled to jail, booked, and put in a cell until they could make bail, usually about a 12-hour ordeal. It’s the routine procedure.

But here’s the way it went for Jenna and Barbara, according to the investigative narratives filed by the officers involved. Responding to a call from Chuy’s, Officers Clifford Rogers and Clay Crabb entered the bar and were told by management about Jenna’s false driver’s license. Rogers stepped toward Jenna’s table, but at that moment, says Officer Crabb, “I was tapped on the shoulder by a subject identifying himself as a member of the Secret Service.” Crabb called Rogers back before he reached Jenna. They talked with a couple of federal agents, then called their supervisor to get instructions on how to proceed.

Meanwhile, Crabb says a Secret Service agent went to Jenna and Barbara and moved them outside, where they climbed into an SUV. But Crabb and Rogers had the presence of mind to keep them from hightailing it: “We told the agents that the girls needed to stay till we talked to our supervisor,” Crabb writes. Rogers then approached Jenna and requested the false ID, which she surrendered. He writes that “Jenna started crying and stated, ‘Please.’ She then stated that I do not have any idea what it is like to be a college student and not be able to do anything that other students get to do.”

Well now, Jenna, let’s see. One thing that other students would have gotten to do is go directly to jail and be made to make bail before getting out (especially if they, like you, already had a previous underage-drinking conviction under their belts). But seeing as how you and Barbara are Bush Kids, the police brass instructed Rogers and Crabb to turn you loose without even writing a ticket, telling the officers that your case would be handled by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Odd. In no other case in which Austin police have started such an arrest have they surrendered jurisdiction to the TABC. But this routine Class B misdemeanor was taken all the way to Austin’s police chief, who ordered his field officers to let it be handled by a state regulatory agency that just happens to be composed entirely of members appointed by former governor George W. Bush, the daddy of the offenders.

Guess what? Far from being harassed by authorities, as the Bush political operatives had whined, the normally stern authorities bent over backwards to give Jenna and Barbara sweetheart treatment. The twins were not charged with a Class B crime, like their 150-plus contemporaries were, but instead with a lower-level Class C misdemeanor. This incurs not even a slap on the wrist–more like a pat on the hand. Like a traffic ticket, Class C requires no trip to the nasty old pokey, no ugly booking process, no waiting in a cell, and no bail.

Perhaps you feel that being dragged to jail for a teenage drinking offense is much too harsh a punishment for anyone. No argument here. Yet the Texas governor who signed the law making this very violation a Class B offense was–you guessed it–George W. He signed the get-tough law in September of 1999 as part of the build-up for his presidential run.

In that same month, to demonstrate that he was a no-nonsense, zero-tolerance proponent of holding teens responsible for their actions, his TABC conducted a sting operation targeting underage drinkers on Austin’s famous Sixth Street, which is lined with music clubs and bars.

Called Operation Fake Out, the TABC put police officers undercover in various bars, where they went after minors using fake IDs, just as Jenna had done. Wholesale arrests were made of 19and 20-year-olds. We heard no cries of outrage from Bush & Co. at this time about young drinkers being targeted. Indeed, the governor’s office applauded as these sons and daughters of the politically unconnected were publicly arrested, taken to central booking, and put in jail.

This would be ugly enough, but Bush operatives pursued a scorched-earth policy of retribution. Not only did they falsely portray the twins as victims of a politically motivated police action, but they went after those who caught Jenna and Barbara breaking the law.

For weeks, Bush’s TABC appointees looked for ways to prosecute Chuy’s, including possibly yanking the bar’s liquor license, which would have bankrupted the place. Only a stand by the county attorney against such a vindictive abuse of power made the TABC back off; it finally had to announce that it would no longer seek to punish the bar for the Bush girls’ criminal conduct.

More alarming, however, has been an ongoing personal assault on Mia Lawrence, the bar manager who had the misfortune of being on duty at Chuy’s that night and blew the whistle on the twins. American Politics Journal reports that Bush zealots are using the Internet to go after her: “Her address, date of birth, driver’s license and registration information, physical description, and even birth information about her infant child have been posted . . . along with calls for punitive actions.”

One website urged that Bushies go to Chuy’s with a camera and “take pictures of Mia What’s-her-name along with her license number. Make this chick so paranoid that she thinks if she so much as goes through a red light, someone will call 911. Let her know that her picture is being posted.” Yet another website posted financial details and medical information about her.

Not content to invade this woman’s privacy and psyche, another of Bush’s web warriors urged the army of compassionate conservatives to assault her physically, encouraging them to seek her out at Chuy’s and pour drinks on her.

The establishment media have failed to probe into the story behind Jenna and Barbara’s arrest, meekly swallowing the Bush line that it’s none of the media’s business, that it’s simply a small story about two 19-year-olds who have to bear an extra-heavy burden in life because their father is the President. Bush mouthpiece Ari Fleischer dismissed the whole thing, saying, “It’s a family matter, not a government matter”–at the very same time that other Bush surrogates were pulling mightily on the levers of government to make sure that his family would get special treatment under the law.

By failing to probe the small story, the media again missed the big one–how George W. routinely abuses positions of power to get advantages unavailable to regular citizens.

I’m making moves!

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