MIAMI — Tough new election laws aimed at forcing voters in many states to show photo identification at polling places have been blocked or delayed, delighting opponents who claim they were among a variety of partisan attempts to keep minorities from voting.

Supporters of the measures nevertheless predict they will prevail in the long run. And court battles continue in some states even as the Nov. 6 election date draws near.

The stakes are high especially in swing states where a close margin is expected in the race between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, as well as in numerous congressional and local campaigns. Other battles in key states such as Florida and Ohio have been fought over reductions in the number of early voting days and new restrictions on voter registration drives.

In the latest boon for Democrats, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for voters in Ohio to cast ballots on the three days before Election Day, giving Obama's campaign a victory three weeks before the election. The court refused a request by the state's Republican elections chief and attorney general to get involved in a battle over early voting.

"It's been a real remarkable string of victories," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "There is an overwhelming sense that the courts are skeptical of this push to restrict voting. They recognize the basic thrust of this effort is counter to democracy."

Yet proponents of the laws, which they say help guarantee integrity in the election process, can point to some victories as well. For example, a panel of three federal judges ruled earlier this month that South Carolina's new voter photo ID law complies with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and would not disenfranchise minorities. But the judges also said the law could not take effect until 2013.

"The long-term battle on this, opponents are losing that battle," said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. Of voter ID laws, he said: "The majority of decisions have upheld it."

The debate over the new laws focuses mainly on whether they might deter minority and elderly voters and those in lower economic classes from casting ballots. Photo IDs, for example, can require fees that some people can't pay. Shortening early voting days could disenfranchise minorities, particularly African-Americans who have embraced the practice in many states. Restrictions on registration drives could disproportionately affect minority populations that register at lower percentages than others.

In that view, according to University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith, the laws "have intentionally tried to crack down on the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities."

 

Supporters say such concerns are overblown and that such steps are critical to keep ineligible people from voting.

"How can you be against election integrity?" said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of the Houston-based True The Vote group that is monitoring elections and challenging the validity of voter rolls in numerous states.

Yet there is scant evidence of widespread voter fraud in many of the all-important swing states. Searches for ineligible voters in Colorado and Florida, for example, have yielded numbers that amount to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all registered voters in either state.

State and federal courts have been a major battleground over election laws. In Florida, a federal judge blocked new restrictions on voter registration drives. In Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court this week let stand a lower court's ruling that invalidated a law shortening the number of early voting days. Judges in Florida, on the other hand, have refused to block a law reducing that state's early voting days.

A panel of federal judges ruled that restrictive new photo ID requirements for Texas voters violated the Voting Rights Act. A federal appeals court upheld a ruling against Arizona's law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote; the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review it in the coming months.

Vetoes by governors in other states have blocked new election laws. In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder angered many in his own party when he rejected a measure that, among other things, would require a photo ID to get an absentee ballot.

A Democrat, Gov. Beverly Perdue of North Carolina, also vetoed a voter photo ID bill, as did fellow New Hampshire Democratic Gov. John Lynch. But New Hampshire's Legislature overrode the veto and the law was cleared by the U.S. Justice Department as not a threat to disenfranchise minorities.

The debate over these issues has a sharply partisan tone, with Democrats claiming they're being orchestrated by Republicans nationwide to suppress minorities and others who tend to vote for Democrats. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who fought for black voting rights in the civil rights era, put it in personal terms in a recent congressional fundraising email ominously titled "They don't want you to vote."

"We're seeing a deliberate and systematic effort on the part of Republican officials to prevent minorities, seniors, the young and the poor from casting their ballots," Lewis wrote.

Republicans and their allies, however, say polls show broad support for such anti-fraud measures as a photo ID for voters and blame Democrats for turning such laws into divisive political controversies aimed at rallying their own supporters.

"It's just common sense that you require that somebody actually is who they claim to be," said Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, sponsor of his state's photo ID law. "It did turn into a partisan battle that probably shouldn't be partisan."

Indeed, Gihan Perera, of the Florida New Majority group, said the opposition of his and other organizations to attempts in Florida to purge voter rolls using questionable lists of non-citizens proved to be a key mobilization point for efforts to register tens of thousands of new voters.

"I would say the chill is gone," Perera said. "Despite the challenges that we had, we are making tremendous inroads."

For the future, the three federal judges in the South Carolina photo ID case provided a roadmap for an acceptable law. The key, they said, was that South Carolina will expand the types of acceptable forms of identification, provide a convenient way for people to get a free ID and allow those without ID to still cast ballots as long as they write an affidavit stating why.

The Texas law that was declared invalid, on the other hand, would have required many voters to present a birth certificate when registering, did not have convenient ways for people to obtain IDs in many counties and had no provision for voters to cast ballots without a photo ID.

"At first blush, one might have thought South Carolina had enacted a very strict photo ID law," the judges wrote. "Much of the initial rhetoric surrounding the law suggested as much. But that rhetoric was based on a misunderstanding of how the law would work."

Category: FNM in the News

MIAMI -- Kimberly Kelley of Tampa has provided Florida elections officials with thousands of names of people she thinks may be ineligible to vote and should be removed from the rolls. On Election Day, she'll join thousands more – people of all political stripes – to monitor balloting.

"I believe there is fraud both ways. I don't think it's a specific group," said Kelley, a registered Republican whose group is called Tampa Vote Fair. "We're just there to observe. We're not going to intimidate anyone."

Poll watchers from unions, immigration groups and other organizations favoring greater voter access will also be on hand. Gihan Perera of the group Florida New Majority said training sessions are being held for observers and communications lines set up to respond to problems.

"We'll be aware and vigilant so that all of the rules and processes are honored and that our people are able to vote with ease," he said.

With polls showing a close race between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a relative handful of votes either way in a battleground state like Florida or Ohio could make all the difference. The potential for disruptive crowds of observers at some precincts has sparked fears that voters may be intimidated or harassed or have their eligibility to vote challenged directly.

The concern is particularly intense among African-American and Hispanic voters, who historically have suffered discrimination and were targeted anew in more recent elections, civil rights leaders say.

"People have suffered and bled for our right to vote," said the Rev. Victor T. Curry, pastor of New Birth Baptist Church in Dania Beach, north of Miami. "We will have monitors who will monitor the monitors."

Groups such as True the Vote, a Houston-based organization with links to the tea party, refer to their activities as "election integrity." For those fearing suppression attempts, it's all about "voter protection." Both sides are organizing people around the country to be their poll watchers.

True the Vote has said it hopes to recruit 1 million people nationwide to be monitors. Its founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, said that her group is nonpartisan and that its goal is "renewing faith in our election system" through its growing national coalition.

 

"Every eligible American voter deserves the opportunity to participate in a fair and legal election process, even those Democrats and left-leaning organizations who continually cast false aspersions about our efforts," Engelbrecht said in an email. "We support lawful election processes."

Recent studies by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice and by the research and advocacy organization Demos show that voter intimidation and challenges are not relics from the past:

_In a 2011 state legislative election in Massachusetts, dozens of challenges were filed by poll monitors affiliated with tea party groups against Latino voters in Southbridge. Several voters said they felt intimidated in a vote that wound up in a court-ordered tie. Justice Department officials were on hand to observe the second vote, which was settled by just 56 votes.

_In 2010, a coalition of Minnesota conservative groups called Election Integrity Watch offered $500 to anyone who provided tips about fraud and encouraged volunteers to take photos and videotape voters at the polls, according to Demos research. It's unclear if these tactics were widely deployed or whether they deterred voters from casting ballots.

_True the Vote poll watchers used inaccurate voter lists to challenge a number of college students during the 2012 recall election of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, resulting in a disruptive atmosphere in which an undetermined number of students opted not to vote rather than wait in long lines. The impact on the recall's outcome is uncertain, but Walker prevailed in the overall vote.

True the Vote's activities, especially its pre-election challenges of thousands of voter registrations, have drawn the attention of Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. Cummings said in a letter to Engelbrecht that many of the challenges appear to have no legitimate basis and "could amount to a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate voters their constitutional rights."

In a written response, Engelbrecht offered to meet with Cummings and said the group has found evidence of election law violations.

"Election integrity is a serious concern across the nation," she wrote.

States have specific rules regarding who is allowed inside polling places and how close outside observers can get. In Florida, those on the outside must stay at least 100 feet away. Most states also allow private citizens to directly challenge the eligibility of voters – for example, claiming they don't have proper identification – although not all of those challenges can be made on Election Day.

Federal and state agencies also play a role in poll monitoring. The Justice Department, for example, will appoint observers under the 1965 Voting Rights Act who are geared mainly toward guaranteeing that minority voters are not interfered with at the ballot box. This third group of monitors will be sent to precincts that officials deem most at risk of voting access violations.

"The effort in more recent years is to have teams in place and procedures in place so problems can be dealt with," said Paul Hancock, a former Justice Department voting rights attorney now in private practice.

At the same time, Hancock added, "you've got to have balance. You want to be able to deal with any group that comes in and tries to intimidate voters. But you don't want the place loaded with police officers because some people see that as a form of intimidation as well."

If any violations such as those happen this year and the election result is close in that particular state, teams of lawyers from both sides and many of the interest groups are posed to head to the courts.

"Everybody is just so concerned that something could go wrong that they're geared up to deal with it," Hancock said.

Category: FNM in the News

A coalition of unions, civil rights groups and left-leaning organizations is demanding a rewrite of Florida’s election laws and is seeking a federal inquiry into long lines during early voting and on Election Day.

“Now marks 12 years of Florida being a voting disaster area,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project that sued the state on behalf of the NAACP after the 2000 presidential debacle. “We will be looking into further investigating what happened in Florida in 2012 just like we did in 2000.”

The Advancement Project, Florida New Majority Education Fund, two Democratic state senators and the union representing state workers said on a conference call with reporters today that long lines voters faced on Election Day and during early voting appeared to disproportionately impact minority voters who typically vote for Democrats.

That proves that lawmakers were seeking to suppress Democratic turnout with HB 1355, a sweeping election bill passed last year that shrank the number of early voting days and affected voters who move from one county to another.

“It’s increasingly coming out that this was not just a case of misadministration or bad management,” said Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority.

Perera pointed to a Palm Beach Post report that found that the architect of HB 1355, Republican Party of Florida general counsel Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell, was also a senior lawyer at the state Division of Elections in 2000 and was the mastermind of the error-riddled felon voter purge list.

“As more and more of this comes out, it appears a systematic effort to suppress voters. And that is a crime against democracy. There needs to be investigations about what happened and why, whether that be the Department of Justice, congressional hearings or the UN,” he said. “But people who are responsible for making this not a democracy need to be held accountable.”

The coalition is asking lawmakers to repeal HB 1355 and:
- Reinstate the 14-day early voting period and extend the number of voting hours each day to 12;
- Allow more early voting sites based on the number of voters in each county;
- Give county elections supervisors more flexibility with early voting site locations, now restricted to elections offices, public libraries and city halls;
- Permit people voting outside of their precinct to vote a regular ballot on statewide or county-wide races.

But state Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat who saw long lines in many precincts in his district, said he holds little hope that the Republican-dominated legislature, which passed the elections bill over the objections of Democrats, and Gov. Rick Scott, who signed the bill into law, would make the changes.

Scott also refused to extend early voting hours despite long lines, Braynon said. The Justice Department has oversight of the Voting Rights Act, which includes provisions making it unlawful to discriminate against minorities in elections.

“One of the first steps is to file a complaint with the federal government, whether it be with the Department of Justice on the Voting Rights Act violation. I think the intent was there and I think we may have it rise to the level of a federal investigation as to was this actually intended voter suppression with a full conspiracy and everything,” Braynon said. “As much as I believe that my colleagues in the legislature believe in democracy, I just don’t believe that the governor, as he has proven with his reaction to the long lines and also with the signing of and why 1355 was even created, that they’re going to assist us with this effort.”

Some elections officials blamed the long lines not only the shortened early voting period but on the lengthy ballot which included 11 proposed constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the GOP-dominated legislature. In Palm Beach County during early voting, the ballots had to be printed individually, add to the logjam.

This article was published in the Palm Beach Post. Read the full article here »

Category: FNM in the News

Tallahassee, Florida - November 20, 2012

A group of voters who experienced long lines and other avoidable difficulties in voting during the November election will gather in the fourth floor rotunda of the Florida State Capitol building Tuesday morning, as legislators arrive to be sworn in and attend organizational meetings.

About a dozen voters, identified by Florida New Majority, Florida Immigrant Coalition and other partners urging reforms to voting in Florida, will stand in the gallery with placards indicating how long they waited in line to vote. The mute appeal underscores the value of the vote as the only voice most people have in the democratic process.

"We just want the legislators to recognize that we are upset about the disaster we all experienced," said Angie Nixon, a community organizer with Florida New Majority. "We're asking them not to forget about the voters when they are passing laws. They need to fix this."

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Category: Press Releases