Published: September 21, 2012
This is how voter intimidation worked in 1966: White teenagers in Americus, Ga., harassed black citizens in line to vote, and the police refused to intervene. Black plantation workers in Mississippi had to vote in plantation stores, overseen by their bosses. Black voters in Choctaw County, Ala., had to hand their ballots directly to white election officials for inspection.
This is how it works today: In an ostensible hunt for voter fraud, a Tea Party group, True the Vote, descends on a largely minority precinct and combs the registration records for the slightest misspelling or address error. It uses this information to challenge voters at the polls, and though almost every challenge is baseless, the arguments and delays frustrate those in line and reduce turnout.
The thing that’s different from the days of overt discrimination is the phony pretext of combating voter fraud. Voter identity fraud is all but nonexistent, but the assertion that it might exist is used as an excuse to reduce the political rights of minorities, the poor, students, older Americans and other groups that tend to vote Democratic.
In The Times on Monday, Stephanie Saul described how the plan works. True the Vote grew out of a Tea Party group in Texas, the King Street Patriots, with the assistance of Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by the Koch brothers that works to elect conservative Republicans. It has developed its own software to check voter registration lists against driver’s license and property records. Those kinds of database matches are notoriously unreliable because names and addresses are often slightly different in various databases, but the group uses this technique to challenge more voters.
In 2009 and 2010, for example, the group focused on the Houston Congressional district represented by Sheila Jackson Lee, a black Democrat. After poring over the records for five months, True the Vote came up with a list of 500 names it considered suspicious and challenged them with election authorities. Officials put these voters on “suspense,” requiring additional proof of address, but in most cases voters had simply changed addresses. That didn’t stop the group from sending dozens of white “poll watchers” to precincts in the district during the 2010 elections, deliberately creating friction with black voters.
On the day of the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, the group used inaccurate lists to slow down student voting at Lawrence University in Appleton with intrusive identity checks. Three election “observers,” including one from True the Vote, were so disruptive that a clerk gave them two warnings, but the ploy was effective: many students gave up waiting in line and didn’t vote.
True the Vote, now active in 30 states, hopes to train hundreds of thousands of poll watchers to make the experience of voting like“driving and seeing the police following you,” as one of the group’s leaders put it. (Not surprisingly, the group is also active in the voter ID movement, with similar goals.) These activities “present a real danger to the fair administration of elections and to the fundamental freedom to vote,” as a recent report by Common Cause and Demosput it.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits intimidation or interference in the act of voting, but the penalties are fairly light. Many states have tougher laws, but they won’t work unless law enforcement officials use them to crack down on the illegal activities — handed down from Jim Crow days — of True the Vote and similar groups.