Why Progressives Are Still Worried About Voter Suppression

Voter ID measures have mostly been blocked. But there are plenty of other hijinks that have liberals on edge for Election Day.


A few months ago, Democrats were convinced that voter ID laws were Republicans' secret plan to steal the election. But as Election Day nears, these and other allegedly suppressive efforts -- from Florida's attempt to purge voter rolls to Ohio's move to restrict early voting to Pennsylvania's strict voter ID law -- have mostly fizzled, thanks largely to legal challenges from the Justice Department, the Obama campaign, and outside groups.

But that doesn't mean the left is feeling at ease about Election Day. If anything, liberals are more alert than ever to the potential for various forms of intimidation that could depress turnout.

There were the mysterious billboards that went up in cities in Ohio and Wisconsin a few weeks ago warning of harsh legal penalties for voter fraud. (After the billboard company took them down, they were revealed to be funded by a pair of GOP donors in Wisconsin.) There were the fake letters on official-looking letterhead in Florida notifying people they'd have to prove their citizenship to vote.

There were mailers in Ohio and Arizona listing the wrong election date. There were robocalls telling Virginians they could vote by phone for convenience. In Pennsylvania, despite the voter ID law being blocked in court, the state kept putting up posters and sending mailers telling people they would be "required to show photo ID on Election Day." In Wisconsin, Romney campaign poll watchers are being trained with misleading information (though not outrageously so).

"We see these kinds of issues whenever an election is close," Judith Browne Dianis, a civil-rights attorney and co-director of the Advancement Project, told reporters at a briefing this week. "Whenever the margin is smaller, we see the ramping up of these kinds of tricks."

The most worrisome prospect, for these advocates, is the Tea Party-linked group, True the Vote, that has vowed to send a million citizen observers to the polls on Election Day. In the past, the group's observers have been deployed to predominantly minority areas, armed with spurious challenges to voter eligibility. Progressives fret that the mere presence of "white guys in suits with clipboards" looming over every voter is enough to scare people whose interactions with authority haven't always been positive -- kind of like those voter fraud billboards, which, while accurate, prompted calls to radio stations about whether you could be thrown in jail for voting with unpaid parking tickets.

Like so many features of modern American elections, the Advancement Project's vigilance today stems from the awful memory of Florida in 2000, said Penda Hair, another co-director of the group. The chads, the butterfly ballots, the thousands of alleged felons wrongly purged from voter rolls: None of it surfaced until it was too late to do anything about it. "We wanted to make sure we could stop this from happening before the election," Hair said. "Somebody should have been watching in 1998 and 1999 when this purge was being hatched."

A decade past the Florida nightmare and 2004's "voter caging" schemes, in which GOP poll monitors challenged tens of thousands of Ohio voters with little basis, advocates are far more proactive about anything that could be construed as discouraging people -- particularly minorities -- from voting. The Advancement Project was a party to the lawsuit that stopped Pennsylvania's voter ID law and will be working with a coalition of "election protection" groups to monitor the polls in targeted areas of nine states on Election Day. (None will receive more attention, of course, than Florida.)

Some of the group's alarm sheds valuable light on genuinely sneaky stuff that might otherwise pass under the radar; some of it is a bit over-the-top, seeing a conspiracy in every long line at a polling place, every ballot that takes a long time to get through. (Some Florida ballots this year are clocking in at 12 pages or more thanks to ballot initiatives, and reading them is contributing to those long lines.) Another tactic highlighted by the Advancement Project: A right-wing group is sending people letters detailing the voting history of their neighbors. It's creepy, but it's not suppression -- as Sasha Issenberg describes in his book The Victory Lab, this is a shaming tactic, pioneered by Democratic operatives, that's been proven to increase voter turnout.

The scare-mongering is a notable feature of both sides of the voting wars. Just as progressives are sure they see voter suppression everywhere they look, right-wing partisans tend to see the specter of voter fraud, as when a Republican elected official raised alarms over a bunch of Somali speakers voting with the help of an interpreter last week.

Dianis herself had to wait in line for seven hours to vote early in Prince George's County, Maryland, this past Sunday. But what she heard while she waited encouraged her: Without any prompting from the voting-rights lawyer standing in their midst, "people around me were talking about voter suppression," she said. "They consider this their fight back."

In black and Hispanic churches, in barbershops and beauty salons, and on ethnic radio stations, the message has gotten out: They're trying to take your vote away. Don't let them. "The efforts to restrict the vote for partisan gain have backfired," Dianis said. "It has motivated people."