- Terelle Jerricks
Voter Suppression Could Still Make Difference As Dems Battle Back
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
“It’s a problem,” President Obama said, when Jay Leno, of all people, finally brought the issue of voter suppression out of the shadowy underground and placed it center stage. “Our country’s always been stronger when everybody’s had a voice,” Obama said.
“We should be thinking about ways to make it easier for folks to vote, not to make it harder for folks to vote.” He then launched into a pitch for early voting, which he called “really terrific.”
It was typical of Obama not to dwell on or dig deep into the dirty tricks being deployed by his political enemies. But it’s not just him that’s the target, it’s millions of potential voters and American democracy itself that’s at stake.Which is why a deeper understanding of the strategies and forces at play in the shadow election could prove vital in preserving our democracy, particularly if we face a replay of the 2000 election. The Romney campaign is clearly planning with this in mind, as it’s begun pushing a baseless narrative of Romney’s “momentum” supposedly making him the front runner.
Romney’s Bad Math
In the closing days of the 2000 election, Karl Rove and the Bush campaign peddled a similar narrative of Bush winning big. Rove told the conservative Washington Times that Bush would win “in the vicinity of 320 electoral votes,” picking up “50 to 51 [percent] vs. 44, 45 percent” for Vice President Al Gore in the popular vote. Bush also spent several million dollars on TV ads in California, which he had no chance of winning. It was all pure BS, but it helped create a mindset that gave Bush an edge throughout the protracted battle over the outcome of Florida, even though Gore was ahead in both the popular and the electoral college vote at the time. The Romney campaign’s strategy appears virtually identical, but as with so much else, the numbers don’t support him:
Romney gained ground significantly after the first debate, but his momentum petered out around the time he lost the second debate. National poll averages have generally shown no clear trend over the past 2-3 weeks. The Princeton Election Consortium’s electoral vote meta-analysis, which aggregates all state polls and produces an electoral college result, based on all 2.3 quadrillion possible combinations, dropped from the 340 range for Obama before the first debate down to below 280, but still a winning margin. It has since bounced back into the 290-300 range, mostly toward the lower end.
In crucial battleground states, Obama retains his lead in enough states to win. Using averages from Real Clear Politics—a conservative site which featured a 446 electoral vote Bush landslide prediction in 2000—Obama was ahead 2.3 or 2.4% in Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio on October 26, which would give him 277 electoral votes vs. 270 to win. Obama never trailed in any of them during Romney’s surge.
Obama’s lead is probably under-estimated, particularly in crucial battleground states, due to higher support among cell-phone users who can’t legally be called by automated polls. An October 26 story in Talking Points Memo reported, “Since early September, live polls have shown Obama with an average lead of 4.5 percent in Ohio while robo-polls show him with an average lead of less than 2.”
The battleground states themselves have shifted significantly since 2000-2004. Virginia and North Carolina, which no Democrat has won since 1964 and 1976 respectively, are now hotly-contested battleground states. In 2004, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico were all battleground states, but Romney isn’t seriously contesting any of them—even though Pennsylvania’s voter-ID law was expressly intended to deliver the state to him.
Obama’s electoral blue-state base is much larger than Romney’s red-state base. More safe states mean Obama needs fewer battleground states to win and has more paths to victory: 436 compared to 76 for Romney. A similar calculation in 2004 showed 143 paths for Kerry vs. 358 for Bush.
Latinos are still being widely under-counted and mis-counted in polls—a major reason for Harry Reid’s surprising 5-point victory in 2010. In a recent article, Matt A. Barreto, of Latino Decisions used the example of a national Monmoth poll showing Romney leading 48-45, while losing Latinos narrowly 42-48. Substituting more realistic figures, from an average of nationwide polls of Latinos, Obama emerged with a 1-point lead instead. Nevada, Colorado, and Florida are particularly sensitive to such polling errors among swing states.
All the above factors indicate that Romney is in a very weak position, and his “winning!” narrative is much like Charlie Sheen’s. Which is all the more reason why voter suppression looms large as an electoral concern.
There are three main prongs to voter suppression efforts, each of which has already had an impact, but will also play a potentially significant role up to, including and even beyond election day. These are:
- State action. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 41 states have introduced 180 restrictive laws since the 2010 mid-terms, but in the end, only 16 laws and two executive orders in 13 states survived to take effect this year. Two laws in two states were “seriously blunted” by the courts.
- GOP partisan/professional activism to block, intimidate and suppress Democratic voters, primarily in low-income and minority communities, but also among younger voters as well. The central figure in such efforts over the last three election cycles has been consultant Nathan Sproul, former chair of the Arizona GOP. Workers employed by Sproul have been caught destroying or getting rid of registration forms in swing states such as Florida, Virginia and Colorado, leading to a high-profile firing of his firm—after which he was quietly rehired by parties unknown to do get-out-the-vote organizing in at least 30 states.
- Conservative ideological activism articulated as “protecting the vote”–but definitely not the votes of low-income and minority voters, whom they spend a great deal of energy harassing and intimidating.
Ever since the 2000 election, voting rights advocates have recognized the proliferation of new threats, and organized a national network of “Election Protection” teams, which are going to be crucial in fighting back against the combined effects of these three different sorts of threats.
States To Watch:
Florida–In Florida, Republicans passed legislation severely restricting voter registration and early voting (to a maximum of 96 hours over eight days, down from 120 hours over 14 days in 2008, when 54 percent of Florida’s black voters voted early). Lawsuits somewhat blunted the impact of both provisions, and over 150 black churches are involved in “Operation Lemonade” to respond with a massive early voting drive. But the number of registered Florida Democrats increased by only 11,365 voters from July 1, 2011, to August 1, 2012, compared to 159,000 in the 2004 cycle over that period and nearly 260,000 in 2008. As far as racial impact is concerned, in 2008, 12.1 percent of Latinos and 12.7 percent of African-Americans registered via registration drives, compared to 6.3 percent of white Floridians. With even the League of Women Voters dropping out because volunteers might be charged with felonies, Republican consultant Nathan Sproul fielded an aggressive operation that’s now been revealed to have trashed Democratic registrations rather than turning them in. There was also a contested, ultimately abandoned attempt to purge voters based on flawed information. Any election-day chaos in Florida will only be a small part of the story of what’s happened there.
Ohio: In 2004, tens of thousands of Ohio voters either didn’t vote because of incredibly long lines—ten to twelve hours in some places—or else didn’t have their votes counted after the fact. A congressional investigation stopped short of claiming the election was stolen from Kerry, but left little doubt there multiple different sorts of problems, which Democrats worked on fixing when they took power in 2006, including the spread of early voting—a process that Republicans reversed on taking power in 2010. The US Supreme Court recently turned down Secretary of State Jon Husted’s attempt to gut early voting, but he responded by cutting it back administratively, particularly on the last weekend.
Meanwhile, a wave of intimidating billboards went up in minority neighborhoods–at 145 locations in Cleveland and Columbus, as well as in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—declaring voter fraud a felony that could land you in prison. Intense protests have proved effective—the billboards are being taken down—but an intimidating message has already been sent. True The Vote has also targeted Ohio as one of its top states to aggressively challenge voters at the polls, meaning even more intimidation should be expected on election day.
Fortunately, a group of Ohio state senators have sent a letter to Husted warning him of these pans, and Husted—who was initially close to True the Vote, but has since backed off, responded by stating “he will act swiftly to investigate and seek prosecution of any offenders,” of voter intimidation, as reported by the Columbus Dispatch.. Finally, fears have been raised about the possibility of after-the-fact electronic vote tampering, which was alleged to have happened in 2004, but was never fully investigated.
North Carolina & Virginia: Not previously in play before 2008, Republicans are desperate to hold onto these States. Reported suppression efforts in Virginia include deceptive phone calls telling voters—primarily elderly, black or Spanish-speaking—that they can vote by phone and don’t have to go the polls (similar calls were also reporTransPowerTransPowerTransPowerted in Florida). Also, a Sproul employee was arrested for destroying voter registration forms—possibly the tip of a much larger iceberg. In addition, Virginia’s new voter ID law requires people who vote without ID (there were 15,000 in Virginia in 2008) to cast a provisional ballot, and present themselves with their ID by the next Friday—a process that could potentially leave the outcome in doubt for a week or more, one reason that Virginia is a key states for Election Protection organizing.
In North Carolina, the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR) issued a report about True The Vote’s involvement, demonstrating a clear relationship between their volunteer organizing and the concentration of black voters. The report prompted a second demand for True The Vote documents from Rep. Elijah Cummings, in addition to the request reported in our last issue.
Similar problems are likely to pop up in many other states as well. But the ones listed above are the most populous swing states with clear warnings of trouble in advance. Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada are all swing states where similar problems are likely to arise, but Obama’s lead is either more secure, the number of electoral votes is smaller, or both. Pennsylvania and Texas are two large states with a pattern of troubling activity, both from activists and state officials, but neither is expected to be seriously in play for the presidential election—though individual voting rights will still be under threat, and down-ballot races could be effected. The important thing is to develop a big picture understanding of just what’s going on. A shared understanding was crucial in gaining and expanding the right to vote in the past, and it’s crucial in protecting and defending it today.
If you see or experience any problem with voting, you can call the Election Protection hotline at: 866-our-vote. Their website is 866ourvote.org and they have a smartphone app available.