The Long Shadow of Jim Crow
Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today
NAACP and People for the American Way (PFAW) 26aug04
In a nation where children are taught in grade school that every citizen has the right to vote, it would be comforting to think that the last vestiges of voter intimidation, oppression and suppression were swept away by the passage and subsequent enforcement of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. It would be good to know that voters are no longer turned away from the polls based on their race, never knowingly misdirected, misinformed, deceived or threatened.
Unfortunately, it would be a grave mistake to believe it.
In every national American election since Reconstruction, every election since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, voters - particularly African American voters and other minorities - have faced calculated and determined efforts at intimidation and suppression. The bloody days of violence and retribution following the Civil War and Reconstruction are gone. The poll taxes, literacy tests and physical violence of the Jim Crow era have disappeared. Today, more subtle, cynical and creative tactics have taken their place.
Here are a few examples of recent incidents in which groups of voters have been singled out on the basis of race.
- Most recently, controversy has erupted over the use in the Orlando area of armed, plainclothes officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to question elderly black voters in their homes. The incidents were part of a state investigation of voting irregularities in the city's March 2003 mayoral election. Critics have charged that the tactics used by the FDLE have intimidated black voters, which could suppress their turnout in this year's elections. Six members of Congress recently called on Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate potential civil rights violations in the matter.
- This year in Florida, the state ordered the implementation of a 'potential felon' purge list to remove voters from the rolls, in a disturbing echo of the infamous 2000 purge, which removed thousands of eligible voters, primarily African-Americans, from the rolls. The state abandoned the plan after news media investigations revealed that the 2004 list also included thousands of people who were eligible to vote, and heavily targeted African-Americans while virtually ignoring Hispanic voters.
- This summer, Michigan state Rep. John Pappageorge (R- Troy) was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying, 'If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election.' African Americans comprise 83% of Detroit's population.
- In South Dakota's June 2004 primary, Native American voters were prevented from voting after they were challenged to provide photo IDs, which they were not required to present under state or federal law.
- In Kentucky in July 2004, Black Republican officials joined to ask their State GOP party chairman to renounce plans to place 'vote challengers' in African-American precincts during the coming elections.
- Earlier this year in Texas, a local district attorney claimed that students at a majority black college were not eligible to vote in the county where the school is located. It happened in Waller County - the same county where 26 years earlier, a federal court order was required to prevent discrimination against the students.
- In 2003 in Philadelphia, voters in African American areas were systematically challenged by men carrying clipboards, driving a fleet of some 300 sedans with magnetic signs designed to look like law enforcement insignia.
- In 2002 in Louisiana, flyers were distributed in African American communities telling voters they could go to the polls on Tuesday, December 10th - three days after a Senate runoff election was actually held.
- In 1998 in South Carolina, a state representative mailed 3,000 brochures to African American neighborhoods, claiming that law enforcement agents would be 'working' the election, and warning voters that 'this election is not worth going to jail.'
As this report details, voter intimidation and suppression is not a problem limited to the southern United States. It takes place from California to New York, Texas to Illinois. It is not the province of a single political party, although patterns of intimidation have changed as the party allegiances of minority communities have changed over the years.
In recent years, many minority communities have tended to align with the Democratic Party. Over the past two decades, the Republican Party has launched a series of 'ballot security' and 'voter integrity' initiatives which have targeted minority communities. At least three times, these initiatives were successfully challenged in federal courts as illegal attempts to suppress voter participation based on race.
The first was a 1981 case in New Jersey which protested the use of armed guards to challenge Hispanic and African-American voters, and exposed a scheme to disqualify voters using mass mailings of outdated voter lists. The case resulted in a consent decree prohibiting efforts to target voters by race.
Six years later, similar 'ballot security' efforts were launched against minority voters in Louisiana, Georgia, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Indiana. Republican National Committee documents said the Louisiana program alone would 'eliminate at least 60- 80,000 folks from the rolls,' again drawing a court settlement.
And just three years later in North Carolina, the state Republican Party, the Helms for Senate Committee and others sent postcards to 125,000 voters, 97 percent of whom were African American, giving them false information about voter eligibility and warning of criminal penalties for voter fraud - again resulting in a decree against the use of race to target voters.
This report includes detailed accounts of the recent incidents listed above, and additional incidents from the past few decades. The report also lays out a historical review of more than a hundred years of efforts to suppress and intimidate minority voters following emancipation, through Reconstruction and the 'Second Reconstruction,' the years immediately following the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was among the crowning achievements of the civil rights era, and a defining moment for social justice and equality. The stories of the men and women who were willing to lay down their lives for the full rights of citizenship, including first and foremost the right to vote, are the stuff of history.
Their accomplishments can never be erased. Yet as this report details, attempts to erode and undermine those victories have never ceased. Voter intimidation is not a relic of the past, but a pervasive strategy used with disturbing frequency in recent years. Sustaining the bright promise of the civil rights era, and maintaining the dream of equal voting rights for every citizen requires constant vigilance, courageous leadership, and an active, committed and well-informed citizenry.
The Challenges of the 2004 Election and Beyond
The election problems in Florida and elsewhere that led to the disenfranchisement of some four million American voters in 2000 elections cast a harsh spotlight on flaws in our voting system, problems that involved both illegal actions and incompetence by public officials, as well as outdated machines and inadequate voter education. As election officials nationwide struggle to put new voting technology into place, redesign confusing ballots and educate voters, the opportunities for voter intimidation and suppression have proliferated along with opportunities for disenfranchisement caused by voter confusion and technical problems.
With widespread predictions of a close national election, and an unprecedented wave of new voter registration, unscrupulous political operatives will look for any advantage, including suppression and intimidation efforts. As in the past, minority voters and low-income populations will be the most likely targets of dirty tricks at the polls.
Voter Intimidation in Recent Years
Voter intimidation and suppression efforts have not been limited to a single party, but have in fact shifted over time as voting allegiances have shifted. In recent decades, African American voters have largely been loyal to the Democratic Party, resulting in the prevalence of Republican efforts to suppress minority turnout. Those efforts have also been extended in recent years to Latino communities.
During the 2003 mayoral election in Philadelphia, fully seven percent of a poll of 1000 African American voters described troubling experiences at the polls. Men with clipboards bearing official-looking insignia were reported at many precincts in African American neighborhoods.
Tom Lindenfeld, who ran the counter-intimidation campaign for Democratic candidate John Street, said this deployment included a fleet of 300 cars that featured decals closely resembling those of federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Many prospective voters reported being challenged for identification by such workers. Lindenfeld told reporters from the American Prospect that 'What occurred in Philadelphia was much more expansive and expensive than anything I'd seen before, and I'd seen a lot.'1
In fact, the scope of such efforts during the past two decades is startling. Based primarily on reports gleaned from newspapers across the nation, there have been documented instances of the following:
- Challenges and threats against individual voters at the polls by armed private guards, off-duty law enforcement officers, local creditors, fake poll monitors, and poll workers and managers.
- Signs posted at the polling place warning of penalties for 'voter fraud' or 'non-citizen' voting, or illegally urging support for a candidate.
- Poll workers 'helping' voters fill out their ballots, and instructing them on how to vote.
- Criminal tampering with voter registration rolls and records.
- Flyers and radio ads containing false information about where, when and how to vote, voter eligibility, and the false threat of penalties.
- Internal memos from party officials in which the explicit goal of suppressing black voter turnout is outlined.
A Republican effort in New Jersey in 1981 provided a model that was repeated across the country in the last two decades. The Republican National Committee and the New Jersey Republican State Committee engaged in a 'concerted effort to threaten and harass black and Hispanic voters'2 via a 'ballot security' effort. It involved widespread challenging of individual voters and an Election Day presence at African American and Latino precincts featuring armed guards and dire warnings of criminal penalties for voting offenses. A legal challenge eventually led to a court order and an agreement by the GOP groups not to employ such intimidation tactics.
But such tactics persist, as the incidents cited below, most recent first, attest: 2000-2004 1990-1999 1980-1989
People For the American Way Foundation, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a number of national organizations are combining forces to carry out the Election Protection program across the country in 2004. Election Protection is working now with election officials to identify and resolve potential problems. Closer to Election Day, Election Protection staff and volunteers will distribute state-specific Voters' Bills of Rights in more than 30 states. On Election Day, thousands of volunteers will monitor polling places and offer assistance to voters who run into problems. Voters, volunteers, and election officials will have access to a nationwide toll-free number to report problems, including voter intimidation efforts, to a team of specially trained volunteer attorneys and law students.
Robbing voters of their right to vote and to have their vote counted undermines the very foundations of our democratic society. Politicians, political strategists, and party officials who may consider voter intimidation and suppression efforts as part of their tactical arsenal should prepare to be exposed and prosecuted. State and federal officials, including Justice Department and national political party officials, should publicly repudiate such tactics and make clear that those who engage in them will be face severe punishment.
1 Garance Franke-Ruta and Harold Myerson, "The GOP Deploys," The American Prospect, vol. 15 no. 2, February 1, 2004; http://www.prospect.org/print-friendly/print/V15/2/franke-ruta-g.html 2 David Burnham, Above the Law: secret deals, political fixes and other misadventures of the U.S. Department of Justice, (Scribner:1996) p. 269. 3 Rebecca Neal and Joseph Gerth, 'GOP to put challengers at polls again this fall,' Louisville Courier-Journal, 7/30/04. 4 Joseph Gerth, 'Some in GOP urge party chief to quit,' Louisville Courier-Journal, 8/03/04. 5 Associated Press, 'Democrats blast GOP lawmaker's 'suppress the Detroit vote' remark,' 7/21/04. 6 Harvey Rice and Terry Kliewer, "Students take DA to court," Houston Chronicle, 2/6/04, http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/printstory.hts/metropolitan/ 2390118 7 Los Angeles Times, 2/15/04, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na- prairie15feb15,1,1370916,print.story?coll=la-headlines- nation 8 Harvey Rice, "Prarie View students sue again over voting," Houston Chronicle, 2/18/04, http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/printstory.hts/metropolitan/ 2408018 9 Sheldon S. Shafer, "GOP to put challengers in black voting precincts," Louisville Courier-Journal, 10/23/03. 10 Franke-Ruta and Meyerson, The American Prospect. 11 Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, "Voting Intimidation Continues," from internet page on voting rights; http://www.cccr.org/justice/issue.cfm?id=17 12 Lee Hockstader and Adam Nossiter, "GOP Outmaneuvered in La. Runoff," Washington Post, 12/9/02. 13 Bill Walsh, "Dirty deeds abounded in elections," New Orleans Times-Picayune, 12/12/02; Bill Walsh and Bruce Alpert, "Signs invoke rift with black leaders," New Orleans Times-Picayune, 12/9/02. 14 Joe Conason, "Democracy's Bullies," Salon, 11/5/02, available at: http://archive.salon.com/politics/conason/2002/11/05/bus h/ 15 Howard Libit and Tim Craig, "Allegations fly as Election Day nears," Baltimore Sun, 11/4/02; Eric Siegel, "Amid stir, voters stream to polls," Baltimore Sun, 11/6/02. 16 Laughlin McDonald, "The New Poll Tax," The American Prospect, vol. 13 no. 23, December 30, 2002; http://www.prospect.org/print/V13/23/mcdonald-l.html 17 David Kranz, "No evidence fraud tainted vote results, Barnett says," Argus Leader, 11/21/02. 18 David Kranz, "GOP issues apology for vote-fraud mailing," Argus Leader, 11/2/02; the mailing can be viewed at: http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/docs/rnc.fraud.1.html 19 David Kranz, "Preworded affidavits used in Republican fraud claims," Argus Leader, 12/17/02. 20 Carson Walker, "Charges dropped against woman accused of voter fraud," Associated Press, 1/28/04. 21 John Shiffman and Shelia Wissner, "Democrats charge GOP trying to depress voter participation," Tennessean, 11/5/02, http://www.tennessean.com/government/archives/02/11/2485 5708.shtml 22 ibid. 23 Shelia Wissner, "Settlement lists poll watcher dos, don'ts," Tennessean, 10/24/03, http://www.tennessean.com/government/archives/03/10/4132 3607.shtml 24 Summary of testimony, NAACP voting irregularities public hearing; Miami, FL; 11/11/2000. http://www.naacp.org/news/archives/2000/florida_irregula rities.shtml 25 ibid. 26 Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, (Plume:2003) pp. 11-12. 27 Democracy South, "Voting Rights in the South," available at: http://www.democracysouth.org/improving/rights- disenfranchisement.html 28 Jim Abrams, "Videotaping Voters Won't be Allowed," Associated Press, 11/3/98. 29 John Monk, "In Dillon County, GOP effort on black vote backfires," The State, 11/20/98. 30 Court decision, 3/6/03, C.A. No.2:01-0155023, C.C. No. 2:01-562-23, p.31. 31 Court decision, p. 32. 32 Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, "Letter to Ashcroft re: 'Voting Integrity,'" 10/25/02, available at: http://www.commoncause.org/publications/oct02/102502.htm 33 U.S. Department of Justice, "The Civil Rights Division at Thirty-five, A Retrospective," Overview of organization and activities, available at: http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/overview.html 34 ibid. 35 ibid. 36 Court decision, 3/6/03, p.34. 37 McDonald, The American Prospect. 38 Jill Lawrence, "Democrats Accuse GOP of Intimidating Minority Voters in Texas, North Carolina," Associated Press, 11/2/90. 39 Jennifer Dixon, "Brooks Asks Attorney General To Investigate Ads," Associated Press, 11/3/88; G. Robert Hillman, "U.S. to Monitor Voting in S. Texas," Dallas Morning News, 11/5/88. 40 Claudia Luther and Steven R. Churm, "GOP Was Warned About Poll Gueards, Registrar Says," Los Angeles Times, 11/11/88. 41 Lanie Jones and Steven R. Churm, "State Assails GOP's Posting of Poll Guards," Los Angeles Times, 11/9/88. 42 Barbara A. Serrano and Kim Christensen, "FBI investigating GOP's hiring of poll observers," Orange County Register, 11/9/88. 43 ibid. 44 Luther and Churm, Los Angeles Times. 45 Catherine Gewertz, "Voters to Get $400,000 in O.C. Poll-Guard Suit," Los Angeles Times, 12/28/89. 46 Dave Kaplan, "Context for Controversy," Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 11/13/93. 47 Knight-Ridder News Service, "Democrats Fault Voter Program; Demand Halt, $10M in Damages," 10/9/86; Democratic State Committee (PA), "State Committee Chair Issues a 'Fair Election Alert,'" PR Newswire, 10/31/86. 48 Bernard Weinraub, "Suit Charging G.O.P. Sought To Cut Black Vote is Settled," New York Times, 7/24/87. 49 McDonald, The American Prospect. 50 Laughlin McDonald; Quote from court decision, 3/6/03, C.A. No.2:01-0155023, C.C. No. 2:01-562-23, p.33. 51 McDonald, The American Prospect. 52 Ron Nixon, "Turning Back the Clock on Voting Rights," The Nation, 11/15/99. 53 Burnham, p.255. 54 Burnham, p.256. 55 Nixon, The Nation. 56 Burnham, p.260. 57 Burnham, p.261. 58 Todd J. Gillman, "Democrats see irony in GOP judge's ruling on election posts," Dallas Morning News, 7/4/98. 59 Alex Willingham, "Black Political Participation in the 1980's: Challenged by Conservatism," Southern Changes, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1982, pp. 5-11. 60 Kaplan, Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report. 61 Rachel E. Berry, "Democratic National Committee v. Edward J. Rollins: Politics as Usual or Unusual Politics?" unpublished article written by candidate for Juris Doctor at Washington & Lee University, May 1996, p. 3-4; available at: http://web.archive.org/web/20010611033355/home.wlu.edu/~ real/vol2/Berry.htm 62 Kaplan, Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report. 63 American Civil Liberties Union, "Reaffirmation or Requiem for the Voting Rights Act?" Public Policy Alert, May 1995, available at: http://archive.aclu.org/issues/racial/racevote.html 64 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Harper & Row, 1988, p. xxvii. 65 American Civil Liberties Union, "Reaffirmation or Requiem for the Voting Rights Act?" 66 Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2001, p. 1. 67 Eric Foner, Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy, Louisiana State University Press, 1984, p. 3. 68 Armand Derfner, "Development of the Franchise: 1957-1980," from Voting Rights in America, Karen Arlington & William Taylor, eds., 1992, p. 95. 69 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Political Participation, May 1968, p. iii. 70 ibid., p. 85. 71 ibid., p. 95. 72 ibid., p. 99. 73 ibid., p. 115. 74 ibid., p. 67-9. 75 ibid., p. 80. 76 ibid., p. 87. 77 ibid., p. 89. 78 ibid., p. 115-17. 79 ibid., p. 118. 80 ibid., p. 122. 81 ibid., p. 125-6. 82 ibid., p. 73. 83 ibid., p. 120. 84 ibid., p. 121-2. 85 ibid., p. 126. 86 James Loewen, "Continuing Obstacles to Black Electoral Success in Mississippi," Civil Rights Research Review, Fall-Winter 1981, p. 34. 87 ibid., p. 38. 88 Brian Sherman, "Done and Left Undone: A Survey of Local Electoral Practices and Politics in Georgia Fifteen Years After the Voting Rights Act," Civil Rights Research Review, Fall-Winter 1981, p. 43. 89 ibid., p. 42. 90 ibid., p. 48. 91 ibid., pp. 51-52. 92 ibid., p. 53. 93 Rolando Rios, "The Voting Rights Act: Its Effect in Texas," Civil Rights Research Review, Fall-Winter 1981, p. 80. 94 ibid., p. 81. 95 Brian Sherman, "Drawing the Lines: A Reapportionment Primer," Southern Changes, Vol. 5, No. 5, 1983, pp. 12-18. 96 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, The Voting Rights Act: Ten Years After, January 1975, pp. 174-76. 97 Loewen, p. 34. 98 ibid., pp. 36-37. 99 ibid., p. 34. 100 USCCR, The Voting Rights Act, pp. 178-80. 101 ibid., p. 191. 102 ibid., p. 202. 103 ibid., p. 185. 104 ibid., p. 199. 105 Nixon, The Nation.