April 2012

Right Wing Targets Voting Rights
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Their stories are alarming. Ruthelle Frank, an 81-year-old woman from a small town in Wisconsin who has been voting since 1948, is told she needs to purchase new identification papers to vote in 2012 due to a new voter ID requirement passed by the state legislature.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year-old African-American resident who has cast a ballot in every election since she became eligible to vote, is told she needs new paperwork to vote in 2012.

In a nation that was home to its own bloody battle for voting rights for African-Americans, a nation that sends observers to other countries to oversee fair elections, right-wing legislators in 34 states have introduced voter ID laws that could prevent millions of voters from casting ballots in 2012.

"What has happened this year is the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century," says Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, an "action tank" for "those left behind in America."

"It's a terrible situation," says Charles Horhn, 77, who served for 20 years as business manager of a Jackson, Miss., manufacturing local, when asked how he feels about states enacting requirements making it harder for citizens to vote.

Last November, Mississippi passed a photo ID law by referendum as an amendment to the state's constitution. The divisiveness of the issue can be seen in the turnout. Eighty-three percent of white voters approved the amendment, but less than one-quarter of the African-American voters did.

Recent stories about elderly citizens of all races and nationalities who have voted throughout their lives but are now being asked to go to outrageous lengths to prove their identities evoke painful memories for Horhn, who has worked for 19 years as a district director for Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

Horhn remembers having to pay a poll tax and interpret a section of the Mississippi Constitution for poll workers to be permitted to vote back in 1957.

"In some counties," says Horhn, "if you went to register to vote, you were met with mob violence." After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 deemed poll taxes illegal, federal marshals protected African-Americans who showed up at the polls, including Horhn's mother.

Voting-rights advocates are filing suits and mobilizing. Labor and political activists, including IBEW members, are lobbying to stop or limit suppression efforts. But elections have consequences, and Republicans who took office after the 2010 elections are successfully undermining voting rights, including some bipartisan efforts of recent years to extend the franchise.

"The ultra-right's efforts to disempower voters, like their measures to undermine unions, are dangerous," says International President Edwin D. Hill. "They threaten not just the 2012 elections, but our nation's democracy. To defend working families, we need to defeat voter suppression."

Too Late for Early Voting?

Among the more unfortunate casualties of the voter suppression campaign is early voting. Once applauded by Republicans and Democrats alike as a means of limiting overcrowding at the polls while recognizing voters' obligations to jobs and families, early voting is now being pruned back under the leadership of GOP governors in Florida and Ohio. Their motivation is transparent: in 2008, early voters in both important swing states gave candidate Barack Obama an advantage.

Voting on the Sunday before elections has also been eliminated in Ohio and Florida. Activists say the bans are designed to undermine the traditional and effective efforts of predominantly black and Hispanic churches to mobilize parishioners to vote.

International Representative Brian Thompson, IBEW's Florida political coordinator, says labor unions and the Democratic Party lobbied hard against voter suppression in that state. Despite those efforts, some severe restrictions were enacted. New voters used to have 10 days to return registration forms; now they only have two days.

And, says Thompson, "Even dedicated non-partisan groups, like the League of Women Voters, have decided to discontinue registering voters due to steep fines for third-party voter registration volunteers."

Deirdre MacNabb, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, told Talking Points Memo that volunteers would have to have "a secretary on one hand and a lawyer on the other hand" as they registered voters.

Florida college students, who turned out heavily for Barack Obama in 2008, will be forced to vote with provisional ballots if they do not have local addresses on their ID documents.

The U.S. Department of Justice is requesting a trial to decide if Florida's actions violate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires entire jurisdictions or regions of 16 states to be cleared by the Justice Department's civil rights division or a federal court before changing election procedures.

"We're educating our members about the new rules and encouraging them to re-register if necessary," says Thompson.

Phony Fraud Allegations

Legislators who endorse new voter ID laws and other restrictive measures say they are necessary to prevent voting fraud. A deeper look shows no evidence of widespread fraud anywhere in the U.S., but rather a deliberate campaign going back decades to suppress the vote in minority and working-class communities more likely to elect candidates who will support unions, the elderly and the unemployed.

After taking office in 2001, the Bush administration announced that investigations of voting fraud would be a "top priority" for federal prosecutors. However, between 2002 and 2007, they brought no prosecutions charging individuals with impersonating voters.

Last year, after South Carolina was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice, which alleged that the state's voter ID law was discriminatory, the director of motor vehicles drew national attention alleging that more than 950 eligible voters on the state's list were actually deceased. South Carolina's attorney general later refuted the DMV's allegation.

"It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls," the New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice, a well-respected advocate for voting rights, reported in 2007.

Disenfranchisement Campaign has Deep Roots

The most recent wave of voter suppression goes back several years. In 2008, the Bush administration supported Indiana in the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of the state's voter ID law, one of the nation's first since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures.

President Obama's winning campaign that year drew upon the votes of record numbers of union members, students, low-income voters, people of color and recent immigrants. The African-American vote increased more than 15 percent since the 2004 elections. For Latinos, the increase was 28 percent.

These communities are the ones whose votes would be disproportionately affected by voter suppression and anti-immigrant laws.

The Brennan Center reports that states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 191 electoral votes — more than 63 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Out of 12 likely battleground states, four have already limited some voting rights, and two more are considering new restrictions.

2010 Republican Wave Behind Suppression

Six hundred Republican legislators and governors who won office in the 2010 midterm elections fuel the current flurry of bills to restrict voting and set a more favorable table for their party in 2012.

Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that sanctioned unlimited corporate political spending, is boosting the right-wing campaigns. So are negative ads funded by so-called "super PACs," the political action committees that now collect those unlimited funds to fuel mostly negative political ads.

Now, the American Legislative Exchange Council — funded by millions of dollars from wealthy ideologues like the Kansas-based billionaire Koch brothers — is establishing the voter suppression agenda. More than 2,000 state legislators belong to ALEC, which churns out proposed legislation to limit collective bargaining rights of public workers, prevent health insurance reform legislation and regulations to protect workers and consumers. In state houses across the country, these bills are introduced by legislators, sometimes verbatim.

Funded by more than 300 corporate members, including union-organized giants like AT&T, UPS and Verizon, ALEC has developed the most recent national voter suppression strategy, its roots go much deeper.

Donald Cohen, the director of the Cry Wolf Project, a Web site designed to refute the right-wing's manipulation of facts, points to 1970s brainstorming sessions sponsored the Conference Board, a mainstream business organization. He says: "The [top business executives] openly expressed their worries whether democracy, in the long run, was even compatible with capitalism." A participant, he reports, said: "One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since World War II."

'I Don't Want Everybody to Vote'

Thirty years later, writes Cohen, Grover Norquist, one of the nation's most influential conservatives, published an article in the American Spectator that focused on "knocking down the five pillars" of Democratic Party support. His fifth pillar, after unions, trial lawyers, federally funded nonprofit social service providers, and big city political machines, was "voter fraud."

In a Rolling Stone story, "The GOP War on Voting," Ari Berman reports that Paul Weyrich, an influential conservative, told a group of evangelical leaders in 1980, "I don't want everybody to vote … As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting population goes down. "

Dirty Tricks

Some moves to restrict voting take place far away from state legislative chambers, close to or on Election Day. A Maryland case typifies eleventh-hour dirty tricks that have been employed for years.

In 2010, former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich's campaign manager approved an Election Day robocall to thousands of voters, mostly African-American, to close out Ehrlich's re-match with Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Designed to suppress the black vote, the robocall told recipients to "relax," notifying them that O'Malley had won even though the polls had not closed. The robocall was designed to sound like it was coming from the Democratic Party to keep voters home.

But, finally, some justice is being achieved. Last December, Ehrlich's campaign manager, Paul Schurick, was found guilty of fraud for the deceptive calls. State prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt told the Baltimore Sun he believed the conviction was the first under a 2006 addition to the Voter Rights Protection Act that made it illegal to use deceptive messaging to influence a voter's decision to go to the polls.

Says International President Edwin D. Hill, "We need to challenge voter suppression everywhere it rears its head, whether it is accomplished legally or against the law. But our very best defense is mobilizing as many members, neighbors and community members as possible to go to the polls and elect candidates who stand by workers and our families."

On March 12, the Justice Department blocked Texas from enforcing a new law requiring voters to present photo identification at polling places charging that the law would disproportionately lower turnout among eligible Hispanic voters. Another voter suppression law was blocked by a judge in Dane County, Wis.

The IBEW will report on new developments in the voter suppression battle on www.ibew.org.


Building Trades Joins Fight for
Voter Rights in California

Escondido, Calif., is nearly half Latino, but you wouldn't know it looking at its elected officials. One of San Diego County's oldest cities, Escondido — located just north of San Diego — has elected only two Latinos to its city council in its 123-year history.

And this has community and labor activists crying foul. Now civil rights leaders, community activists and the state Building and Construction Trades Council have joined together to file a lawsuit charging the city with violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 2001 California Voting Rights Act.

"A lot of neighborhoods aren't reflected on the council," says San Diego Local 569 Business Manager Johnny Simpson.

Activists are pushing for the city to change from citywide to district elections for council seats, which they say would make the council more representative of the city as a whole.

Escondido resident Demetrio Gomez, a member of the local building trades, was quoted by the North County Times as testifying before the council that "there are no representatives from our large Latino neighborhoods, and this council is elected by — and caters to — wealthier non-Latinos."

The council's exclusion of Latinos has gone hand in hand with an aggressive anti-worker policy. The city's elected leaders are currently trying to exempt Escondido from prevailing wage rules that set a bar on wages and benefits for city construction projects.

"These kind of actions not only hurt our members, but Escondido residents as well, many of whom make a living in construction," says Simpson.

Attorneys for the city counterattacked, filing a motion to remove the building trades as plaintiff. Councilwoman Olga Diaz, the sole Latino on the council and a supporter of the lawsuit, says that her colleagues are trying to remove the building trades from the suit because the unions are paying for the lawyers in the case.

But Simpson says that regardless of what the city says, voting rights is a workers' rights issue. "Most Latino residents in Escondido are workers, and many are union members and any attempt to deny them a voice in their own city is an attack on working people everywhere."


Charlie Horhn

Members of Los Angeles Local 11 traveled to Alabama to commemorate the 47-year anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march that helped win the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From left are Herb Lyons, Tom DeMoore, Diana Limon, Business Manager Marvin Kropke and Luis Arida.

Member Recalls Voting Rights Struggle

Mary O'Brien

Retired International Representative Mary O'Brien worked with Charles Horhn at Presto Manufacturing, assembling crockpots and pressure cookers for Sunbeam and Sears.

O'Brien recalls being accompanied by a federal marshal to register to vote and attending meetings with Claude Ramsey, the white leader of the state's AFL-CIO, while lying down in the back seat of his car to avoid being seen and drawing white supremacist violence.

The first African-American woman to serve on IBEW's staff, O'Brien says, "I can't believe some people today are so nonchalant about their voting rights."

O'Brien, who retired in 2000, sees similar motivations behind current efforts to keep students from voting in states where they attend colleges and universities with the struggles in the '60s.

Powerful voter registration campaigns among students at traditionally black colleges in Mississippi — like Jackson State and Alcorn State — she says, were decisive in breakthrough elections of Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and other African-American leaders.

"They kept gerrymandering and redistricting to keep us from electing our own representatives, but we fought back," says O'Brien.

Even into the early 1970s, says O'Brien, there were still complicated rules for voting. "We found out very quickly that gains that we won in collective bargaining could be wiped away depending upon who was elected," she says.

The state's AFL-CIO helped engage members beyond the plant gates, conducting voter registration drives and transporting the elderly to polling places, says O'Brien. New coalitions helped to win mail-in voting and other reforms and elect new clerks who fairly conducted elections across the state.

Suppressing the Vote —
Who's Next?

Right-wing politicians have employed numerous tactics as part of their campaign to suppress the vote in 2012 and beyond:

Photo ID Laws — At least 34 states introduced legislation that would require voters to show photo identification in order to vote. Eleven percent ,or over 21 million, of American citizens do not possess a government-issued photo ID.

Making Voter Registration Harder — At least 13 states introduced bills to end highly-popular Election Day and same-day voter registration and limit voter registration and other registration opportunities. Maine, for instance, passed a law eliminating Election Day registration.

Reducing Early and Absentee Days — At least nine states introduced bills to reduce their early voting periods and four tried to reduce absentee voting opportunities.

Disenfranchising Voters with Criminal Records — Across the U.S., 5.3 million Americans are not allowed to vote because of criminal convictions. Of those, 4 million have completed their sentences and live, work and raise families in their communities.

The U.S. is one of only two countries that disenfranchise large numbers of persons for lengthy or indefinite periods after they have completed their time in prison. In Iowa and Florida, Republicans reversed prior laws that restored voting rights of formerly incarcerated persons.

Proof of Citizenship Laws — Twelve states have introduced legislation that would require proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, to register or vote.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history at Harvard University, compared modern-day efforts to limit voting by immigrants to a 1921 English-language literacy requirement that remained in force in New York State for decades. He said, "The targets of exclusionary laws have tended to be similar for more than two centuries: the poor, immigrants, African-Americans, people perceived to be something other than 'mainstream' Americans. No state has ever attempted to disenfranchise upper-middle-class or wealthy white male citizens."

Voter Caging — The organization One Wisconsin Now says the Republican Party in Wisconsin, along with Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party groups, are engaging in "voter caging." They are sending out official-looking mail to registered voters. If the mail — usually targeting students and members of the military — is returned to the sender, the letter can be used to challenge their votes on Election Day with claims the address is not valid.

Sources: Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law, One Wisconsin Now.