Can We Vote? Barriers to Full Participation Remain Rampant

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Carol Ammons says the Champaign County
Clerk’s office has rejected
hundreds of voter registrations
collected during a
drive by her group, C-U
Citizens for Peace and Justice,
and the reasons for
rejection seem hard to swallow. One local
man allegedly mailed in his registration form
with a note requesting a form for his “wife,”
but his form was returned because he had
failed to check “male” or “female.”
A large number of new registrants, some
with Ammons group and some not, also
reported that the Clerk’s office was rejecting
an “old form” that is supposedly no longer
valid. Ammons says she had personally
picked up about 30 of these blank forms
from the driver’s license bureau. “I specifically
asked the man there if he was sure
these were the right forms,” she said. “And
he said, yes, these are the forms we’ve been
using. But after we turned them in, they were
all rejected.”
Area librarians also report similar problems.
Local citizens who inquired about
voter registration forms at local libraries
reported that the forms available at local
libraries were the same forms that the
Clerk’s office told them were no longer
valid. But when librarians called to doublecheck,
the Clerk’s office said they had the
right forms.
Organizers of a recent “Rock the Vote”
musical event say the Clerk’s office also told
them they could not make voter registration
forms available because of the proximity of
alcohol. Although official rules forbid a registrar
from signing up voters where alcohol
is served, there is no such restriction on socalled
Motor Voter forms like those available
at driver’s license bureaus and libraries.
“The county clerk’s efforts to suppress
voting have been vigorous and persistent,”
said Urbana City Councilwoman Esther Patt.
“In 2000, two of my co-workers turned in
change of address of registration the first
week in September. The guy who lived in
Savoy got a new voter registration card three
days later. The woman who lived on Fifth &
Green didn’t get her new card until the day
before the election.”
“This year, [County Clerk Mark Shelden]
showed up at Quad Day around 11:00 a.m.
after more than 300 students had registered
to vote and decreed that the forms they used
were no good under a November 2003 law,”
Patt said. “He had been accepting those
forms for months, right up through August of
this year until his decision on Quad Day to
deem them invalid. All those people had to
re-register. On Election Day in 2000, polling
places in Mahomet had extra booths and in
the polling places on campus, people had to
wait in lines because there weren’t enough
booths. One polling place … ran out of ballots.
How does this happen?”
A call to the County Clerk’s office was
not immediately returned, but other community
activists, notably in the Green Party, say
they have had no problems with the County
Clerk. In fact, compared to other county
clerks in Illinois, they say, Mark Shelden’s
administration has been very conscientious.
Yet the question remains: if so many people
are having trouble registering and voting in
one small town, no matter who is specifically
to blame, isn’t there a problem? And it
isn’t just here.
In the US over the last four years, a quote
attributed to former Soviet dictator Josef
Stalin has become popular: “The people who
cast the votes decide nothing. The people
who count the votes decide everything.” Historians
and urban legend busters are pretty
much agreed that the quote is fake. But it
continues to appear on tee-shirts, bumper
stickers and elsewhere. It seems to resonate
with large number of people these days,
many of whom probably had never lent an
eyeball to stories of problems with voting
machines, long lines at the polls or inaccessibility
of voter registration forms – before
November 2000, that is.
But as we go to print, the specter of the
“Stolen Election” of 2000 hangs over the
current election cycle as if it happened yesterday.
And judging by how much has been
done to correct the problems that made Florida
a symbol of electoral debacle, you might
think it did happen yesterday.
Just weeks before
the elections, former
President Jimmy
Carter was in Florida
observing the elections
and wrote in the Washington
Post that “The
disturbing fact is that a
repetition of the problems
of 2000 now
seems likely, ”
(9/27/04). Carter says
the basic conditions for
a fair election do not at
present exist in Florida,
citing “basic international requirements
for a fair election” such as a nonpartisan
electoral commission or official organizing
and conducting the electoral process and uniformity
of voting procedures for all citizens
as “missing in Florida,” (AP 9 / 2 7 / 0 4 ) .
In fact, problems cropped up in Florida
within one hour after early voting began
there (AP 10/18/04). A sitting state legislator
claimed she was given an incomplete ballot.
Computers were not in working order in
Broward and Orange Counties. And more
problems seem likely to surface at the time
of this writing.
Nor have problems been limited to the
state where the President’s brother is Governor.
Carter could have cited similar problems
in a number of states. Aprivate contractor in
Colorado has failed to send out over 13,000
absentee ballots, according to the A P
(10/21/04). A group of international
observers from 15 countries said Georgia’s
electronic voting machines should produce
paper receipts and that poll workers needed
more training.
And BBC investigative journalist Greg
Palast has written extensively and disturbingly
on voter disenfranchisement during
the 2000 election and since. Palast broke
stories such as the debacle in Gadsden, Florida’s
“blackest” county, where optical scanning
machines rejected over 2,000 ballots
with even the tiniest stray marks, while in
neighboring “white” Tallahassee the same
machines returned the same “spoiled” ballots
to voters so they could try again. Gadsden
County alone more than accounted for
Gore’s loss of the state.
Among Palast’s recent revelations is the
story that DBT Online, now ChoicePoint, the
Republican-connected company infamously
responsible for the deletion of 94,000 Floridians
from voting registers in order to prevent
3,000 ex-felons from voting, has since
received contracts in states all across the
country to supply and operate new computerized
voting machines. These machines do
not automatically produce any paper records,
and local officials nationwide have demonstrated
reluctance to order such paper trails.
Moreover, with the proper access codes,
election results can be altered without leaving
any trace of evidence that it has been
done or of what the actual results had been.
“There is so much fraud by election officials
in these United States,” says researcher
Frances Fox Piven “And we always treat it –
political scientists, pundits and the public –
we always treat it as marginal. It certainly
w a s n ’t marginal in
2000. And I don’t think
it’s going to be marginal
in 2004, either. ”
R a t h e r, “rampant” is
the word she uses.
“But there are multiple
kinds of fraud,” says
Piven, “fraud through
tampering with
machines; fraud
through turning people
away for not having
filled out one or another
nonsensical things; fraud when people come
to the wrong polling place or the failure to
give them a provisional ballot or to count
provisional ballots; the failure to count the
ballots of some mail-in voters and not other
mail-in voters. Military voters will get
counted. Overseas Americans who vote by
absentee ballot will find it more difficult to
get their votes counted, because they will be
Kerry supporters.”
In 1988 Piven and Richard A. Cloward
published their findings on the barriers to
voting in the US as Why Americans Don’t
Vote, which profoundly shocked many
Americans who had assumed such things
went out with Jim Crow, and later revised
and updated the research for Why Americans
Still Don’t Vote. Piven and Cloward were
largely responsible for the campaign that
eventually led to the Motor Voter law, making
voter registration forms more widely
But Piven says the law was never fully
implemented. And there were “a lot of foulups,”
such as people not receiving a card
telling them where to vote.
“But another problem is that the law was
never really implemented in the other agencies,”
Piven says, “the agencies that serve
poorer people, that are specified in the law:
welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and disability
agencies – and in some states in other
agencies as well. In New York State, for
example, the big universities, SUNY and
CUNY, are supposed to offer to register students
to vote when they register for classes.
And they don’t do it. So the law was a step in
the right direction, but the implementation of
the law impeded its full effect. That’s part of
what happened.”
The other part of the story, according to
Piven and Cloward’s Why Americans Don’t
Vote, is that the barriers to full participation
in the United States are not solely procedural.
Full participation, Piven says, also
depends on parties that would mobilize those
who were procedurally eligible to vote.
“That couldn’t happen unless people were in
the voting pool. But if politicians ignore
them, ignore their issues, don’t work in their
neighborhoods, don’t speak in their language,
then they will be discouraged.”
“Now in this election, it’s really interesting.
There does seem to be a lot of interest
among the non-voters in turning out. There is
a surge among minority neighborhoods, in
poorer neighborhoods and among young people.
T h a t ’s very, very important. Of course it
could end up that we’ll get a surge of several
percentage points, Kerry will be elected, and
if he disappoints these people by his policies,
then the surge will recede and we’ll go back
to our fifty percent turnout rate.”
So Piven does make procedural suggestions:
full implementation of the Motor Voter law;
proportional representation in the Electoral
College (some states allow splitting their
assigned votes, but most don’t); voter-verified
paper trails with all computerized voting;
and other things. But for the most part,
she advocates mobilizing the electorate
around issues they care about, in effect making
it impossible to ignore them.
Yes, she says, we must be vigilant and
stamp out the kind of fraud that Greg Palast,
Carol Ammons, Esther Patt and others
report. Eligible voters must know that their
votes will be counted, but more than this
they must know that their participation will
count. The way we do this, Piven says, is
first we vote, then we “raise hell.”

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