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Voter Suppression Efforts Blunted by Vigilant Advocates and High Turnout in Wisconsin and Nationally
With most voter ID laws blocked before the 2012 elections and local election officials and civic groups prepared for True the Vote's intimidation tactics, some of the worst fears about voter disenfranchisement were averted in Tuesday's vote. But partisan voting laws and continued confusion over election administration led to long lines -- prompting President Obama to note "by the way, we have to fix that," in his acceptance speech.
Messy, protracted recounts in Florida and Ohio were also averted by President Obama's decisive win.
Voter ID Impact Appeared Limited
After Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections, a majority of states introduced new voting restrictions that would disproportionately make it harder for people of color and students to vote -- the same populations that turned out in record numbers to elect President Obama in 2008.
Eight states signed strict voter ID bills into law in 2011, potentially disenfranchising as many as five million Americans, but courts blocked the laws in six states. There was some confusion over the laws among poll workers and voters on Tuesday but turnout totals suggest the suppressive impact was largely blunted.
There were still some problems related to the legislation.
In Wisconsin, two separate courts struck down that state's law as an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, but did not touch another provision of the legislation eliminating "corroboration," which previously had allowed voters to register or change their address by having another person vouch for them. Anecdotal evidence suggests this change led to confusion. A Chief Election Inspector at a polling place in Racine told the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) he was still asking every new voter to show some sort of identification to verify "they are who they say they are," despite the voter ID law being blocked, since the corroboration requirement had been eliminated. CMD also observed an 18-year-old in Milwaukee who lived at home and did not have a driver's license being turned away at the polls, despite his mother being present to vouch for him.
Wisconsin also extended the residency requirement from 10 days to 28 days, which affected some voters who had recently moved.
In Pennsylvania, a judge blocked the state's voter ID laws for the November elections, but reports emerged that poll workers were still demanding ID to vote. According to the judge's ruling, poll workers could request ID, but were not allowed to require it.
True the Vote Threat Failed to Materialize
Fears of widespread voter intimidation by the Texas-based, Tea Party-affiliated group "True the Vote" also failed to materialize. In Ohio, poll watchers trained by True the Vote were banned from polling places for forging documents. In Wisconsin, election officials were prepared, after having a trial run for True the Vote's voter intimidation efforts in the state's recall election last June.
During Wisconsin's June recall election, the League of Women Voters fielded hundreds of complaints of voter intimidation or interference, many from college students interrogated about their residency by True the Vote poll observers. After the recall election, Wisconsin's elections board released a statement expressing concern about the "disturbing reports and complaints about unacceptable, illegal behavior by [poll] observers," and True the Vote took it personally.
City of Racine officials learned some lessons from the June recall and put new rules in place for the November 6 election. Some of the worst vigilante poll watcher incidents during the recall took place in Racine, a city south of Milwaukee with relatively high populations of Latino and African-American voters that tend to vote Democrat. For Tuesday's elections, Chief Election Inspectors more strictly enforced state laws requiring poll watchers maintain a six foot distance from voters, and established designated poll watcher areas demarcated by blue tape on the floor. The mayor assigned city's attorneys to visit polling stations throughout the day. Poll workers were also instructed that if an observer is kicked out of one polling place, they cannot visit another, preventing aggressive poll vigilantes from getting ejected from one location, only to move on to the next one.
Some Vigilante Poll Watcher Problems at Polling Places
Those rules helped limit the problems that did arise. At the Jefferson Elementary polling place, which serves a largely African-American community in Racine, two older white men challenged the documents a voter had shown to register. After being told by poll workers the documents were appropriate, they called Lou D'Abbraccio, a Racine County Republican leader who for years has run the GOP poll watching program in Racine.
D'Abbraccio was the star of a 2010 article in The Nation titled "Inside the Wisconsin Right's Voter-Suppression Scheme," and in the June recall election worked with True the Vote to train poll watchers, some of whom were accused of voter suppression tactics. D'Abbraccio later tried to distance himself from True the Vote by claiming "they didn't have a full understanding of the law," but D'Abbraccio himself was accused of breaking the rules for poll watchers and causing a scene at polling places.
Better prepared poll workers and the new rules in place for Tuesday's election helped limit similar disruptions. When D'Abbraccio visited the Jefferson Elementary polling place, he reportedly spoke in hushed tones with the poll watchers, then as he confronted the poll workers, was threatened with ejection as he began to get in the way of people trying to vote. "He knew a target was on his back," an election observer who witnessed the incident told the Center for Media and Democracy. "If he was kicked out, he knew he could not visit another polling place, and left voluntarily."
About ninety minutes later, a lawyer from Chicago arrived at the polling place and instructed the GOP poll watchers to start making formal challenges if they believed documents were insufficient. He too was kicked out of the polling place because his clipboard had a "Romney for President" sticker, violating state laws prohibiting electioneering within polling places.
When CMD visited Jefferson Elementary on election day, the same two white men sat crouched in the corner of the polling station watching intently as the largely African-American population registered and were handed their ballots. True the Vote's own analogy that their activities will make voters at polling stations feel like they are "driving with the police following you" seemed apt.
Despite these incidents, True the Vote's impact statewide and nationally seemed limited, perhaps because their pledge to recruit one million poll watchers fell short.
Long Lines, Confusion Created Problems
In Wisconsin and across the country, the biggest problems facing voters were long lines, which not only inconveniences those who do vote but more importantly deters others who cannot spend several hours waiting in line. Longer lines at polling places occurred disproportionately in communities of color, and were in part the result of poor election administration -- broken or malfunctioning equipment, insufficient ballots, and insufficient training of poll workers -- as well as partisan changes to election laws. These problems were compounded by voters being shuffled to new districts as a result of redistricting.
Project Vote Executive Director Michael Slater said in a statement that long lines were "partially a result of voters and poll workers alike having to navigate our nation's complicated labyrinth of voting laws, which have largely been erected to make voting more difficult, more confusing, and more intimidating."
In Florida, polls officially closed at 7pm, but some voters waited in line at least six hours and did not cast their ballots until 1am. Many blamed the long lines on the state's Republican governor and legislature, which had cut down on the number of days of early voting, including an end to Sunday voting which kept African-American churches from driving parishioners to the polls after services. A federal judge blocked Florida's limits on early voting for five counties covered by the Voting Rights Act, and the weekend before the election, the Obama campaign sued to extend early voting hours because lines for early voting had been so long that many voters had been deterred from casting their ballot. Also contributing to long lines were fewer polling places and a 12 page ballot filled with eleven different constitutional amendments.
Limits on early voting also led to long lines in Ohio. Secretary of State John Husted had tried eliminating early voting altogether -- which Democrats, particularly African-Americans, have tended to use in past elections -- and was rebuffed by the federal courts, but nonetheless limited the number of weekends where Ohioans can vote early from five to one.
Protracted, Messy Recount Avoided
Other problems with election administration in those two swing states could have become national issues if the presidential race had been more close.
In Ohio, voters who requested an absentee ballot but instead voted in-person had to cast a provisional ballot, but according to state law those ballots won't be counted for weeks, meaning that if the presidential election had come down to Ohio the nation would still not know who won. A directive from Ohio Secretary of State Husted would also have required that voters who made small errors on their provisional ballot would not have their vote counted.
In Florida, many counties continued counting ballots for days after the election, and if the final margin is under one-half percent, state law requires a recount -- which could have led to a re-run of the disastrous 2000 election.
Limited Access for Immigrant Populations
In Wisconsin, there remained "problems with level of staffing for bilingual poll workers," according to Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Executive Director of the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera, whose 501(c)(4) wing Voces de la Frontera Action helped Latino citizens register to vote. Wisconsin, like many states across the country, has a growing Latino population and is still struggling to catch up.
CMD was told by a Chief Election Inspector at one polling place in Milwaukee that they had three bilingual poll workers, but upon observing the polling place it became clear only one of the three spoke Spanish. The chief election inspector may have assumed the other two spoke Spanish because they had Hispanic surnames.
Nationally, Latinos made up a record-breaking 10% of the electorate, according to exit polls. Neumann-Ortiz said that her group had great success increasing Latino turnout, and that nine wards they targeted saw a 68% increase in voting over the 2008 presidential election. She also noted that 65% of Latino voters in Wisconsin voted for President Obama, citing his Executive Order offering deferred action to young people who were brought to the U.S. as a child and graduated high school.
"This should send a message to Obama and Republican party officials that here is a changing demographic, that Latinos are the country's fastest growing ethnic group, and that federal immigration reform must be a priority," she said. "We are ready both in the streets and the voting booth, and this is a mandate for immigration reform."
Effort to Limit Minority Vote Backfired
Nationally, 71% of Latino voters went for Obama, as did 93% of African-American voters. Voters of color made up 28 percent of the electorate in 2012, an increase from 26 percent in 2008, and voted 80 percent for Obama.
Republicans had tried responding to these demographic changes by passing laws to suppress their voting rights. But many indicators suggest the effort backfired -- that it instead motivated civil rights and civic groups to work even harder to register voters and increase turnout.
"It is certainly the case that so-called voter suppression efforts were rallying points for the base of the Democratic Party," said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That's undeniable."
With Republicans regrouping after Tuesday's shellacking, it remains to be seen whether they will readjust their approach to America's growing populations of color. As for the Obama administration, many are hoping that the federal government will provide leadership to help ensure the right to vote is protected uniformly across the nation.