Carol Jones, Metro Justice Organizer, registering new voters.

Cross-posted at

By Jon Greenbaum, Lead Organizer, Metro Justice

(Metro Justice is Citizen Action’s Rochester affiliate)

If you believe that all Americans have the right to vote you are in good company. Although the United States got its start as a nation in which only property-owning white men enjoyed the right to vote, Americans organized at the grassroots to expand voting rights to every citizen. Community groups like Metro Justice continue this tradition by launching extensive voter registration drives. This year Metro Justice registered close to 5,000 Rochester city residents.

But not everybody appreciates these efforts. According to Senator John McCain, ACORN, a group that has registered over a million voters this year, “is on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history” and “may be destroying the fabric of democracy.” The Republicans are calling ACORN a “quasi criminal organization” and the McCain campaign has launched ads about “massive voter fraud.”

There might be very real threats to American democracy, but voter registration drives certainly aren’t a menace and the issue of “voter fraud” is a blatant red herring. At Metro Justice our quality control staff called every person we registered in order to make sure our community outreach workers were complying with the law. Apparently some ACORN employees did violate the law and came back to the office with false registrations. But the quality control system worked- the ACORN staff identified the problem and alerted the local Board of Elections.

This is not “voter fraud.” It would be voter fraud if somebody attempted to vote as a false registrant. Are people actually doing this? Is there real voter fraud occurring in the United States? Viewers of lurid reports by Fox News and CNN might be led to this conclusion. But the reality is that, according to a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice, this kind of voter fraud is as widespread as “death by lightning.” And after five years of study, after being pushed by the Bush administration to investigate voter fraud, the United States Department of Justice concluded that there was virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew elections.

If voter fraud doesn’t rate as a “threat to democracy” why have the Republicans cried wolf so loudly? Why did Karl Rove push the Department of Justice to pursue “voter fraud” cases and why did the DOJ fire Attorneys who refused?   (The resultant scandal eventually brought down Attorney General Gonzalez and Karl Rove). And why does it appear that the FBI is now launching an investigation into ACORN?

The answer is that not every American shares your belief that we all have the right to our vote. According to David Iglesias, one of the U.S. attorneys who were vindicated after being fired by President Bush’s DOJ, “Based on what I saw in 2004 and 2006, [voter fraud] is a scare tactic.” The GOP campaign to fill the headlines with allegations of “voter fraud” seems to be part of a strategy to pass restrictive voter ID laws across the country. If Republican operatives can get people to be worried about “hordes of illegal voters” then Republican legislators won’t seem so unreasonable about pursuing restrictive laws requiring a photo ID in order to vote.

In Indiana, where the state has enacted a law requiring photo ID in order to vote, twelve Sisters of the Holy Cross were turned away from the polls this year because their drivers’ licenses had expired.  The Sisters are in good company. One out of ten Indiana citizens doesn’t have the proper ID required to vote. But this law will have a disproportionate impact on African Americans and Latinos who are twice as likely not to have photo ID. In fact the Indiana law will likely strip the vote from an estimated 100,000 black voters in that swing state. The Republican legislators who wrote the law probably weren’t trying to disenfranchise nuns but they might have been thinking about the fact that African Americans are more likely to vote Democratic.

A recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the Indiana law gives the green light for other states to enact these kinds of restrictive photo ID laws. But the photo ID laws are not the only real threats to American democracy. Twenty states have put restrictions on voter registration drives.  After 80 years of registering voters, the League of Women Voters ceased their annual voter registration drive in Florida after the state passed a law which would fine the League $5,000 for every voter registration form that didn’t comply with state law. The restrictive Florida law also has a disproportionate impact on African American and Latinos who are less likely to be registered to vote.

Florida was also ground zero for massive disenfranchisement in 2000. Although the hanging chad controversy got the most media coverage, the biggest threat to democracy that year was the “purging” of tens of thousands of potential voters. Florida Secretary of State Catherine Harris spent millions of dollars creating “felon” lists and then instructed county elections supervisors to “purge and block” these voters due to their status as ex-offenders, even though the move contradicted state law granting the vote to Florida citizens who did their time in other states (many Florida voters just had names that were close to the names on the felon list). Once again the law had a disproportionate impact on African Americans.  The elections supervisor in Hillsborough County found that 54 percent of the targeted voters were African-American in a county where blacks only constitute 11% of the population.  George Bush went on to win Florida and the presidency by 500 votes. In a clear conflict of interest, Catherine Harris had also served as co-chair of the Bush campaign committee in Florida.

Another threat to American democracy is a little known portion of the Help America Vote Act. The statute requires Secretaries of State to reject first time registrants where officials decide they cannot match their identity to government records. So far the Secretaries of State have appeared to violate the law, incorrectly using bureaucratic means to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters in swing states.

In California, Republican Secretary of State Bruce MacPherson dismissed 42% of new registrations. According to the new Secretary of State, Democrat Debra Bowen, these citizens were predominantly citizens with Latino and Asian surnames.

In 2004, when people arrived to vote on Election Day 3 million Americans were handed provisional ballots. One million of those ballots were thrown away. Once again the move had a disproportionate impact on people of color – about 88% of these lost votes were cast by minorities.  These voters had been “caged” meaning that mail that had been sent to them had been returned, which can trigger partisan challenges.  In Ohio in 2004, the swing state that clinched the presidency for another four years for George Bush, the Ohio Republican Party challenged 35,000 voters using this technique.

There are real threats to American democracy. ACORN’s voter registration drive is not one of those threats.