Thursday, October 09, 2008

Voter suppression in the news

Our local counter-voter suppression task force completed its final strategy session Tuesday evening, but not without revealing one of the latest attempts to reduce Barack Obama's tally in Harris County. I'll let Gerry Birnberg take over:

There is a FALSE rumor going around by e-mail telling people that if they vote Straight Democratic Party, they must also cast a vote specifically for Barack Obama in order to have an Obama vote registered. THIS IS FALSE INFORMATION probably initiated by Republican dirty tricksters, but now being spread by well-meaning Barack Obama supporters.

The truth is that if you cast a Straight Democratic Party vote, you will be voting for Barack Obama and your Straight Democratic vote will count as a vote for Obama. But if you then go down and “vote” for Obama, you may actually be cancelling your Obama vote.

Don’t be fooled: Just cast a Straight Democratic Party vote and that will get Obama and all the Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.

If you vote on a Hart InterCivic e-Slate DRE (which you will in most all of our beloved Deep-In-The-Hearta) and emphasize your vote for a particular candidate after having clicked the "straight ticket" box, you have deselected that candidate. As in un-voting for him/her. And that's not a bug, it's a feature.

It takes a bit of devious thinking just to come up with a rumor like this to spread. And why would anybody want to go to the trouble of trying to fool people into not voting for Obama in Houston? They don't seriously believe he has a shot at winning Texas, do they?

This is just mischief-making, but it should be the least of anybody's worries. Don't believe me?

Despite bustling registration drives, population growth and excitement about the candidates, Harris County may head into the Nov. 4 election with the about same number of registered voters as in the 2004 presidential contest.

Ahead of Monday's registration deadline, about 1,912,000 citizens were on the voter roll as of Friday, county officials said. The number will grow as registrations continue through the weekend and mail postmarked by Monday arrives next week.

But the county must add 30,000 new eligible voters just to reach the 2004 level, and Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, the county voter registrar, acknowledged a strong chance that the sign-ups will go no higher than the figure from four years ago.

Why is that, Paul? Houston Votes added somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 registrations alone. Yet with at least 100,000 registrations from all sources -- yes, Republicans too -- the county is still 30,000 short of 2004? What gives?

But unlike in past elections years, Bettencourt said, registration efforts are producing an exceptionally high number of voters who are re-registering to update their address and a relatively low number of people who have never registered before.

"The excitement we're seeing is among people already registered to vote," he said. He pointed to the record-high total turnout in the March primaries, in which 98 percent of the participants already had been registered here before this year. ...

Dee Young of the registration group Houston Votes said the county's refusal to seek an extension of the registration deadline while Ike victims got back on their feet ran against the public interest.

"After all of the frustration I have dealt with, with the county, I don't trust their numbers," she said of Bettencourt's latest projections. ...

The secretary of state's methods of maintaining the Texas voter roll may have helped put a lid on the Harris County numbers. Applying new federal and state laws for the first time, the state immediately removes from the Harris County rolls the registration of those who have registered this year in other counties, Bettencourt said. In comparison, the 2004 list may have contained many inactive registrations.

Purging voter rolls by removing voters who have moved within Texas, or because they have not voted in one of the last two federal elections, could be a violation of federal law. But that's exactly what has been happening in several states (the Lone Star isn't named as one), coincidentally all of them identified as "swing states" in the 2008 presidential election now three-and-one-half weeks away. The New York Times elaborates (without placing blame on nefarious intent, I would add):

Tens of thousands of eligible voters in at least six swing states have been removed from the rolls or have been blocked from registering in ways that appear to violate federal law, according to a review of state records and Social Security data by The New York Times.

The actions do not seem to be coordinated by one party or the other, nor do they appear to be the result of election officials intentionally breaking rules, but are apparently the result of mistakes in the handling of the registrations and voter files as the states tried to comply with a 2002 federal law, intended to overhaul the way elections are run.

Still, because Democrats have been more aggressive at registering new voters this year, according to state election officials, any heightened screening of new applications may affect their party’s supporters disproportionately. The screening or trimming of voter registration lists in the six states — Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina — could also result in problems at the polls on Election Day: people who have been removed from the rolls are likely to show up only to be challenged by political party officials or election workers, resulting in confusion, long lines and heated tempers.

Just go read the whole thing. There's more in the AP's summary of the Times' investigative report:

The six states seem to have violated federal law in two ways. Some are removing voters from the rolls within 90 days of a federal election, which is not allowed except when voters die, notify the authorities that they have moved out of state, or have been declared unfit to vote.

And some of the states are improperly using Social Security data to verify registration applications for new voters, the newspaper reported.

More on 2008 voter suppression across the United States. Still more from Amy Goodman, Greg Palast, and Robert Kennedy Jr.

Coming back home ...

I have no idea how Paul Bettencourt manages the database of Harris County voter registrations. There's very little voluntary transparency and FOI requests by media and Democratic party officials are often slow-walked and counter-offered (questions regarding Hart's electronic processing of votes are often met with the "proprietary information" block, for example).

I further have no idea how much Harris County voter suppression can be allocated to malicious intent, garden-variety incompetence, or simple and somewhat blameless human error on the part of the registree, the volunteer registrar, or the assistant clerk processing it.

More than likely the determination of this sort of thing will rest with legal discovery after the fact of an epic fail.

Update: Oh yeah, almost forgot ...

Voter Suppression Wiki

Election Protection Wiki

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