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Obama Legislation Targets Voter Intimidation

August 25, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

(This is part of a series on legislation being sponsored in the Senate by presidential candidates Barack Obama (D-IL) and John McCain (R-AZ). Subscribe to our rss feed to get the rest.)

The findings section of Barack Obama’s Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2007 tells horror stories about our democracy:

>(6) Shortly before the 1990 midterm Federal elections, 125,000 voters in North Carolina received postcards providing false information about voter eligibility and a warning about criminal penalties for voter fraud. Ninety-seven percent of the voters who received postcards were African American.
>(7) In 2004, Native American voters in South Dakota were prevented from voting after they did not provide photographic identification upon request, despite the fact that they were not required to present such identification in order to vote under State or Federal law.
>(8) In the 2006 midterm election, 14,000 Latino voters in Orange County, California received mailings from the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, warning them in Spanish that ‘if you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that can result in incarceration…’. In fact, an immigrant who is a naturalized citizen of the United States has the same right to vote as any other citizen.
>(9) In the same 2006 election, some Virginia voters received automated phone messages falsely warning them that the ‘Virginia Elections Commission’ had determined they were ineligible to vote and that they would face severe criminal penalties if they tried to cast a ballot.
>(10) In 2006 in Maryland, certain candidates for Governor and United States Senator distributed fliers in predominantly African-American neighborhoods falsely claiming that certain candidates had been endorsed by their opponents’ party and by prominent figures who had actually endorsed the opponents of the candidates.

Misinformation campaigns like these seeking to disenfranchise voters would become a federal crime under Obama’s bill, and they would be punishable by a fine of up to $100,000, up to five years in prison, or both. The bill would also establish a process for the Attorney General to take corrective action to reach out to misinformed voters with correct information so they can participate in elections.

“It’s hard to imagine that we even need a bill like this. But, unfortunately, there are people who will stop at nothing to try to deceive voters and keep them away from the polls," Obama said at a Senate hearing on the bill in June 2007. "What’s worse, these practices often target and exploit vulnerable populations, such as minorities, the disabled, the elderly, or the poor.”

A House version of the bill was passed by unanimous consent more than a year ago. Despite that, it seems like Obama’s bill won’t be getting final approval in this Congress. It was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 2007 and has been awaiting floor action since. There has been no indication that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) plans to bring it to bring it to the Senate floor for a vote in the remaining few months of the session.

That may be because, despite its obvious benefit and its bi-partisan support in the House, the bill in the Senate has gotten tied up with the ever-sensitive, partisan issue of illegal immigration. Conservatives argue that rather than cracking down on intimidation techniques being used to disenfranchise eligible voters, the focus should be on addressing the use of falsified registration forms by illegal immigrants.

Former FEC member Hans Von Spakovsky recently wrote for the National Review Online that “although there is no reliable method to determine the exact number of registered aliens, there is evidence that this is a significant and growing problem.” And on the National Review’s blog, the Corner, Peter Kirsanow, a commissioner at the US Commission on Civil Rights, endorsed Spakovsky’s column. A year earlier, Kirsanow gave an influential testimony along similar lines before the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that “a subsequent media analysis showed that at least 2000 votes were cast illegally in Florida in the 2000 Presidential election. Since the margin of victory was 537 votes, the fraudulent votes were sufficient to affect the outcome of the election.”

In April 2007, the New York Times reviewed an unpublished, draft version of a report on voter fraud written by researchers Job Serebrov and Tova Wang and reported that, in the version that ended up being published, the Election Assistance Commission “played down the findings of experts who concluded last year that there was little voter fraud around the nation.” According to the Times, "though the original report said that among experts ‘there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling place fraud,’ the final version of the report released to the public concluded in its executive summary that ‘there is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud.’

It’s a partisan issue because Republicans’ plans to crack down on voter fraud include government-issued voter IDs. Democrats argue that acquiring a voter ID will be difficult for minorities, the poor and the elderly who are less likely to have the identification they would need to get a voter ID from the government- and are more likely to be Democrats.

When the Judiciary Committee marked up the bill in October 2007, Republicans offered three amendments seeking to expand the bill to address voter fraud. All three amendments were rejected with every committee Democrat (10) voting “nay” and every Republican (9) voting “aye.” It’s a good indication that if the bill were brought to the Senate floor for a debate, Republicans would work as a solid unit to add similar amendments and if they failed, block passage of the bill by voting against a procedural motion to end debate, which requires 60 votes. Even if every Democrat voted for the bill, it would take nine Republicans to cross party lines and vote for the bill in order for it to pass without the voter fraud language. Considering how good Republicans have been at sticking together so far this session, Reid’s probably right that the bill wouldn’t stand a chance.

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