MRG intern, Marissa Burik, tells us how junk mail and the credit crunch could be used against new minority voters
One might assume that, in democratic countries, voting is a right not a privilege. This is what I have always assumed about the United States of America. But very recently, there have been major challenges to this inherent right. These challenges diminish the trust between the government and the electorate. And they are particularly relevant to this election, because of the massive numbers of newly registered voters.
This election season has seen over 660,000 new voters register to vote in Ohio alone. The majority of those new voters are from previously underrepresented groups, such as the economically disadvantaged, young people, and minorities. But what many of these new voters do not realise is that registration is just the starting point: many obstacles – political and legal – have to be overcome before they get to cast their vote on November 4th. The Obama campaign is certainly taking the issue seriously: it’s already been in touch with the justice department about cases of alleged voter intimidation.
The first major issue is voter suppression. Voter suppression is a method of legalized election fraud in which voters are intimidated or purged from voter rolls. In other words, if you can’t beat them, just get less of their supporters to vote. How does it work? Political organisers target new voters in a specific neighbourhood – often the poorer areas. They send a piece of junk mail. If it is returned, or goes unanswered, political operatives argue that the registration may be fraudulent, because voter may not live there. It sounds incredible – but I’ve seen the consequences of this on polling day. In the 2007 mayoral race in Canton, Ohio, while we were struggling to get out the democrat vote, the republican side was struggling to suppress it, by challenging the eligibility of ‘junk mail’ voters on the electoral register. In 2008, this political ‘technique’ will be even more relevant because of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. The tragedy is that as more and more people lose their homes, they could also lose their vote. A double-whammy, if ever there was one.
Another problem is the tighter identification rules in some states – often the key swing states. In 2002 Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. This new legislation was in response to the 2000 election, in which Florida was turned into a state of chads and butterfly ballots. The law made it possible for states to create legislation requiring identification. For example in my home state of Ohio in 2004, people were turned away from polling stations because they did not have proper identification. This – in itself – was illegal because even those without ID are allowed to vote provisionally. But even more worrying, it was a practise pursued by a Republican dominated legislature, executive and judiciary, and disproportionately affected those who were poor and from minority backgrounds. Or in other words, voters who were most likely to support the Democrats. How worried should we be about this in 2008? Well, Obama’s team is so concerned that it has amassed a formidable team of lawyers in Florida. Their job will be to challenge the challenges, and to ensure that any recount would be conducted without undue political influence. In other words, they are not going to be caught off-guard this time.
The biggest tragedy in all of this is the lack of respect for new voters. Instead of being pleased that millions of American citizens have decided to re-engage in the political process, we’re focusing on the downside. These seemingly endless conversations about the possibility of voter fraud and intimidation tell new voters that there is a potential for their vote to not count.
Talk about going negative.
Marissa Burik is blogging for MRG in the run-up to the US presidential elections.