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Tackling voter suppression, one voter at a time

19th November 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Khalil Abdullah
Contributing Writer

(Special from New America Media) – If no one else is rejoicing about the systemic inconveniences imposed on Florida voters on Election Day, where waits as long as eight hours to cast a ballot were endured and witnessed by thousands of voters, the state’s former senators Mike Bennett and Ellyn Bogdanoff should be elated.

“I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert,” Bennett said in 2011 when sponsoring legislation to impose stricter voting requirements. His colleague concurred with his view that voting should be made more difficult. “Democracy should not be a convenience,” Bogdanoff said.

With the cut back of early voting in Florida, the result of lengthy lines was predictable. Lee Row­land, counsel with the Bren­nan Center for Justice, noted that each state that succeeded in limiting early voting, particularly Florida and Ohio, led in the number of waiting hours for the public to vote, according to preliminary reports.

Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, director of the Advancement Project’s Voter Protection Pro­gram, said that had her mother been voting in Florida, she would have been unable to endure the wait as she uses a walker.

But when Culliton-Gonzalez described the voting experience in Florida on November 6 as “bad all day,” she wasn’t only referring to long lines. Misinformation about polling places, denial of language assistance to voters with limited English proficiency and repeated efforts at intimidation at some precincts by self-appointed poll watchers, contributed to a debacle now enshrined as an expected rite of passage for Floridians during presidential elections.

Yet, it wasn’t only the voters’ endurance that prevailed on Election Day. There were also selfless acts by individuals committed to the concept of ballot access.

Culliton-Gonzalez, who traveled to Florida as part of the Election Protection Network Coalition, a non-partisan initiative that dispatches attorneys and monitors versed in election law to monitor procedures and assist voters, said she was inspired by Roosevelt Lanier.

Lanier, an African-American, now retired, voted in the morning at the high school that served as the precinct site. He then went to get some exercise at a different school’s facilities. While there, he quickly realized that those arriving to vote had been misinformed about the site which had been moved to the school he had just left 12 blocks away.

“The polling place had been changed,” said Culliton-Gonzalez. “I called the county [Miami-Dade] three times to tell them, but the election officials said, ‘Well, they should have got a letter and they should have read it.’” Some of the arrivals, particularly the newly registered voters, did indeed have letters that clearly directed them to the facility not in use.

Culliton-Gonzalez said the mix-up was probably just the result of a clerical error, but over the course of the hour that she was there with Lanier, at least 20 cars pulled up, “all African Americans, maybe one Latino.” Culliton-Gonalez and her partner from the coalition went to a nearby CVS and purchased posterboard and markers to make the signs to redirect the voters.

“Mr. Lanier said he wanted to stay there and help the rest of the people and that he could stay until 1:00 pm,” she said. She left him to visit other sites but stopped back to check on him later and to bring him lunch.

“He called me at 7:00 p.m. to say, ‘Okay, the cars have stopped coming.’” Culliton-Gonzalez said through his spontaneous volunteerism, she estimated Lanier had steered 200 voters to the correct location who otherwise may not have known where to cast a ballot.

And while lack of signage at one precinct location in Florida was the problem, in certain polling sites in Pennsylvania, the signs themselves were at issue.

In the months ahead of the election, the state’s residents had awaited the outcome of a series of legal challenges to its enacted photo voter ID law. With the state’s inability to guarantee that it could produce the number of new IDs necessary in time for the election, a Pennsylvania judge, under pressure from the state’s Supreme Court, conceded the law could have a discriminatory impact.

While his injunction meant Pennsylvanians were legally able to vote without a state-issued photo voter ID, in some precincts, signs stating it was required were still posted on Election Day.

That was the case in Milmont Park, south of Philadelphia and close to the Delaware line, where the roiling turmoil over voter photo ID proceeded at lower decibels than in Pennsylvania’s most populous city, but confusion over the law reigned nevertheless.

Jacqueline Jrolf said she and her husband got to their voting precinct before the polls officially opened so they could vote and get on with their day. She said they each brought their voter photo ID but decided on principle, “we’re not going to show it.”

But when she arrived at the precinct, Jrolf said she saw a sign stating voters had to show ID. While the injunction did not require a voter to have the state-issued voter photo ID, it did not prohibit poll workers from asking prospective voters to show it.

Still, Jrolf said she was positive the language on the wall sign was dated and approached one of the poll workers with her complaint. That worker promptly got a supervisor.

“‘Oh, that must have been printed before the law was overturned’,” Jrolf recalled being told. “‘Okay, can you cross out what it says?’” Jrolf said she was “kind of surprised, but happy,” adding that she and the supervisor went through the text making corrections. “I felt satisfied, at least something was done.” Her contentment was short-lived.

On the way home, Jrolf said she stopped at another precinct to see whether the same sign was displayed, which turned out to be the case. When she brought it up with workers there, the reception she received was less than cordial. She eventually left the precinct, with the sign still in place.

“It felt like voter suppression to me,” she said.

This article originally published in the November 19, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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