Voting Rights Haven't Gotten Such Attention Since 1965.
What Did We Learn?
by Brentin Mock
November 16 2012
A little over a week after the presidential election has
ended, many voting rights watchers are reflecting on all
that we learned through this year's campaigns: what went
right, what went wrong, and the unresolved challenges
that remain ahead. As for the overall takeaway,
Advancement Project director Judith Browne-Dianis wraps
it up nicely, saying, "The national conversation around
voting rights was amplified like we haven't seen since
This year, more Americans arguably learned more about
the voting process than any year in recent memory. Civil
rights and election protection campaigns made people
aware of things like the difference between a poll
watcher and a poll observer; how people use data to
purge voters; and what voters' general rights are while
standing in poll lines. On a more nuanced level, the
discussion around voter ID laws gave Americans a greater
understanding of not only how many people don't have
government-issued ID, but also the reasons why.
Probably most importantly, though, many Americans
learned-or at least were reminded-about the history of
our democracy, of how civil rights heroes helped the
nation realize that democracy, by forcing an expansion
of the electorate, which at core is an expansion of
citizenship. "Americans began to recognize that
democracy was under assault," says Browne-Dianis of the
past year. "And rather than concede to this partisan
effort to restrict their vote as an insurmountable
setback, they saw it as a challenge to be met."
The effort to meet that challenge produced both
victories and some remaining battles, but there are some
specific lessons we can take away from each.
1. Data helps win elections, but it's not everything.
The Obama campaign has well demonstrated how to identify
and target new voters, while the Romney campaign has
learned that data, like science, is actually necessary.
But data only takes get-out-the-vote efforts so far,
because someone has to actually get people to the polls.
Black churches and NAACP chapters in Ohio and Florida
turned out record-high black voters through their "Souls
to the Polls" campaigns, by shuttling and busing people
straight from church services to voting booths. These
campaigns, which were enormously successful in 2008 as
well, have been a primary target of those who insist,
beyond all proof to the contrary, that voter fraud is a
problem. Defending them-or, the early voting rules that
enable them-proved crucial in 2012 to increasing the
number of black people who participate in democracy.
Meanwhile, sometimes the data just failed to identify
voters of color in the first place. In Minnesota, Hana
Worku of Voices for Voting Rights told Colorlines that
most of the voters they made contact with were not
people circulating in voter databanks. Rather, they
reached "voters in low-income and communities of color
that would not have been contacted otherwise." In Tampa,
I spent time doing "Knock n' Grabs"-going door-to-door
asking people if they've voted, and if not, taking them
to the polls-with NAACP organizers. They ended up
shedding their canvassing lists and instead cruising the
streets literally picking up voters off of stoops,
porches and corners because they knew the people on the
data sheets likely weren't home.
2. Voters of color were invisible, to their advantage.
In some ways, the fact that voters of color weren't
turning up in databases was a good thing. It kept people
who may not have had their best interests in mind from
targeting them, while throwing off Republican pollsters
who thought they had the election in the bag. Campaign
aides to Mitt Romney have said their calculations about
possibly winning Florida were thrown off because "they
saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in
places like Osceola, Fla.," which is predominantly
Puerto Rican, Latino and African American. In Maine,
there was massive black voter turnout, but according to
the Republican Party chair: "Nobody in town knew them."
3. The need for early voting was evident.
Among the 2012 election's legacies will be photos of
long lines at polling locations across the nation, like
a reprised version of "Eyes on the Prize." It didn't
need to be that way. Proper targeting of resources and
voting machines could have streamlined voting. In Tampa,
the lines held up because there were 11 constitutional
amendments on the ballots, some of which voters said
were indecipherable. Long lines ruled the day in
Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland as well. Our
community journalist Hermelinda Cortes reported about
how the lack of early and absentee voting opportunities
hurt Virginia. Wrote Cortes: "The state doesn't make it
easy to vote early. Unlike other states, Virginia
demands that early voters meet one of more than a dozen
qualifications and sign a sworn statement."
In Florida, election law expert Dan Smith studied the
early voting cutbacks from this year and concluded, "It
appears that fewer days of early voting-especially the
elimination of the final Sunday prior to Election Day-
have led to fewer opportunities for some voters to turn
out to vote. Moreover, it is certainly arguable based on
the evidence presented here that the reduction of early
voting days caused by House Bill 1355 has had a
differential effect on racial and ethnic minorities in
Florida, specifically blacks."
4. Right wing poll watchers played themselves.
Our Voting Rights Watch project sounded the alarm early
on about the plans of poll-watching groups like True the
Vote. Earlier this year, True the Vote said it would
have an army of a million people to make voters feel
like they were "driving and seeing the police follow"
them. The Republican Party also launched efforts to
marshal a massive poll watcher showing. But most of
these efforts were deflated, mainly because media
outlets and voting rights advocates put them on blast
and thus drew close scrutiny. But they were also undone
through their own incompetence.
Our reporter Aura Bogado, for instance, caught one poll
watcher in Colorado reporting "high concentrations of
people of color" in a voting location, as if that was
against the law. In Ohio, poll watchers from True the
Vote were banned from one county's precincts because
they didn't register properly. In general, True the Vote
aligned itself with so many right wing extremists and
racists that their non-partisan claims were rendered
pure folly. Meanwhile, poll watcher manuals from both
True the Vote and the Republican Party showed false
information. All of this significantly undermined their
relationships with election officials and their
credibility in the eyes of the news media.
5. Election Protection works.
Some people are saying that pre-election voter
suppression threats were overhyped. Maybe. Or maybe
there was enough of a counter-movement through Election
Protection lawyers who were on the scene in such bulk
that their presence thwarted voter harassment, or fended
it off when it appeared. I personally saw Election
Protection lawyers intervene when poll watchers got
rambunctious, while also helping older people get
through long lines and mitigate voter confusion, which
was prevalent. Our community journalist Hillary Abe
wrote about how one team not only helped deflect voter
suppression efforts targeting Native Americans, but also
how they mobilized this year to expand their political
power, fighting off voter ID proposals in the process.
6. Grassroots organizers can turn out voters on
shoestring budgets-but that's not a good thing.
In Orlando, Miami and Tampa, I spent time with get-out-
the-vote advocates who were working on the flimsiest of
budgets, if they had budgets at all. Many of the
organizers were themselves unemployed and doing
volunteer work. I learned that this was also true
elsewhere. In Minnesota, Hana Worku tells us that
"organizers in communities of color were scrambling just
to find materials, translation, and funding to pay for
their work, even part-time." In Pittsburgh, organizer
Celeste Taylor was somewhat positive about it, telling
me, "It is so important to understand that the success
of nonprofits, nonpartisan and effective community based
organizing work is that they utilize a lot of
volunteers, which includes folks like myself who were
being paid for part-time work and worked nearly all the
time-many 12-to-18 hour days! It was a huge sacrifice to
earn so little and work so much, but the payoff was
seeing how the people in our communities appreciated the
information and turned out to vote!" True, but there's
no reason why putting in 60-plus hours of work shouldn't
be adequately compensated. If it's bad for Wal-Mart,
it's bad for voter work.
7. People of color were self-motivated to vote, not just
motivated by Obama.
As I wrote previously, people didn't wait hours in line
just to vote in the guy known for deporting the most
immigrants or failing to make a dent in black
unemployment. There was a deeper dedication at play. Our
community journalist Noni Grant said that while in the
field she asked several people why they felt it was
important to vote. The overwhelming response was "black
folks have fought and died for the right to vote." The
history of civil rights and voting rights in America is
still within the active memory of many people of color,
and so this was a civic-duty calling, especially in the
face of such a vocal and overt suppression effort.
8. A lot of people didn't vote, because they couldn't,
because of felonies.
In Florida and Virginia alone, felony disenfranchisement
kept almost two million people from voting this
November. And even though the process in Virginia for
restoring rights to those with felonies was streamlined
by the governor, it is still cumbersome enough that many
weren't able to apply for rights restoration in time.
Rosana Cruz, of New Orleans-based Voices Of The Ex-
offender wrote about this problem saying, "Nearly half a
million people in the five Gulf states didn't vote
today, because as formerly incarcerated people, people
on probation and parole, or currently incarcerated
people, they've been denied that right. That number
doesn't count the Formerly Incarcerated People who don't
even know if they have the right to vote, because the
laws blocking voting rights vary from state to state."
9. Hundreds of thousands of votes still haven't been
In Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania, there are still
outstanding ballots to be counted. Many voters in these
states got to the polls only to find that their names
were not listed, even though they were certainly
registered. In Arizona, hundreds of thousands of people
are wondering where their registration, or their vote
went. In Philadelphia, it's the same deal. Philadelphia
City Paper has attempted to get to the bottom of what
happened to the disappearing votes, and was not able to
come up with anything. Like President Obama said, "We
have to fix that."
10. Gerrymandering and redistricting caused confusion.
This is probably the most under-reported story in the
country. Following the 2010 Census, new voting district
lines were drawn, which changed where many people go to
vote. If you've moved since the Census came out, then
there's even more room for confusion. In Philadelphia, a
lot of the mysterious vanishing voters are suspected to
be a result of newly drawn lines and a failure by county
commissioners to alert voters of their new voting
Trupania Bonner, of Moving Forward Gulf Coast, Inc., was
able to get communities in Louisiana not only educated
about the redistricting process, but also taught them
how to get involved in it. Says Bonner: "No one really
understands what redistricting is, and how when
gerrymandering occurs you see how the Southern Manifesto
and those types of ideologies progress from that. So for
us, we learned the process of redistricting and then
also how to draw districts ourselves. We then bought the
software used by legislators to do redistricting, and
taught residents how to do it too. What all communities
need to fully understand is how our rights are protected
by learning and engaging in the census and redistricting
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