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Obama's Latino Strategy Faces Voting Barriers in Swing States

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This week could help decide the fate of the mid-term elections.

Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid - facing a close re-election fight in Nevada - brought to the Senate floor the long-delayed DREAM Act that offers a path to citizenship for young, illegal, immigrant students if they graduate college or complete military service. The bill's chances were dealt a major setback Tuesday when Democrats couldn't beat a Senate Republican-led filibuster to block the defense authorization bill that contained that immigration bill along with a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" military policy for gays. The DREAM Act is now almost certainly doomed for this year. It has faced unyielding opposition from Republicans, who have been playing on anti-immigrant fears to mobilize their base and who also say it shouldn't have been attached as a rider to a defense spending bill.

But, even so, Democrats are hoping that even the fight for the DREAM Act's passage - and the demonizing of the GOP opposition among Latinos - will help energize a previously disaffected Hispanic community that voted in record numbers for President Obama in 2008. Obama endorsed the measure and immigration reform in an impassioned speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last week.

Democrats are now counting on Hispanics for a strong turn-out in November to counter fading public support for Obama, an energized Tea Party-driven GOP and an "enthusiasm gap" among liberals and union members. Senator Reid is among those most in need of Latino voters, as they make up a quarter of the state's population and nearly 12 percent of the voters.

The push for immigration reform in the face of GOP nativism is a potentially shrewd strategy that's already showing higher approval ratings among Latinos for Obama. "It's a win-win for Democrats," says Danny Ortega, the chairman of the board of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). "If it gets through, it will be a feather in the cap for Obama and Congress, and if it fails, Latinos will still turn out because they're angry -- if the message gets out that it's Republicans who are blocking this avenue to citizenship."

Yet it's still a long-shot in a tough political and economic climate, worsened by troubling barriers to voting participation by minorities, especially Hispanics, in such swing statess as Arizona, Nevada and Colorado, according to a damning new report released by the national election watchdogs Demos and Common Cause. "One of the biggest concerns in this election broadly is that the ugly immigration debate will be leveraged into the elections and the voting process," Tova Wang, senior Democracy Fellow at Demos and author of the report, said last week when the report was released. "We are worried about the use of vote suppression tactics and voter intimidation and bogus charges of noncitizen voting being used as a way to impose obstacles to voting that could affect a wide range of voters, but primarily people of color. Just the climate that has been created could have an impact on its own."

"When the stakes are this high, the rules of the game--and whether or not they are enforced--make all the difference" added Susannah Goodman, director of election reform for Common Cause and co-author of the report.

As the policy groups noted: "The report reviews problematic areas that include: voter registration, identification issues--which can present burdens to those who don't hold traditional identification such as a driver's license, provisional ballots, voter suppression and deception tactics, caging and challenge laws, voting for overseas and military voters, and challenges for new citizens and ethnic minorities."

A separate Truthout investigation into obstacles facing Latino voters in two emblematic states with competitive House and Senate races -- Arizona and Colorado -- has found voting activists are more worried about procedural barriers often affecting minorities, also cited in the "Swing State" report, than they are about blunt, racist intimidation. But there's little sign that state or local election officials are working to reform current election abuses before November, or that the national and state Democratic Party organizations are doing anything to pressure them to make voting more accessible for those prized Latino voters. These troubling practices include failing to provide Spanish-language materials, ballots and translators in violation of the letter or spirit of federal voting laws; a lack of formal outreach programs, especially in Colorado, for immigrants or Spanish-speaking voters, although there are 404,000 eligible Latino voters in that state; and confusing ID laws abetted by some ill-informed poll workers.

In fact, on several fronts, Arizona is the worst state for voting rights in the country, the Demos and Common Cause report found. Besides a legacy of flouting the Voting Rights Act by failing to do outreach to Hispanic voters or to provide sufficient translators, it features a draconian voter registration requirement for a government-issued birth certificate that's already barred over 30,000 people from voting between 2004 and 2008, although 90% of them, court documents indicate, were native-born Americans.

On top of all that, apparent election mismanagement is so widespread that in the state's largest county alone, Maricopa (home of Phoenix), nearly 30,000 voters -- at a rate three times the national average -- had their "provisional ballots" discarded as invalid in 2008. That's an ominous sign for the admittedly lower turnout mid-terms in November. Indeed, according to poll worker and activist interviews with Truthout, supplemented by written complaints, poll workers in some trainings were told by county election officials to just hand out provisional ballots to people showing up in the wrong precinct, knowing full well that those votes wouldn't be counted under state policies. Provisional ballots weren't counted for two other reasons as well: facing a minefield of registration and ID obstacles, thousands of voters didn't manage to get themselves registered at all, or submitted their registration too late, less than 29 days before the election.

The implications of all these problems are profound for the mid-term elections in Arizona and other swing states that will shape the next Congress. Linda Brown, the executive director of Arizona Advocacy Network who chronicled those Arizona complaints, says, "Both parties are focused on getting out the vote to such a degree that they're willfully and irresponsibly ignoring getting in the vote. It's one thing to get people to the polls, but it's another to actually make sure that they get to vote and what they vote gets counted. The parties haven't wanted to concern themselves with this fact: tens of thousands of people are getting to the polls, casting a ballot and those ballots are not counting."

If this trashing of votes is due to systematic negligence or incompetence, it could be a violation of voters' rights, according to attorney Wendy Weiser, the director of voting rights for NYU's Brennan Center for Justice. The percentage of uncounted provisional ballots in Maricopa County is "huge," she says. She points out, "There's nothing wrong legally with handing out provisional ballots at the wrong polling place. But if there's a systematic failure to inform voters that those provisional ballots won't count [there], one could argue that it rises to the level of a constitutional violation. If something the board's done is creating confusion and the management of the process guarantees that people won't be voting at a place where there votes count, that's where I see a problem." The threshold of evidence to prove such a case is obviously quite high, though. She welcomes provisional ballots for tracking what's going wrong in the election system, and far preferable to turning away voters without allowing them to vote.

Even so, the provisional ballot crisis in Maricopa County illustrates just how wrong things can go. With roughly 100,000 provisional ballots cast in Maricopa County, over 16% of all votes on Election Day, there were plenty of mix-ups. Plus, a budget-strapped elections office had a helpline that was swamped with callers in the weeks leading up to Election Day, with waits as long as 30 minutes for those seeking information on their polling places and other issues , according to the Arizona Republic and other observers. On the day of the vote, as the Arizona Republic reported, some voters fruitlessly drove around trying find their correct polling places after getting the wrong information from polling place staffers. Poll workers too often failed to warn voters on Election Day that provisional ballots used in the wrong polling place don't count or to actively help them to find the right polling places to cast their vote, election reformers and complaints garnered by Election Protection say. (The federal compliance official for the Maricopa County Election Department, Tammy Patrick, strongly denies those allegations: "I just don't buy it," she says, saying the phone line had only six minute waits at worst, and citing training materials and a video accompanying the two-hour training of poll workers.)

Under the 2002 Help America Vote Act passed in the wake of the Florida debacle, voters whose names don't show up on the voting rolls are supposed to get provisional ballots and have their votes counted if they're later determined to be eligible. In practice, these provisional ballots are often just used as "placebo ballots," as critics dub them, with states given wide leeway in how they choose to count them. All told, the Pew Center on the States found, nearly 600,000 provisional ballots weren't counted nationwide out of over 1.4 million cast; the study concluded: "Each provisional ballot submitted, however, also represents a citizen who, for whatever reason, has encountered some sort of problem in the voting process." Arizona had the highest percentage of provisional ballots cast in the country out of its total presidential votes, according to the Pew report, in part because nearly 40% of polling places in such counties as Maricopa change with every election cycle -- and , of course, the jump-through-hoops barriers to registering.

These problems could be made worse by alleged misinformation in trainings, inadequate notification of voters and poorly trained poll workers that, in sum, could represent a systemic breakdown of Maricopa's election system, voting rights advocates say. One complaint of poor training among many that Brown says she received involved one of her organizers, Anastasia Walsh, also a member of the local Democratic precinct committee, who attended a county-run training in the suburban Cave Creek Town Hall in October, 2008. "We were told to accept all ballots, but we weren't told that they wouldn't count if they were submitted in the wrong precinct," she recalls.

As she wrote at the time:

The Maricopa County Elections trainer stressed good customer service. He advised poll workers that according to HAVA all voters were entitled to vote. He instructed us that if the voter insisted on voting, they should be given a provisional ballot. Even in cases where the voter was in the wrong polling place (and a vote at the wrong polling place would not count), the voter should be given a provisional or conditional provisional ballot. When he was asked, "What is the point of having a voter vote when it would not count?" He replied, "Good customer service."

The logistics of handling provisional ballots, and finding and voting at the correct polling place, may sound remarkably arcane, but on such fine points entire elections can rest. For example, in 2002, Janet Napolitano, then the Democratic candidate for governor, won her statewide race by less than one percent of the vote and by just over 20,000 votes out of 1.8 million votes cast.

So barring tens of thousands of Arizona citizens from registering or having their votes counted can make a big difference. In Maricopa County, one of the most competitive House races involves Rep. Harry Mitchell, a two-term Democratic in a district with a Republican voting edge -- and where Hispanics make up 13 percent of the population, according to the 2000 census, but probably a larger percentage now. Statewide, a little over half of Hispanic citizens are registered, and only 37 percent voted in the 2008 election.

So what happened to Anastasia Walsh and other poll workers, and the voters they hoped to serve, matters. She now says that on election day at her polling place where she was assigned, the precinct captain didn't stress to poll workers that provisional ballots wouldn't be counted if they were submitted at the wrong polling place. In some cases, she says, poll workers pointed to what Walsh says was a confusing map of nearby polling places and voters were supposed to figure out for themselves where to vote. But there were also dedicated poll workers with a strong local knowledge of the area who took it on themselves to guide voters to the right place to vote.

She's not surprised at the rampant confusion throughout Maricopa County. "I've had my poll location change four times since 2004," she says. Despite complaints from local election officials across the state, including in Maricopa, the state legislature has refused to pass any law empowering counties to use such public facilities as schools or libraries as voting places, so each cycle sees county leaders scrambling to find churches or other private settings to host the voting.

On top of all that, according to Walsh and Brown, the notification of the new polling places is usually labelled in tiny type on sample precinct ballots sent to each household that can be easily thrown out as junk mail. "I have to search through the mail to find it," Walsh says, but Patrick insists that the notice is in red ink so voters should easily spot it. Whatever.

Apparently it's not so obvious, though, if thousands of voters have no idea where they're supposed to vote and can't get anyone at the election department on the phone to help them out. The proof is in the voting results: of those 100,000 provisional ballots cast, nearly a third of those 30,000 invalid ballots were thrown out because people were in the wrong polling place.

Yet Maricopa's Tammy Patrick insists that the problems aren't any greater than in most other urban, transient counties. But my review of different studies on the issue didn't back that claim up; indeed, Maricopa's polling place use of provisional ballots was nearly 300% higher than the average in heavily urbanized California -- and Maricopa alone had almost as many provisional ballots cast in 2008 as the entire state of Ohio, known for its electoral train wrecks. To Linda Brown, the acceptance of the status quo by Maricopa election officials is particularly disturbing: "The level of dysfunction they're comfortable with would shock Maricopa voters who don't know that their provisional ballots didn't count." About 70 percent of provisional ballots were counted, but 30 percent weren't -- a percentage on par with the rest of the country, but the sheer volume of provisional ballots in Maricopa County means that tens of thousands of earnest voters will see their votes essentially trashed each election cycle.

To remedy that problem, the Arizona Advocacy Network is part of a One Arizona network of ten non-profit groups focusing on reaching out to the 260,000 "low propensity" already registered Latino voters. The primary goal is to get them them on the "permanently early voting list" (sign-up information here). By doing so, they can vote by mail, and avoid Election Day obstacles -- a privilege affluent white voters have been using at far higher rates for years. Ironically, the threat of the "papers please" law, SB 1070, allowing cops to stop and demand proof of citizenship IDs from suspected illegal immigrants, especially any Latinos, is so infuriating to them that it's likely to trump the voting obstacles placed in their way. As New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin once observed about the reaction to an especially controversial local election, they're going to climb over each others shoulders to get into the voting booth. "We've never before seen so much passion when we knock on people's doors," Linda Brown observes. "It's remarkable. "

So a series of right-wing, immigrant-bashing measures in Arizona may serve to ultimately empower Hispanics in that state even more.

In Colorado, Common Cause and Demos found, little effort was made -- outside of Denver -- to reach Spanish language voters with election and registration information, even though ten counties are required to do so by the Voting Rights Act. In fact, the report cites a recent academic study of country elections offices in 15 states covered by the Voting Rights Act -- generally, if they've got more than five percent of the citizens from a single-language minority in a jurisdiction with English-only materials. The researchers looked at seven such counties in Colorado -- and none of them bothered to comply with the decades-old civil rights law. The general attitude in Colorado, with some exceptions, seems to be: Screw 'em if they can't read English. Even the state election department's website doesn't bother to provide a Spanish language version.

With Hispanics making up nearly 20 percent of the electorate, and tight races for Democrats in the U.S. Senate, a few House seats and the governorship, the Latino vote is critical. Indeed, says Jesse Ulibarri, the state director of Mi Familia Vota, "Latinos will be the decided factor in this election and they are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate."

Even so, Ulibarri recalls that in some counties in 2008, "Our seniors prefer getting their instructions in Spanish, and they were given the cold shoulder." The worst case by far is rural Weld County, perhaps the richest agriculture district in the country east of the Rockies, but with a fast-growing Hispanic population estimated at over 25%. But, because of a technical loophole -- the county had a tiny Latin population in the 2000 census -- the county hasn't yet been required to obey federal civil rights laws requiring Spanish language outreach, but when the latest census results are released early next year, they will, in theory, be required to provide Spanish materials and assistance.

Don't hold your breath waiting for compliance. As activists with the Colorado Progressive Coalition reported on Election Day during the 2008 e

lection:

In Weld County, a county with 27 percent Latino/a, Spanish speakers are running into major problems casting their 2008 ballots today.

Thousands of Spanish speaking voters could go without translation, experiencing delays in receiving translation assistance, and ultimately, may not be able to vote today.

Weld County did not print voting instructions in Spanish. Spanish speakers must receive translation assistance at the polling sites. However, Steve Moreno, Weld County Clerk, hired bilingual pollworkers at only two of the eleven vote centers, despite written assurances to non-profit organizations that translators would be provided at no less than five centers. To add insult to injury, any volunteer who is willing to stay at the polls to provide translation assistance is only allowed to translate for up to two (2) voters total.

During early voting, Spanish speakers were forced to wait in line for over two hours to wait for translation assistance. Long lines and longer delays are expected today.

Also, Weld County Clerk Steve Moreno changed the mail in ballot drop off locations over the weekend, also denying many Spanish speakers the right to mail their ballots in. There are only two drop off locations for mail-in ballots.

In a phone interview, Moreno categorically denied all the allegations against his office except one: he admitted that he doesn't provide any Spanish-language materials at any polling places. "We're not required to," he correctly noted. But he insisted: "I have not gotten any complaints filed from a single citizen." He added that criticisms in the press release by the Colorado Progressive Coalition were so groundless about his handling of the 2008 vote that they were essentially ignored by local and Denver newspapers and broadcast stations. But don't tell that to the mother of Nicole Hurt, who proudly saw the organizer for the Colorado Progressive Coalition featured on Denver's influential channel 7 on Election Day, while reformers' concerns were quoted in newspapers in the following days.

And like Bill Clinton defining away the word "is" in a deposition, Moreno apparently has his own definitions of complaints. Hurt, the Weld County-based Northern Colorado director for the coalition, noted that in a meeting in September 2009, with him in his office, she delivered a petition from 100 Weld County Latinos angry about the lack of voting access as well as bringing in community members with grievances. The long waits for people seeking translators and other Election Day problems prompted the coalition staffers to field nearly 50 calls, but it took him nearly a year to meet in person with critics. Moreno's office does have an official outlet for filing complaints for those denied Spanish-language access: unfortunately, it's written just in English. Maybe that's why he says no citizens have filed complaints. And as a Latino, he offers the ultimate trump card to defend himself against the charges that have also been cited in the reformers' letter to the Colorado Secretary of State: "Why would I do this to my own race?"

"Not much has changed," says Jesse Ulibarri about the county elections department.

In addition, many Colorado counties and at the state's own website, vital, far-right state-wide ballot measures that aim to lower taxes and slash revenues to the state by as much as $4 billion dollars aren't being translated into Spanish for Latino voters on the election ballot itself. Who cares if Latinos accidentally vote to rob themselves of crucial government services because the state budget has been savagely cut?

In Nevada, where Senator Reid is staking his hopes for re-election on a strong Latino vote. Yet as Common Cause reports:

  • Nevada uses an "exact match" standard on voter registration databases, which may make it more difficult for some voters to cast a ballot. [What the press release didn't note is that those sorts of mix-ups take place far more often with Latino and immigrant names.]
  • Nevada is among several states where issues could arise around immigrant and Latino voters. Though there are 192,000 eligible Hispanic voters in Nevada, the secretary of state has not taken any particularly proactive steps to reach out to these voters. Moreover, even in a state with such large numbers of Latinos, Spanish language voter registration forms are not available on the secretary of state's website.

With so much riding on this election, these sorts of seemingly technical election issues could determine the outcome of our national priorities for years to come. As Tova Wang of Demos observes, "When the game is close, the rules matter."

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This article originally appeared in Truthout magazine.