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Art Levine

Art Levine

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While GOP Smears Franken Vote, Will Obama Help Repair Election System?

Posted: 11/17/08 09:56 PM ET

The never-ending Republican War on Voting continues apace, with the GOP launching new smears against Democrats and Senate candidate Al Franken for alleged voter fraud in the razor-thin race against incumbent Norm Coleman. The latest bogus rumor supported by the right-wing noise machine is the claim that missing ballots were being kept in a car by a Minnesota elections official. The real fraud, of course, involves the efforts to suppress minority and low-income voters and challenge election results by claiming widespread Democratic voter fraud.

Three Senate races -- including those in Minnesota and Alaska with still-uncounted votes -- could help determine if the Democrats achieve a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority.

At the same time, a media myth is growing that the election went smoothly with only some minor hiccups, and, among progressives, that all those long lines were just a welcome sign of a healthy democracy.


Yet as Nation Institute-backed reporting and other journalism have underscored, even Obama's victory shouldn't obscure the serious machine failures, long lines and disenfranchisement that undercut the integrity of the November election.

In fact, as Christopher Edley, Jr., the dean of the U.C. Berkeley Law School, notes, the unbearable long lines that disenfranchised the elderly and low-income voters are a time tax that should be banned as surely as the poll tax.

Rachel Maddow, the best-known national broadcaster covering election protection issues, put it well just days before the November 4th election:

"This is a poll tax. How much do you get paid for an hour of work? Do you have the kind of job that would be delighted to give you an hour, a half-day, a whole day off work because you were waiting in line at your precinct? Even if it won't cost you your job, can you afford to not work those hours? Are you elderly or disabled, do you not have the physical stamina for this kind of exertion? This is a poll tax... Who is not in those lines -- because they can't afford to be?" See her heartfelt plea for reform here:

Her concerns were well-founded. As I reported in the New Mexico Independent:

Just because there was no repeat of a nightmare scenario like the 2000 Florida recount doesn't mean there weren't systemic problems in the country's diverse electoral systems.


In Minnesota, problem-plagued ballot scanners threaten an accurate recount in the contest between Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken, according to Minnesota Independent.

In Virginia, where Obama won easily, the Election Protection coalition's war room received reports from across the state about long lines, broken machines and thwarted access for elderly and disabled voters, despite the governor's claim that Virginia was prepared.

In Richmond, Judith Browne-Dias, co-director of the nonprofit voting rights group Advancement Project, charged that the city's election registrar, J. Kirk Showalter, allegedly violated federal law by apparently telling some polling place officials to turn away voters who weren't on the precinct's rolls without even offering them provisional ballots. Browne-Dias cited interviews she conducted with two top election "judges." When she asked one of them under what circumstances they offered provisional ballots to voters, one official replied, "When they're very persistent."

Showalter denied telling any poll officials to deny ballots to voters who claim to have registered to vote, except for those who are listed as being registered in another district. "The proof is we had a lot of provisional ballots issued," although the office hadn't finished counting them by the middle of last week.

In addition, there were thousands of complaints about voters dropped from voting rolls in Ohio and elsewhere. Civilrights.org picked up on reports of six-hour waits (or more) for voters in Missouri and Pennsylvania and Virginia. All told, the national Election Protection hot line received more than 200,000 calls of all kinds, including more than 80,000 on Election Day alone.

Obama's victory, said Michael Waldman, executive director of New York University's Brennan Center, "shows that there's a thirst for public participation. But we have a long way to go before we have a modern, user-friendly, inclusive voting system." Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, had a harsher assessment: "The American election system is broken," she said.

You don't have to believe in nefarious vote-stealing schemes to understand that something is seriously wrong with our election system.

For instance, even the upcoming run-off race between Saxby Chambliss and Jim Martin is open to question because most Georgia voters vote on paperless touch-screen machines, and lower-income voters are kept awy by a strict Georgia photo ID law. The dicey Alaska election, with its "fishy" results originally placing the convicted felon, Republican Senator Ted Stevens, ahead in the vote far ahead of pre-election polling, indicates just how difficult it is to get an honest and reliable election even today in the United States.

Without reform, as Ben Manski, a former Green Party co-chair who leads the pro-democracy Liberty Tree organization, points out, "Something stinks in America, and that something is not the American people. The reality is that the policies of the federal and state governments do not reflect the views of most Americans." The solution is a fair, accurate and honest election system.

But what's being downplayed in the post-Obama victory glow is just how close the GOP came to essentially stealing the election in Ohio and elsewhere, but the efforts were beaten back by legal challenges and an ovewhelming turnout by new and minority pro-Obama voters.

Will a fair election be guaranteed next time? Possibly, if there's another election with a hugely admired, charismatic, once-in-a-generation leader like Barack Obama who inspires the devotion of millions. But without those unique historical elements and a massive turnout of young and minority voters, don't count on it.

Many of this year's election problems followed in the wake of the GOP's foiled efforts to undermine, or even steal, the election with a series of failed legal strategies to suppress the vote -- and raise false alarms about voter fraud by smearing ACORN.

As I reported on Alternet, the fear-mongering threatened the lives and safety of ACORN workers while laying the groundwork for a series of legal and extra-legal schemes to cry "voter fraud" while deterring real voters. Even with Obama's victory, the disenfranchisement threat was all too real:

Despite Obama's ultimate victory, incidents of voter suppression mounted daily through Election Day -- from deceptive fliers and robo-calls to registrars thwarting eligible voters from casting their ballots -- so the GOP's overheated attacks about the specter of voter fraud and the menace of the community group ACORN bore fruit. As a top organizer for Arizona ACORN, Monica Sandschafer contended, "Senator McCain has been running a dirty campaign filled with false accusations about my organization, ACORN, and using these threats to try to suppress the votes of minority voters."


Only a concerted effort by attorneys affiliated with such non-profit groups as ACORN, NYU's Brennan Center and the Advancement Project helped thwart last-minute and ongoing GOP legal efforts seeking mass purgings and challenges, justified as fighting voter fraud.

Now, voting rights attorneys, including the Advancement Project's Judith Browne-Dianiss, worry about the impact at the state level on voting rights and non-profit registration drives because of the spate of fear-mongering targeting ACORN. "We're going to see a slew of retrogressive legislation coming out in the wake of all the ACORN stuff," she predicts.

Ugly attacks against ACORN were a central element in the vote-limiting strategy that was a key to McCain's last-resort hopes for a Republican victory.

Most progressives believe that President-elect Obama, who sponsored legislation against deceptive
voting practices and worked on voting rights cases, will embrace election reform. But will it be a priority for his administration with so many other pressing crises he has to face? In the past, even with a majority of votes, Democrats in Congress have let all voting reform measures languish, from fixing unreliable voting machines to barring election-day dirty tricks.

For election reformers, the highest priority now, in order to clean up the countless roadblocks in the way of voter registration, is universal, automatic voter registration for U.S. citizens 18 and over.

Yet as election watchdog blogger Brad Friedman told the New Mexico Independent:

Brad Friedman, the prolific author of Brad Blog, is skeptical about Obama's commitment to sweeping election reform. He notes that the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee generally avoided challenging voter suppression and machine failures, as in Nevada, in order to avoid raising alarms among potential Democratic voters.


The president-elect "understands the front-end vote-suppression stuff, but not the back end with the machines," Friedman said. "Even if you help every legal voter to vote, what does it mean if a single person can flip the results [by hacking a machine] or the machine breaks down?"

Progressives won't see any reforms of the election system -- or on such critical issues as
health care -- unless they band together to keep the pressure on Congress and the incoming Obama administration. There are too many self-interested groups (and the GOP) seeking to oppose meaningful reforms for Obama supporters to fool themselves into believing that their new Congressional majorities somehow guarantee them victory.


Hear more about voting reform and a progressive agenda under an Obama administration on "The D'Antoni and Levine Show" on BlogTalk Radio, every Thursday at 5:30 p.m and archived on the web.