Block the Vote

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

October 15, 2004

Earlier this week former employees of Sproul & Associates (operating under the name Voters Outreach of America), a firm hired by the Republican National Committee to register voters, told a Nevada TV station that their supervisors systematically tore up Democratic registrations.

The accusations are backed by physical evidence and appear credible. Officials have begun a criminal investigation into reports of similar actions by Sproul in Oregon.

Republicans claim, of course, that they did nothing wrong - and that besides, Democrats do it, too. But there haven't been any comparably credible accusations against Democratic voter-registration organizations. And there is a pattern of Republican efforts to disenfranchise Democrats, by any means possible.

Some of these, like the actions reported in Nevada, involve dirty tricks. For example, in 2002 the Republican Party in New Hampshire hired an Idaho company to paralyze Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts by jamming the party's phone banks.

But many efforts involve the abuse of power. For example, Ohio's secretary of state, a Republican, tried to use an archaic rule about paper quality to invalidate thousands of new, heavily Democratic registrations.

That attempt failed. But in Wisconsin, a Republican county executive insists that this year, when everyone expects a record turnout, Milwaukee will receive fewer ballots than it got in 2000 or 2002 - a recipe for chaos at polling places serving urban, mainly Democratic voters.

And Florida is the site of naked efforts to suppress Democratic votes, and the votes of blacks in particular.

Florida's secretary of state recently ruled that voter registrations would be deemed incomplete if those registering failed to check a box affirming their citizenship, even if they had signed an oath saying the same thing elsewhere on the form. Many counties are, sensibly, ignoring this ruling, but it's apparent that some officials have both used this rule and other technicalities to reject applications as incomplete, and delayed notifying would-be voters of problems with their applications until it was too late.

Whose applications get rejected? A Washington Post examination of rejected applications in Duval County found three times as many were from Democrats, compared with Republicans. It also found a strong tilt toward rejection of blacks' registrations.

The case of Florida's felon list - used by state officials, as in 2000, to try to wrongly disenfranchise thousands of blacks - has been widely reported. Less widely reported has been overwhelming evidence that the errors were deliberate.

In an article coming next week in Harper's, Greg Palast, who originally reported the story of the 2000 felon list, reveals that few of those wrongly purged from the voting rolls in 2000 are back on the voter lists. State officials have imposed Kafkaesque hurdles for voters trying to get back on the rolls. Depending on the county, those attempting to get their votes back have been required to seek clemency for crimes committed by others, or to go through quasi-judicial proceedings to prove that they are not felons with similar names.

And officials appear to be doing their best to make voting difficult for those blacks who do manage to register. Florida law requires local election officials to provide polling places where voters can cast early ballots. Duval County is providing only one such location, when other counties with similar voting populations are providing multiple sites. And in Duval and other counties the early voting sites are miles away from precincts with black majorities.

Next week, I'll address the question of whether the votes of Floridians with the wrong color skin will be fully counted if they are cast. Mr. Palast notes that in the 2000 election, almost 180,000 Florida votes were rejected because they were either blank or contained overvotes. Demographers from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission estimate that 54 percent of the spoiled ballots were cast by blacks. And there's strong evidence that this spoilage didn't reflect voters' incompetence: it was caused mainly by defective voting machines and may also reflect deliberate vote-tampering.

The important point to realize is that these abuses aren't aberrations. They're the inevitable result of a Republican Party culture in which dirty tricks that distort the vote are rewarded, not punished. It's a culture that will persist until voters - whose will still does count, if expressed strongly enough - hold that party accountable.