Protect the Vote

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

September 13, 2004

More than 80 percent of the population of Detroit is black. This is very well understood by John Pappageorge, who is white and a Republican state legislator in Michigan. "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote," said Mr. Pappageorge, "we're going to have a tough time in this election."

Oops! Republicans aren't supposed to actually say they want to suppress black votes. That's so retro. It's so Jim Crow. This is the 21st century, and the thing now is to do the dastardly deed, but never ever acknowledge it.

That's where our friend Pappageorge went wrong.

After his startling quote was published several weeks ago in The Detroit Free Press, Mr. Pappageorge, who is 73, apologized and said he certainly never meant to suggest that anything racist or illegal take place. But he reiterated to me in a phone conversation last Friday that he did indeed mean that the vote in Detroit needed to be kept down.

A lot of other Republicans have similar views about the vote in areas with large African-American populations. Most blacks vote Democratic. If those votes can be suppressed, Republicans benefit. And there is increasing evidence that a big effort to suppress the vote among blacks and some other heavily Democratic voting groups is under way, which is why it is important to keep the following phone number handy:

1-866-OUR VOTE.

That's a hot line set up by the Election Protection Coalition, a group that was formed to identify and stamp out attempts to disenfranchise voters, especially in predominantly black and Latino precincts around the country.

On Election Day in November, the coalition expects to have as many as 25,000 volunteers, including 5,000 lawyers, available to provide assistance to voters who encounter irregularities or feel they are not being treated fairly at the polls. Voters who call the hot line will immediately be put in touch with volunteers in their local area.

The coalition is also urging people to call the hot line now if they are aware of efforts to discourage or prevent people from voting.

Among the groups included in the Election Protection Coalition are the People for the American Way Foundation, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the League of Women Voters, the N.A.A.C.P., the American Civil Liberties Union and the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group in Washington.

The attempt to prevent blacks from voting has been a staple of America's political history, like long-winded speeches and balloons. I wrote three columns last month about a situation in Orlando, Fla., in which armed state police officers went into the homes of elderly black voters to question them as part of a so-called criminal investigation involving absentee ballots. This tactic sent a definite chill through voters who were old enough to remember the torment inflicted on Southern blacks who tried to vote in the 1950's and 60's.

A new study by the People for the American Way Foundation and the N.A.A.C.P. describes many recent examples of voter harassment and intimidation - the latest entries in the long and sordid history of disenfranchisement in the U.S. The study, called "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow," noted:

"Voter intimidation and suppression efforts have not been limited to a single party, but have in fact shifted over time as voting allegiances have shifted. In recent decades, African-American voters have largely been loyal to the Democratic Party, resulting in the prevalence of Republican efforts to suppress minority turnout."

In Texas, students at the predominantly black Prairie View A&M University were threatened with arrest by the local district attorney, a Republican, who suggested they were not eligible to vote in the county in which the school was located. This was nonsense. Students can vote in their college towns if they designate the campus as their home address. The whole point, of course, was intimidation. The threat of arrest is an excellent way of deterring someone from voting.

There are endless stories of attempts to discourage blacks from voting. Few get substantial publicity, so this is not seen as a big national problem. It deserves a brighter spotlight. When duly registered blacks are improperly challenged at the polls, or Florida tries to use a patently discriminatory voter felons list, or black votes are criminally tampered with or simply not counted at all - something should be done.

The number to call is 1-866-OUR VOTE.