Voting Rights as a Race Issue

Voting Rights IS A Race Issue - One Observerís Perspective

By Denise Lieberman
ACLU/EM Legal Director

"The right to vote freely for the candidate of one's choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government." -- Chief Justice Earl Warren, Reynolds v. Sims (1964)

November 7, 2000 is a day Iíll not soon forget. Taking time off our jobs and serving as election volunteers, ACLU/EM Board member Irl Scissors and I spent the day at the headquarters of the St. Louis Election Board, serving as attorneys assigned to monitor electoral irregularities. Little did we know when we arrived at 8 a.m. what a momentous day it would be. 

By 11 a.m., the lobby began to fill with disgruntled voters who had been turned away from their polling places or who needed to reactivate their voting status. By early afternoon, the numbers swelled to several hundred. The Election Board had just three staff people to assist these voters. Amazingly, most waited patiently in line, some for four hours or more, to try to vote.

We began interviewing voters, and to our surprise, learned that many were actually validly registered voters. A number had lived in the same place for years, yet found themselves inexplicably missing from the voter rolls in their precincts. We spoke with people who waited over an hour in line at their polling places, only to be turned away and told to go to another polling place, and eventually to the election board headquarters downtown. People complained of malfunctioning and insufficient voting machines, election judges who were not trained to process voters on the inactive list, and lack of access to phones to call the election board to resolve the problems and constant busy signals when they tried.

After unsuccessfully trying to vote at their polling places, voters were made to wait for hours upon reaching the election board. It was not uncommon to speak with people who went to vote at 9a.m. and had not yet voted by 3p.m. As the afternoon went on, the numbers of voters at the Boardís headquarters increased. By late afternoon, a line had formed outside the building, eventually making its way down the entire block. The affidavits we drafted that day were used to support a court order keeping the polls open late. The order was then overturned and many were left unable to vote at all on Nov. 7. Worse, the numbers of people at the Election Board donít tell the full story of those who for various reasons could not travel to the downtown headquarters or wait in lengthy lines.

Many of these accounts formed a foundation for the voting rights lawsuit filed last month by the ACLU/EM, after civil rights leaders fruitlessly attempted to work with election officials to address some of the problems. But beyond these voting deficiencies lies something else far less tangible, far more subtle, but indeed insidiously threatening to the essence of our freedom.

Most of the people filling the lobby of the Election Board headquarters last November were people of color. The sight of hundreds of African Americans waiting for hours upon hours simply to exercise their constitutional right to vote sent shock waves to pit of my stomach. The image has haunted me ever since.

As I looked around the room that afternoon, I couldnít help but feel as though I had been transported back in time, back to a time of poll taxes and literacy tests, back to a time (not all that long ago, really), when the color of your skin determined whether you had a right to vote.

In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, one of the most effective civil rights laws ever enacted. The Act immediately outlawed the worst Jim Crow laws, such as literacy tests and other devices that kept black citizens out of the voting booth. Since then, much progress has been made, and record numbers of African Americans are registered to vote and hold elective office. 

But although the most blatant obstacles to minority enfranchisement were removed, more insidious obstacles remain. The poll taxes of days past have been replaced by far more subtle hindrances to voting for countless African Americans. In addition to the problems in St. Louis on Nov. 7, Americans were glued to electoral fiascos in Florida, including reports of uncounted and miscounted ballots, police roadblocks, problems with confusing ballots, the highly error-prone punch-card voting machines, and of course, those famous Chads. And the right to vote was not hindered just in Florida and St. Louis, but at polling booths across the country, because of flaws in the voting system that disproportionately affected people of color.

ACLU National Legal Director Steve Shapiro said, "What we witnessed in Florida during the past election was a national embarrassment. It is simply no longer possible for the nation to ignore the deep, disturbing, and discriminatory flaws in the electoral system that have now been revealed to all of us in excruciating detail."

In addition to the our lawsuit in St. Louis, the ACLU filed lawsuits in Georgia, Florida and Illinois on behalf of African American voters who were prevented from having their votes counted by systematic irregularities in the voting process. In Georgia and Illinois, the suits allege that the higher error rates of punch-card machines, which are used disproportionately in majority black counties ñ as compared to optical scan voting machines used more frequently in white counties - creates unequal access to the ballot.

Locally, in addition to the St. Louis lawsuit, the ACLU/EM is similarly researching the different voting methods used throughout Missouri, and, with help from a Washington University professor, analyzing the error rates compared with census data.

In addition, we are working, in conjunction with a national campaign spearheaded by the ACLU, to encourage the re-enfranchisement of ex-felons. In most states, felons lose the right to vote for the duration of their time under supervision (prison, probation, parole).  While some states make this disability permanent, most, including Missouri allow for ex-felons to reclaim the franchise. Yet, they face a number of obstacles to reclaiming the franchise: lack of knowledge, misinformation about their rights; a variety of procedural obstacles; and refusal by local registrars.

The right to vote, the right to have easy and equal access to vote, and the right to have one's vote accurately and fairly counted, are the most fundamental rights we have in this country. Voting rights, especially for people of color, has been a long and arduous battle ever since the right was conferred. I hope that I and future election observers wonít have to witness another room full of disenfranchised people of color enduring great hardship simply to vote. The struggle is an ongoing one and we must continually work to assure the equal right to vote for all people.

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