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3025 Defending the Right to Vote

Presenters:

  • Joanne Bennett, Voter Registration Supervisor, Missouri Citizen Education Fund, and Missouri Pro-Vote
  • John Hickey, Executive Director, Missouri Citizen Education Fund and Missouri Pro-Vote
  • Rob Keithan, Director, Washington Office for Advocacy, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)
  • Elizabeth Bukey, Legislative Assistant for Civil Rights and Religious Liberty, Washington Office for Advocacy, UUA

Prepared for UUA.org by Jone Johnson Lewis, Reporter; Margy Levine Young, Editor

Rob Keithan opened the session with a reminder that most of the advocacy work of the UUA is done in partnership, and then introduced two members of the senior staff of the Missouri Citizen Education Fund and Missouri Pro-Vote, Joanne Bennett and John Hickey.

Joanne Bennett, Voter Registration Supervisor for the Missouri Citizen Education Fund, described the recent achievement of the Missouri Education Fund in registering over 66,000 people to vote in the 2004 election. Many people, she said, were not aware that they had a right to vote. She gave an example of a woman who, on release from imprisonment for a felony, was given outdated information that she had to wait seven years before she could register to vote, when the law had changed. Bennett described the gratitude many expressed on learning that they were able to vote.

John Hickey, Executive Director of the Missouri Citizen Education Fund, began by stressing that he would focus on voter suppression, which he noted was a much greater problem than the problem with voting machines without paper trails. Missouri does not yet use such machines. Hickey cited an article on TomPaine.com that points out that chaotic or poorly organized systems are more likely to disenfranchise voters than Diebold voting machine irregularities are.

Voter suppression, Hickey continued, used to be much more overt "in the olden days—like 1992." He described the pre-1992 situation: John Ashcroft was Missouri 's governor, and every jurisdiction's election authorities were appointed and controlled by the governor. The election authorities in a mostly-Democratic jurisdiction ruled that volunteers from not-for-profit groups could not register voters, but in mostly-Republican jurisdiction, such volunteers were allowed. A law was passed in the legislature to overcome this inequality, but Gov. Ashcroft vetoed the law. In his veto message, he even referred to a different bill from a year earlier—this error made it into Ashcroft's later hearings when he was nominated as U.S. Attorney General.

But in 1993, a federal law required every county to have postcard registration. This changed the registration situation considerably, but it did not end voter suppression. Hickey cited the "chaos" at the polls in 2000, when many names did not appear on voter lists because they were considered "inactive" voters. In St. Louis County (which does not include St. Louis City, and is more heavily white and suburban), judges at polling places had laptops showing all voters in the county, so problems could be cleared up quickly and voters who came to the wrong polling place could be efficiently redirected. In St. Louis City (urban, heavily African American and voting largely Democratic), judges at polling places had hardcopy lists of the voters only for that precinct; to track down errors, a voter had to go stand in line downtown, often for as long as three hours.

In 2004, charges of fraud were used in Missouri as a voter suppression technique. In an article distributed at the workshop by Hickey, it was noted that even the Republican official in one case would not accept the charges of fraud against the registration postcards submitted by volunteers working with the Missouri Citizen Education Fund.

The organization is also fighting the new photo ID regulations. About 200,000 citizens in Missouri do not have state photo IDs or state drivers licenses: this includes many who are disabled, low income, or simply non-drivers. In the past, voters could also use such identification as a utility bill in their name. Hickey added that these photo ID rules have been put into effect even though there has not been a single example found of someone voting who should not have.

A technique Hickey recommended for fighting voter suppression is to make sure there are some issues on the ballot that give people a positive reason to vote. For example, in Missouri, there will be a minimum wage increase on the ballot in 2006.

Because of efforts of organizations like Missouri Citizen Education Fund, Missouri, Hickey pointed out, has the highest African American voter participation in the country.

Joanne Bennett talked about techniques used in voter registration campaigns to minimize fraud. The organization keeps accurate records of who votes, and urges the newly-registered voter to keep their part of the registration card, with the card's number, to trace errors when they happen. In 2004, a lot of people changed their addresses through the postcard system, but the polling places didn't want to let these people vote. Having the numbered card made intervention possible. She gave as an example one woman who was not being allowed to vote, who, during her phone conversation with Joanne, began to talk about calling the news station—and she was suddenly allowed to vote.

Adding a get-out-the-vote campaign to the registration effort is also critical, she added. Calls are made to those who registered, using phone banks and automatic phone dialers, that allow the volunteer to see on a computer screen where the voter's polling place is located, so the voter can be reminded of the location. Rides to the poll need to be arranged as well, for those who otherwise could not get to the polls.

Hickey then outlined some ways that Unitarian Universalists can help work against voter suppression:

  1. "Volunteer your time." He gave as an example Eliot Unitarian Chapel, which had volunteers who staffed phone banks, distributed petitions, went door to door, etc. "The UU church is often the main hub in a town of progressive activists," Hickey added.
  2. Progressive funding bodies: Funds from UU-related sources like Veatch have helped in voter campaigns, and helped defeat private school vouchers recently.
  3. Congregations can play a role. He gave the example of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel, where petition signatures were gathered.
  4. Be organizers and candidates, Hickey added later, and encourage others to run. He gave the example of State Representative Beth Low of Missouri 's 39 th district.

Rob Keithan of the UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy recommended a document on UUA.org called "The Real Rules: Congregations and IRS Guidelines On Advocacy, Lobbying, and Elections" to guide congregations in how to be involved in advocacy and voting rights issues.

Elizabeth Bukey, Legislative Assistant for Civil Rights and Religious Liberty for the UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy, reviewed the history and status of the Voting Rights Act, some of the provisions of which are currently up for renewal. The Voting Rights Act, she reminded the group, outlawed racial discrimination in voting, outlawed literacy tests and the poll tax, and allowed federal monitoring of local elections. In 1975, it was amended to deal with issues related to minority language and bilingual voters.

Some provisions of the VRA are permanent, while some are temporary. The three main sections which are temporary and need periodic reauthorization (the last such reauthorization was in 1982) are:

  • Section 5, which has to do with preclearance of any changes in voting procedures in some states and localities, which have to explain how the changes won't disenfranchise minority voters
  • Section 203, having to do with bilingual voting assistance when a significant part of the populations speaks a minority language or is not literate in or fluent in English
  • Section 6-9, which allows the federal government to send monitors and examiners to oversee elections.

Backed by a "well-organized coalition" led by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the bill was introduced as HR9 and S2703 with bipartisan support including having the leadership of the majority party (Republicans) on board. The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill overwhelmingly, and proponents have expected a vote for weeks. However, just the day before the workshop, the "vote was derailed by a small group in the majority caucus," Bukey reported. Now, the bill is bogged down in the House while hearings are held in the Senate.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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