In light of our recent interest in the de-registration and criminalization of the voters of West Houston, news from Georgia comes timely. Last Friday, the Democratic Caucus of the Georgia Senate staged a symbolic walkout following that chamber’s passage of a bill that would limit the kinds of ID that can be used to register and vote.
The Georgia bill eliminates twelve forms of ID previously allowable: employee picture ID; student picture ID; gun license; pilot’s license; birth certificate; social security card; naturalization document; a court paper approving adoption, name change, or sex change; utility bill; bank statement; government check; or other government document. Surviving the purge are five forms of government issued photo ID: state driver’s license; government ID; passport; government employee ID; or military ID.
From the point of view of the Texas Civil Rights Review, the Georgia Senate adds to a Repbulican pattern of treating voters more like suspects than citizens. So we checked with the office of the bill’s sponsor, Georgia State Senator Cecil Staton (R-Macon) to find out what support might be cited for the Senator’s stated fear that, “we don’t end up with all the lawsuits or all the voter irregularities we’ve heard about.”
An aide to the Senator explained over the phone that Staton had given no supporting evidence whatsoever in his address on the floor, because there wasn’t enough time. Yet said the aide one example that might be offered was that more than 2,000 “questionable ballots” had been cast in Fulton County during last November’s election. So we asked for his contact source.
Atlanta attorney Frank Strickland picked up the phone right away. He is the powerhouse Republican attorney who won a Supreme Court reversal of the state’s Democrat redistricting plan, and he now serves on the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections (FULBORE). He wants it known right away that he can’t speak for that board. But he can tell us that Sen. Staton’s aide was probably confused. On election day, “there were very few reports of irregularity” in Fulton County, says Strickland. “The system is not perfect, but we didn’t have a great deal of difficulty at that stage.”
Strickland suggests that the aide might have intended to cite a case of 2,400 voter registrations that were handed over to FULBORE by the Georgia Secretary of State, because they were “apparently fraudulent.” FULBORE in turn handed the evidence to the local District Attorney and Federal Attorney, but Strickland is not aware of any action taken on the evidence so far. He suggests this would be a bad time to bother the District Attorney about voter registration issues and I decide he’s probably right about that. The story of the Atlanta courthouse shootings is still top news this week.
Strickland is excitable on the question of photo IDs. He explains that photo IDs are required to rent movies or to “cash welfare checks” so they should be required to vote. But isn’t voting a right, unlike renting movies or cashing checks? And don’t citizens expect to have their rights without barriers? “I agree with that,” says Strickland, “just identify yourself.” Which logically circles us right back around to why this well-placed FULBORE lawyer is so strident on the question of government issued photo ID.
I tell Strickland that I think fears of widespread voter fraud are over-hyped. In the case of Fulton County, someone may have attempted 2,400 fraudulent registrations, but it wasn’t 2,400 voters. And even he admits that election day ran pretty smoothly among voters. He tells me that protests over photo IDs are what’s over-hyped. There are four million registered voters in Georgia, compared to six million drivers licenses and 600,000 other state- issued IDs. And then he admits that he can’t connect those numbers logically into a complete argument. But he says he doubts that a hundred thousand voters will have trouble producing photo ID and he does not think that narrowing the form of ID constitutes a civil rights violation.
Strickland goes on to use the analogy of home security. Protecting an election is like protecting your home. Just as you need to be safe in your house, we need to protect the integrity of the voting process in every respect. And your right to vote depends upon your age and registration. You have to register to vote. So it is time to thank the man for his time and hang up. Frankly, I’m nervous when a powerhouse such as Strickland thinks about our public elections the way he thinks about his home security. After all, I do keep my doors locked. But, election day should be an open house affair, unlocked, with windows and doors thrown open. But now that Srickland has my caller ID, I’ll probably have to tell him this via voice mail.
With only two phone calls to Georgia, troubling parallels to Texas are already laid to view. And this is not good news for America. First there is the eerie coincidence that each of the state’s top Republican attorneys has shifted motion from redistricting to “election integrity.” Like Strickland in Atlanta, Houston’s Andy Taylor spent much of the past year in court, winning redistricting battles for Republicans. Suddenly, in 2005, he’s all about tracking down illegal voters in West Houston and making them repay their miscast ballots for Democrat Hubert Vo (a battle that Taylor finally lost).
The second parallel is the issue itself, never mind the two lawyers who seem to be square dancing the same call. In Atlanta and Houston alike, a new day of “voter integrity” is upon us. In Atlanta we have the photo ID law churning up bad energy. In Texas we have brand new software that can spit names in wads big as you need of voters gasp who on election day gasp while traveling from home to polling place gasp cross over a county line. About 150 voters were tracked down and subpoenaed for their election day irregularities, and 110 saw their votes subtracted. Whether it’s the “front end” ID fight in Atlanta, or the “back end” ballot fight in Houston, Republicans seem hard at work this year installing brand new election filters.
And then we have the homeland security fearmongering. Because I’m trying to figure out just what do Strickland and Taylor think that gangs of fraudulent voters are going to do on election day besides vote? When Taylor led the crackdown on West Houston voters, he discovered that one voter in 400 dared to return to an old neighborhood to vote. And Strickland says that on election day in Fulton County, things went pretty well. So in his worst nightmare, I wonder what does Strickland fear could happen? Does he get all sweaty like Taylor at the very idea of a filthy 400 to 1 ratio of voters whose lives outpace their registrations?
Finally, in Georgia and Texas alike, we have public claims of voter fraud that turn out not to involve voters at all. In Fulton County, somebody may have tried to turn in batches of voter registrations that were not actually filled out by voters (we’ll call the D.A. about that sometime soon). In West Houston, the trick might have been tried on a much smaller scale. In both cases, the number of voters affected should not be confused with the number of voters involved. In addition, the “irony” of West Houston was that whoever pulled that trick, did it in an attempt to export voters out of districts where they lived. Not only was the “fraud” not committed by voters, but it made them ineligible to vote at home. Yet in both cities, high powered Republican attorneys spread fear about illegal voting based on what? Nothing but fear itself. Neither Strickland, Taylor, Staton, nor the aide have a fact to go on.
What I forgot to ask Strickland is why Georgia had such a remarkable rate of rejecting provisional ballots during the last election. According to a briefing by ElectionLine.Org, the state rejected 70 percent of nearly 13,000 provisional ballots cast. ElectionLine explains this as a possible consequence of statewide voter registration. A central database might allow election supervisors to more easily check voter registrations. Indeed, at the time of the Election Line report last December only six states had higher rejection rates than Georgia, and four of them (Delaware, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and South Dakota) had statewide registrations. But come January 1, dear reader, all states will be required to have central databases in place.
The parallels between Texas and Georgia raise questions that can be asked of other states in turn. Are your top Republican lawyers hyping issues of registration integrity, raising specters of nefarious voters planning massive acts of fraud, playing up fears that have no basis in election facts, installing new filters into law that will make voting even less hospitable? And your local election activists? Are they so obsessed with issues of verified counts that they remain blind to all other issues in voting rights?
Like the peace movement before it, the election movement seems to have gone flat. Comprehensive voter reform bills by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich) or Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) languish in Congressional committees. You can still find a hot thread about exit polls at your favorite progressive forum, but just as the peace movement crested and dashed itself against hard times, vote reform seems not to know what to do next. Both movements have been hooded and shackled by the one big spin that says America will do anything for democracy. In fact, there’s nothing America won’t do these days so long as so many Americans refuse to be the kinds of citizens that a democracy demands.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: email@example.com