Voter Intimidation Fears Renewed As Election Day Nears

Efforts to restrict or suppress certain groups from voting are not new

October 18, 2012, 5:57 PM

Oct. 19, 2012— -- A series of billboards placed in poor, minority neighborhoods in Cleveland telling people that voter fraud is a felony have reignited concerns over voter intimidation and suppression tactics in key battleground states.

Efforts to restrict or suppress the voting rights of certain groups are not new. Since 2011, several state governments have proposed or passed legislation either requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, or requiring photo identification in order to vote. Many voter rights groups view this as an intentional effort to disenfranchise minority voters. That's because these acts tend to impact African Americans and Hispanics who live in low-income neighborhoods and are less likely to have government issued photo ID.

Some states have also changed early-voting legislation measures. Early voting is an important option to poor, minority communities who often can't afford to take an entire day off from work or leave small children unattended on a given election day.

"These early voting periods allow people with low-income jobs to prioritize their schedule around voting instead of making them choose whether to vote or stay home," said Aurora Vasquez, senior manager of the Voting Rights Initiative for the NAACP. "These changes are for the improved integrity of our elections, but the [actual] result is a lack of integrity because the majority of the nation is saying, 'Hey, how come we can't be involved in the process?' "

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law has monitored the progress of state bills that could limit or restrict citizens from voting and found a sharp increase in the last two years. In some instances, the Brennan Center partnered with civil-rights groups to challenge these laws. Many of the state bills that were passed have since been blocked by court injunctions or overturned, because states have failed to prove that the laws would not have a discriminatory effect on voters.

But restrictive laws are not the only hurdle some voters have to get over. Several conservative grassroots organizations like True the Vote, a Tea Party group, used voter fraud concerns as a reason to challenge students' and minorities' voting rights throughout the country. For example, in June, True the Vote volunteers harassed students during Wisconsin's recall election by citing concerns that students were violating a state photo ID bill that was already blocked by two judges.

In recent months True the Vote has also challenged thousands of voting registrations, and held rallies across the country to train and recruit so-called poll watchers.

"We are concerned with non-professional, self-appointed poll watchers and the kind of environment that will be created when non-professionals are questioning the eligibility of other voters," said Myrna Perez, Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center.

The reality is that in-person voter fraud is extremely rare.

"It has been known to happen," Justin Levitt, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice told the Rules and Administration Committee in 2008. "What is notable, however, is how rarely it has been known to happen. Americans are struck and killed by lightning more often."

And there are other instances where simple misinformation has raised concerns about intentional disenfranchisement. On Thursday, 50 voter registration cards mailed to voters in Maricopa County, Arizona, listed the wrong general election date in the Spanish-language translation of the voter polling instructions. A county official later told CNN that "the program has been updated so it reflects the correct dates in both English and Spanish."

Petra Falcon, the Executive Director of Promise Arizona in Action, a non-profit aimed at encouraging Hispanic youth involvement in community-based initiatives, says democracy cannot afford such mistakes. "Imagine going to the polls as a new voter, only to find out they closed two days earlier," she said.

And there are other examples of possible voter intimidation or voter restriction. Below are two keys ones.

May 2012, Florida

In an attempt to purge voter registration rolls of unauthorized voters, the state of Florida questioned thousands of residents about their citizenship. During this process, several eligible voters were purged from the voting rolls. That was the case for Bill Internicola, a 91-year-old World War II veteran, who this year received a letter from county elections officials asking him to show proof he was a U.S. citizen. "To me it's like an insult", the decorated veteran said at a news conference.

As of this past September, of the 2,625 "potential non-citizens" that were registered as voters, the Florida State Department confirmed only 207 were actually non-citizens. The state eventually stopped the voting purge after the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against it.

November 2007, Georgia

Student voting rights were challenged by a group called Statesboro Citizens for Good Government. The group sought to challenge the residency of more than 900 Georgia Southern University students prior to the November 6, 2007 municipal election.

The American Civil Liberties Union stated that each challenge used identical language that "the elector has come to Statesboro, Georgia, only for the temporary purpose of attending Georgia Southern University." That the challengers filed identical allegations against more than 900 registered voters demonstrates the challenges were not based on anything other than the challengers' belief that student status was a disqualification.

Emily DeRuy, Cynthia Martinez, Esteban Roman, and Santiago Wills contributed to this report.