A Different, Non-Partisan Voting Process Code to Restore Faith in Our Democracy

July 26, 2017 from Beacon Broadside

Our electoral process is broken. Polls, interviews with voters or prospective voters all confirm discontent with our system and a sense of unfairness, corruption or unresponsiveness. At the state and local levels, such issues as expanding Medicaid, insuring clean drinking water, addressing homelessness, figuring out how to “fix” education, repairing streets and other infrastructure, police community relations, all depend on an effectively functioning political system. The public routinely expresses a sense of uncertainty about when and how to vote, who can vote, and whose votes count, whether in state and local or national primaries or general elections. The uncertainty is exacerbated by increased population mobility. Some jurisdictions make changes in the law and are then challenged and endure expensive litigation costs because of provisions attacked as voter suppression. The cost to the justice system as well as the litigants is enormous. Also, the contestation further undermines confidence in the political system.

Texas Voters 1945 LOC

Texas voters, 1944 after “white primaries” ruled unconstitutional (Library of Congress)

Trying to pass a new Voting Rights Act to remedy the Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder is important, but does not address these general concerns. Because the Constitution gives the states the power to directly control elections, the most Congress could do, even in a less polarized environment, is to enact a best practices law and then provide for withholding funding in the absence of compliance. We need a different non-partisan approach in which the states would mandate the rules. The optimal approach under current circumstances is a uniform elections and voting process code adopted by the states which includes best practices and reflects the goal of democracy while reducing uncertainty, avoiding abuses and litigation costs, and unnecessary tension over voting. This Code, like others initiated by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and the American Law Institute, would be adopted by each legislature or by ballot referendum. Such a Code might also increase turnout of citizens who respect the system and believe the process makes accountability possible.

At a minimum, such a Code should provide for better monitoring of campaign’s using contributions for vote-buying and misuse of absentee ballots. This includes collecting signatures from vulnerable elderly or the poor for a few dollars or snow or trash removal only in certain pliant neighborhoods, or allocating public housing based on how a family voted—practices which still exist in almost every jurisdictions. Because local prosecutors and judges are elected by the same campaigns, action would require independent prosecutors and judges in state and local elections in voter manipulation cases.

The Code could also ease obtaining voter ID cards by providing for secure transmission online of a photo to the voter registration office along with the application and payment. It might also provide for voter registration offices distributed fairly based on population in geographic areas of the state to avoid deliberate efforts to make qualifying difficult.

In order to increase turnout, the Code could require mandatory voting, but only with “none of the above” as a possibility. This is to avoid making people vote for someone they don’t want. It might also consider incentives or rewards such as a lottery ticket along with the “I Voted” sticker, as the voter leaves the polling place.

Once the Code is adopted, any state legislative action that changes a provision in a way that violates the state or federal Constitution would invite litigation to prevent its implementation.

Grassroots activists will need to organize to gain approval either by the legislature or ballot referendum. Some legislators and voters will be interested in litigation costs; others in rights, fairness and morality, still others, in accuracy and inclusiveness in the name of democracy and citizen action. States that do not act could be penalized by the economic pressure of boycotts and business location decisions.

Actual as opposed to pretend democracies are based on citizen participation and the delivery of promised government benefits to constituents by elected officials. Voters may invest their hopes in a candidate who promises to change their situation, believing that this time around, elections actually do matter. But when promises are blatantly ignored with no demonstration of even intent to deliver, pessimism and anger among the population is a result. Adopting a best practices approach to the electoral process will alleviate unfairness and help to restore faith in our democracy.



Rigged?: Trump’s Claims of Voter Fraud in the 2016 Election

November 07, 2016, published in Beacon Broadside
A Q&A with Mary Frances Berry

“November 8, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged.” That’s what presidential candidate Donald Trump said August 1 at a rally in Columbus, Ohio. During this campaign, Trump has alleged that the electoral system is rigged against him, that he will lose because of voter fraud. Additionally, he has claimed that undocumented immigrants will cast their votes, as well as people who died ten years ago. To prevent this act of voter fraud, Trump has encouraged his supporters to act as poll watchers. But is this kind of voter fraud really playing out at the polls as he claims? We caught up with Dr. Mary Frances Berry, historian and author of Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy, to ask her about Trump’s notion of a rigged election and what’s currently at stake for voters.

trump-electionrigged tweet

Why do you think Donald Trump is putting so much emphasis on losing to voter fraud?

Donald Trump is emphasizing the possibility of voter fraud because if he loses he may want to challenge the election. The most obvious way to do that is to charge fraud. The conventional wisdom that there is little or no voter fraud is not quite accurate. While there is little in-person fraud that can be prevented with ID laws, the more pervasive fraud involves misuse of ballots and other kinds of vote-buying. This is what I call suppression of voter choice on the cheap. Studies and news accounts usually examine only the lack of a large number of prosecutions. The problem is that in most cases of vote buying, local prosecutors refuse to prosecute mainly, I believe, because buying votes is common, and indeed, they themselves—as well as local judges—may have bought votes to get elected. In a close count of electoral votes, this type of fraud in one state could make a difference.

Cheap suppression of voter choice is done most often by campaign ground game operatives who use “street money” or “walk-around-money.” They say they want to increase turnout from the poor, the elderly, nursing home residents and other vulnerable populations, but the operators are in collusion with corrupt voting officials. They use absentee ballots and then pay them a small amount or hand-out fried chicken boxes and beverages for voting the right way. In Louisiana, such voters may get a pork chop sandwich and $5.00 and a cold drink. Before you believe that can’t happen, think about the clerk in Broward County just recently who was opening ballots and counting them in her office, or the Jefferson Parish official in Louisiana who had a private machine in his office for particular people to vote which he personally kept track of without observation.

Are Trump’s claims of a rigged election unique to this season? Have there been other presidential candidates before him who have made the same claim?

There are nineteenth-century examples of corruption claims. However, the charges that John F. Kennedy stole the election from Richard Nixon in 1960 stand out as a twentieth-century example. The most recent case is the Bush vs. Gore 2000 election and the controversy over votes in Florida that led to a Supreme Court decision electing George W. Bush president. Broward County was, during that cycle, one of the places where vote-counting problems occurred.

Early voting is underway and a Black voter like Grace Bell Hardison was nearly denied her rightto vote at the polls in North Carolina. Why is voter intimidation and voter suppression still rampant? 

Voter intimidation and suppression still occur because campaigns want to keep anyone who they think might vote against them from voting, while increasing turnout of their own voters. Candidates know turnout is a problem because many people don’t believe voting improves their lives or don’t care for either candidate. Since Grace Bell Hardison apparently was already on the rolls, there was no reason except how she might vote to prevent her from voting since North Carolina’s photo voter ID law had been struck down by the courts.

Ms. Hardison’s situation recalls that of a clergyman in Tallahassee during the 2000 presidential election  who had voted repeatedly but was denied the right to vote at the polls because he had been purged from the registration list as a convicted felon when the only time he had ever been in a courthouse was to testify in a case. He said he was embarrassed by the experience and felt he had been “sling-shotted back to slavery.”

Trump has encouraged his supporters to act as unofficial poll watchers. What can voters do to make sure their voting experience is safe?

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is leading civil rights groups in organizing lawyers and other volunteers to monitor the polls on Election Day for evidence of voter intimidation. They advise voters that if there are no monitors outside their polling place, and they are stopped and questioned by someone before they enter, they should not answer but call the Election Protection hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). They should go inside, vote, and notify poll workers of the intimidation.

North Carolina and the Evolution of Voter Suppression

Voting rights are human rights

February 1, 2016, first posted on Beacon Broadside

Since the Supreme Court in 2013 effectively lifted preclearance requirements for states and counties with a history of race discrimination, states have passed a raft of new voter ID laws and taken other steps which they claim will prevent voter fraud. The challenge to North Carolina’s voter Identification law underway in federal court may be ground zero for this issue.

North Carolina’s identification law requires voters to produce one of six accepted credentials including a driver’s license or passport. Facing immediate criticism from civil rights advocates, the legislature added language permitting the submission of a provisional ballot if the prospective voter submitted a “reasonable impediment declaration” explaining why they lacked identification.

Civil rights advocates consider the law as just another effort to suppress the black vote. One of the plaintiffs is a ninety-four year old woman who had to travel back and forth to distant government offices to get the right documentation because her driver’s license and voter registration card did not match.

The in-person fraud where someone falsely pretends to be a valid voter, cited as a rationale for the new more stringent ID laws, rarely happens. Instead, a more pernicious form of fraud consisting of vote buying and selling is prevalent.

Five Dollars and a Pork Chop SandwichCampaigns get the needy to turn out for them even when they know the candidates don’t do anything for them. As an old lady in Louisiana said, “They don’t do anything for me, they never do what they promise,” but at least they give her a little something—five dollars and a porkchop sandwich. When she and other poor people are induced to cast votes for people who they would otherwise not vote for and who don’t give them anything beyond this “chump change,” it is just another form of voter suppression. Voter fraud indeed exists across the country in state and local elections, but it is through campaigns misusing absentee ballots and buying votes, sometimes with the collusion of voting officials.

Vote buying and selling happens all over the country and is done by operatives for state and local candidates in Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia or rural counties in West Virginia or in the parishes of Louisiana and the counties in Mississippi and Texas. Walk-around money and street money is used to prey on old people in nursing homes and the poor wherever they are. All done in the effort to increase turnout of each candidate’s voters.

The outcome of the battle over voter suppression affects not just presidential elections but state and local contests where matters directly affecting daily life, such as roads and schools and clean water, are decided. Court decisions will come in due course, hopefully striking down these voter ID laws and other restrictive measures. But the election calendar will not wait. In some states a vote in the primary is more crucial than in the general election along with votes in state and local elections not just the presidential contest.

We should not place our reliance on the courts. While the litigation fight goes on, civil rights organizations, churches, fraternities and sororities, and other local groups could make sure non-registered voters, who don’t have the resources, possess whatever documentation is required and transport them to the registrar’s offices to obtain IDs. This can be done while working on ending voter suppression. After all, individuals need photo IDs not only to vote but often to even enter buildings where government or medical services or provided. The groups undertaking this work will need outside financial contributions given the intense poverty among local residents without IDs.

Combined with candidates and issues that give the unregistered something to vote for a “Let’s get ID’d, Let’s get registered” campaign may not only inspire more registration but more actual turnout on election Day without vote buying and other fraudulent tactics. More turnout just might lead to positive political change.