Monday, November 07, 2005

Suppressing democracy

Ask yourself which is the more important principle:
-- the right of American citizens to vote, or

-- preventing those who are ineligible to vote from doing so.

Now, think of this as a kind of Rohrschach test: The answer you give is neither right nor wrong. But it does tell us a great deal -- about your politics, about your priorities, and about what kind of American you are.

I think a strong case can be made that without the latter principle, the former is rendered meaningless. There are legitimate reasons to exclude some from voting -- particularly non-citizens, felons, and those who have already voted once -- and that failing to protect adequately from fraud dilutes and pollutes the meaning of every legitimate voter's ballot.

But there's little doubt, in my mind at least, that the former principle is far more significant; without it, the latter is not just meaningless, it's inoperative.

The right of Americans to vote, and the need to encourage citizens to participate in the voting process, is one of the real bedrock principles of our Republic and its democratic institutions. So while the need to protect against fraud is obviously fundamental, the pursuit of it must never come at the expense of the right of citizens to legitimately participate.

Better, in my mind, to let a hundred felons vote than to prevent a single citizen from legitimately casting their ballot.

Today's Republicans, obviously, disagree with me.

In the wake of the hotly contested Washington governor's race that saw the GOP's well-noted anti-democratic tendencies come rushing to the fore, we now face the prospect of an outrageous attempt by Republicans at intimidating voters by threatening to disqualify them -- often without any real evidence for doing so:
GOP challenges rights of hundreds of voters
Republican claims in King County draw angry denial


Hundreds of worried and angry voters deluged the King County elections department Friday with calls questioning a Republican-backed effort challenging their right to vote in Tuesday's election, elections officials said.

Several voters said that King County GOP Vice Chairman Lori Sotelo was dead wrong in her claim that their voter registration addresses are not those of legitimate residences. And Democratic politicians denounced the Republican initiative as a blatant attempt to intimidate voters.

State GOP Chairman Chris Vance acknowledged some challenges were brought in error and would be withdrawn. But he vigorously defended the undertaking overall and promised more of the same.

The spark for the political firestorm was the delivery of certified letters Thursday from the county elections department to voters on the GOP hit list, which totaled 1,774 names after duplicates were eliminated. The letters informed the voters of the challenge and cited the state law requiring voters to register at a valid residence address.

"I'm extremely disappointed and angry at the audacity of this woman and the party she represents," said Demene Hall, who got one of the letters. Hall has lived for 16 years at the Watermarke apartment building at 320 Cedar St. in Seattle, her registration address.

Hall, who said she is "too African American" not to be a regular voter, said Friday she came of age in the civil rights era and watched her parents hand out political fliers outside polling places they were not allowed to enter.

"We just buried Rosa Parks on Wednesday, I got the letter on Thursday and today is my 57th birthday," she said. "And they're challenging my validity?"

Vance acknowledged that the inclusion of the Watermarke on the list was a mistake. Elections officials late Friday said Sotelo had rescinded 140 of the challenges.

But, Vance said, "The overwhelming majority of our challenges are valid."

Right. Actually, there's no proof of that, and plenty of evidence that the majority are in fact mistaken.

The Daily Kos diary entry by Andrew Villeneuve of the Northwest Progressive Institute lays out what has been happening:
And here's what's really clever: the filing of the registrations was timed to be right on the eve of the November 8th election, so that hearings have to be scheduled after the election. The GOP is hoping that voters whose registrations are being challenged will get discouraged and just not even bother to vote at all.

After the letters began arriving, the news media and progressive NW bloggers quickly jumped on the story.

The story first appeared on The Stranger's website, where one of the voters whose address was challenged posted to the site's forum:

So I get this certified letter from King County today informing me that my voter registration has been challenged.

Attached is a form signed by some woman named Lori D. Sotelo saying that "under penalty of perjury" she has "personal knowledge and believe that this person ... does nto reside at the address given on his or her voter registration..."

Under the section where she is asked to provide factual basis for the challenge, she writes "Voter is registered to vote at an address that is not a physical residence."

WTF? I live in a vintage apartment building in Belltown [the Watermarke] with about 60 other people. Then I talked to my neighbors - EVERYONE I talked to also received the letter.

Yep -- that's right. The Republicans challenged the voter registrations of EVERY SINGLE PERSON in THIS apartment building:

[Shot of Watermarke building]

Others being harassed are people who have lived in the same house for decades, and still others whose residence is also where they operate their business.

Vance and the GOP later admitted that the Watermarke residents were included by mistake and rescinded their challenges. However, the Seattle Times reported on others who were not so fortunate, though their challenges were every bit as bogus:
Jeff Weber, another voter whose registration was challenged, said he lives and is registered at his home in West Seattle, and is mystified about how he ended up on the Republicans' list.

"I think it's outrageous," he said. "It's a bungalow in West Seattle. ... It's a single-family house on a 5,000-square-foot lot. If they had done any investigating at all, they would have known."

Annette Fallin of Belltown said she was notified her registration had been challenged the same day she mailed in her absentee ballot.

"I'm very irate over it," she said. "I get this piece of mail telling me they're not even counting it like a normal ballot."

The challenge to Fallin's registration was one of the 140 the GOP dropped Friday. More than 50 of the 140 were registered at her apartment building, the Watermarke on Cedar Street.

The challenges to Thoma's, Taylor's, Blodgett's and Weber's registrations were not rescinded.

What is the GOP doing here? Can you imagine being one of these voters -- a legitimate, long-time voter who expects to cast their ballot as they always have, and suddenly you get a letter from a Republican official who says she's going to challenge your right to vote? That's not just Orwellian: it's Kafkaesque.

But then, it's what we've come to expect from today's Republican Party. It well knows that its grip on power is either maintained, in many places, or obtained, in places like Seattle where it struggles, by the slimmest margins -- and that its interests are more often served by suppressing voter turnout.

After all, it was a similar vote-suppression effort in Florida in 2000 that likely delivered that state to George W. Bush and with it the presidency. Many will recall Greg Palast's reporting on the effort, which has always struck me as a little shaky, particularly his assertions -- which he admits are simply estimations -- that 90 percent of the ChoicePoint voter-roll eliminations were incorrect. But there's little doubt that there was an extremely high rate of error in the purges, certainly in excess of 50 percent.

That's simply unacceptable. If you accept the primacy of the right of citizens to vote, then these attempts at preventing ineligible votes have to be as close to perfect as possible; an error rate of even more than 1 percent is too great. Because anything more than that means you're violating the inviolable.

[There's also a notable hypocrisy in all this for those of us who were observers in the Gregoire-Rossi tussle, because Republicans have made it a constant subsequent talking point -- no, a screaming point, really -- that King County elections officials proved themselves hopelessly corrupt and incompetent in this election, notably by their inability to reify a relatively small number of ballots with the numbers of votes (it was around .3 percent).]

But then, these kinds of vote-suppression effort have become commonplace in the GOP, particularly in areas where there are strong Democratic voting blocs, which are always what Republicans target. Recall, for instance, that there have been broader voter-suppression efforts, including those in Ohio in 2004.

To Republicans, elections no longer are sacred exercises in democracy. They are just another game that they can rig. All in the name of power.

And that's what the Rohrschach test reveals: If you prioritize the rights of voters, you will oppose vote-suppression efforts, particularly those that would intimidate legitimate voters. If you prioritize fraud prevention, then in the end you're placing process before participation -- the cart before the horse, as it were -- and, if you approve of the techniques currently in vogue with the GOP, you ultimately are willing to discard the rights of legitimate voters. The latter reveals a profound anti-democratic impulse, while the former indicates a healthy respect for democracy.

The latter also reveals, I think, the disposable ethics of the conservative movement: In the end, all that matters is winning. If democratic principles are trampled upon a bit, well, we can just pick them up and dust them off afterward, can't we?

Or, as long as they're laying there in the dirt, maybe we can just trample on them a little more.

UPDATE: David Goldstein at runs down the preliminary numbers, and it looks grim for Chris Vance and Washington State GOP. It appears their error rate may be in the 30 percent range or higher. That's literally hundreds of bogus challenges.

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