Culebra This is a warning on the eve of a new year: I’m obsessed with stopping voter suppression as we countdown the months and days to the election in November. Besides my general obsession, I’m especially focused on the efforts “behind closed doors,” so to speak in the warrens and cubbyholes of secretaries of state where voter files are managed and maintained. One of my recurring nightmares after five decades of work registering voters, particularly among low-and-moderate income families, is that many of our efforts to bring new voters through the front door are being lost as nameless data crunchers eliminate voters through the backdoor through purges and other mechanisms.
Reading Andrew Cockburn’s piece in the recent Atlantic called “Election Bias: The New Playbook for Voter Suppression,” added more logs to my fire. Much of his “letter from Washington” repeated the litany of recent examples of voter purges in Georgia, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. He started his piece though with a story about the Tennessee Black Voter Project. They claimed to have registered 90,000, largely African-American new voters in the spring of 2018. They had to endure the usual obstacles of rejections, but past that the Secretary of State became the leader of the Republican band in the legislature to make it harder to register new voters in Tennessee by putting “mass registration drives under state control and to criminalize mistakes made on applications. The bill imposed heavy fines for any group that turned in multiple incomplete applications, mandated severe penalties for failing to submit registration forms to election officials within ten days of being signed by the applicant, and require any person registering voters to receive official certification and government-administered training.” In short, the usual menu of obstacles to successful registration drives. Fortunately, a Tennessee district judge threw it out.
What caught my eye especially though was not all of this harassment, but one of the key organizers being quoted as not knowing which of their registrants successfully got through the process and which didn’t. This is exactly one of the aims of our Voter Purge Project, a partnership of ACORN International, the American Voter Project, and Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center. Using our database processing this would be an easy query and match that we could do for them, except for one thing that gets less attention and that Cockburn didn’t cover. To get the voter file and check on success versus failure and who might have been purged, correctly or falsely, would take $2500, and to monitor it throughout a year, would mean $2500 times twelve months or $30,000. Tennessee doesn’t want anyone without deep, deep pockets to be able to see how they are handling the voter lists or their database!
The general theme of Cockburn’s piece, the critique of the Tennessee Black Voter Project, and scores of other efforts throughout the south and the rest of the country is not just voter suppression, but a concerted effort to deny voters on par with the systemic policies that the Civil Rights Movement sought to address. Might as well tell it like it is, and it is pure grade evil and crosses the line of what should be permissible in a democracy. Period.