Election Protection ( www.electionprotection2004.org), as the alliance is known, did a test run during the Aug. 31 primary in--where else?--Florida. Approximately 350 volunteers (including 75 lawyers and law students) staffed 60 precincts, and the election hotline received about 40 calls per hour throughout the day, as well at 400 the day before the primary. As in 2000, reports came in about badly designed ballots, problems with voting machines, difficulty filing absentee ballots and poorly trained poll workers who failed to inform voters of their rights. Armed with a Voter's Bill of Rights, the volunteers were able to help those who would otherwise have given up or been turned away.
You don't need to go to Florida to hear stories like these, however. Lynice Williams has been spending time in rural counties Down East listening to school-bus drivers, manufacturing workers, convenience store clerks and farmers struggling to hold on to the family's land. These low-income voters, most of them African American, tell their own stories of confusion and frustration. "Some of this stuff is just completely illegal," she says.
"Just to tell you a few, some people were saying that they have gone into the polls for the primary elections, and not all of the names of the candidates were on the ballot." Others said their polling places closed at 7 p.m., rather than the legally mandated time of 7:30. Others who tried to take advantage of the state's One-Stop No Excuses Absentee voting, which invites people to walk in to their county board of election during certain hours to cast a vote, were turned away, Williams says.
"People are getting flack from the board of election that they don't have time to do it right then. Part of it could be that they're understaffed, but that's not the resident's problem--this is their legal right to cast their votes."
Williams is the executive director of Fair Share, a statewide, grassroots, nonprofit organization that works primarily with low-income people and which has joined the Election Protection coalition. "These are some of the problems that people are having so far, and these are just at the primaries." Fair Share is training volunteers to monitor the polls and staff a toll-free number that will connect them with legal advisers who can intervene immediately with a county's board of elections. "The rest of this month we'll be going door to door and asking people, have they had problems at the precincts?" she says. "Because if that's so, we want to make sure that's addressed."
Getting the correct information out to voters ahead of time is a crucial part of the effort. Consider that present-day voter intimidation strategies usually involve disinformation campaigns, according to a report by People for the American Way and the NAACP titled "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today" (available at www.pfaw.org). In South Dakota's June primary this year, Native Americans were turned away from the polls after being told they had to show ID, which was not required by federal or state law. In Louisiana in 2002, flyers were distributed in African-American neighborhoods telling voters they could go to the polls three days after the Senate runoff was actually held. In South Carolina in 1998, a state representative mailed 3,000 brochures to African-American neighborhoods saying that law enforcement agents would be "working" the election and warning voters that "this election is not worth going to jail."
That's why Fair Share and other Election Protection volunteers will be passing out the North Carolina Voter's Bill of Rights (available through the Institute for Southern Studies at www.southernstudies.org). Not all voters know, for instance, that if you're standing in line by 7:30 p.m., when the polls close, you have the right to vote. If you've just registered or re-registered, you may need to provide ID (a driver's license or student ID card will do), but even if you don't have ID with you, you have the right to fill out a provisional ballot. The same is true if your name doesn't show up on the precinct's list. "A lot of people did not know that you can take somebody in the booth with you if you have problems reading or seeing," Williams adds. "They didn't know that you can get more than one ballot if you messed up one. They were never told that. With these voter education workshops, we want to make sure that people understand what their rights are."
Felon disenfranchisement was a serious issue in Florida in the 2000 election, when even non-felons were mistakenly purged from the voter rolls. In North Carolina, felons who have completed their sentences and paid their debts have their right to vote reinstated--as long as they re-register.
Fair Share's next big event will be a voter registration drive at the Latino festival in Duplin County on Sept. 25. If you'd like to volunteer before or on Election Day, call Fair Share at 1-866-302-0031, or check out other opportunities to help at www.electionprotection2004.org.