Voting Rights Haven’t Gotten Such Attention Since 1965. What Did We Learn?

Crossposted from Colorlines. A little over a week after the presidential election has ended, many voting rights watchers are reflecting on all that we learned through this year’s campaigns: what went right, what went wrong, and the unresolved challenges that remain ahead. As for the overall takeaway, Advancement Project director Judith Browne-Dianis wraps it up nicely, saying, “The national conversation around voting rights was amplified like we haven’t seen since 1965.”

This year, more Americans arguably learned more about the voting process than any year in recent memory. Civil rights and election protection campaigns made people aware of things like the difference between a poll watcher and a poll observer; how people use data to purge voters; and what voters’ general rights are while standing in poll lines. On a more nuanced level, the discussion around voter ID laws gave Americans a greater understanding of not only how many people don’t have government-issued ID, but also the reasons why.

Probably most importantly, though, many Americans learned—or at least were reminded—about the history of our democracy, of how civil rights heroes helped the nation realize that democracy, by forcing an expansion of the electorate, which at core is an expansion of citizenship. “Americans began to recognize that democracy was under assault,” says Browne-Dianis of the past year. “And rather than concede to this partisan effort to restrict their vote as an insurmountable setback, they saw it as a challenge to be met.”

The effort to meet that challenge produced both victories and some remaining battles, but there are some specific lessons we can take away from each.

1. Data helps win elections, but it’s not everything.

The Obama campaign has well demonstrated how to identify and target new voters, while the Romney campaign has learned that data, like science, is actually necessary. But data only takes get-out-the-vote efforts so far, because someone has to actually get people to the polls. Black churches and NAACP chapters in Ohio and Florida turned out record-high black voters through their “Souls to the Polls” campaigns, by shuttling and busing people straight from church services to voting booths. These campaigns, which were enormously successful in 2008 as well, have been a primary target of those who insist, beyond all proof to the contrary, that voter fraud is a problem. Defending them—or, the early voting rules that enable them—proved crucial in 2012 to increasing the number of black people who participate in democracy.

Meanwhile, sometimes the data just failed to identify voters of color in the first place. In Minnesota, Hana Worku of Voices for Voting Rights told Colorlines that most of the voters they made contact with were not people circulating in voter databanks. Rather, they reached “voters in low-income and communities of color that would not have been contacted otherwise.” In Tampa, I spent time doing “Knock n’ Grabs”—going door-to-door asking people if they’ve voted, and if not, taking them to the polls—with NAACP organizers. They ended up shedding their canvassing lists and instead cruising the streets literally picking up voters off of stoops, porches and corners because they knew the people on the data sheets likely weren’t home.

2. Voters of color were invisible, to their advantage.

In some ways, the fact that voters of color weren’t turning up in databases was a good thing. It kept people who may not have had their best interests in mind from targeting them, while throwing off Republican pollsters who thought they had the election in the bag. Campaign aides to Mitt Romney have said their calculations about possibly winning Florida were thrown off because “they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola, Fla.,” which is predominantly Puerto Rican, Latino and African American. In Maine, there was massive black voter turnout, but according to the Republican Party chair: “Nobody in town knew them.”

3. The need for early voting was evident.

Among the 2012 election’s legacies will be photos of long lines at polling locations across the nation, like a reprised version of “Eyes on the Prize.” It didn’t need to be that way. Proper targeting of resources and voting machines could have streamlined voting. In Tampa, the lines held up because there were 11 constitutional amendments on the ballots, some of which voters said were indecipherable. Long lines ruled the day in Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland as well. Our community journalist Hermelinda Cortes reported about how the lack of early and absentee voting opportunities hurt Virginia. Wrote Cortes: “The state doesn’t make it easy to vote early. Unlike other states, Virginia demands that early voters meet one of more than a dozen qualifications and sign a sworn statement.”

In Florida, election law expert Dan Smith studied the early voting cutbacks from this year and concluded, “It appears that fewer days of early voting—especially the elimination of the final Sunday prior to Election Day—have led to fewer opportunities for some voters to turn out to vote. Moreover, it is certainly arguable based on the evidence presented here that the reduction of early voting days caused by House Bill 1355 has had a differential effect on racial and ethnic minorities in Florida, specifically blacks.”

4. Right wing poll watchers played themselves.

Our Voting Rights Watch project sounded the alarm early on about the plans of poll-watching groups like True the Vote. Earlier this year, True the Vote said it would have an army of a million people to make voters feel like they were “driving and seeing the police follow” them. The Republican Party also launched efforts to marshal a massive poll watcher showing. But most of these efforts were deflated, mainly because media outlets and voting rights advocates put them on blast and thus drew close scrutiny. But they were also undone through their own incompetence.

Our reporter Aura Bogado, for instance, caught one poll watcher in Colorado reporting “high concentrations of people of color” in a voting location, as if that was against the law. In Ohio, poll watchers from True the Vote were banned from one county’s precincts because they didn’t register properly. In general, True the Vote aligned itself with so many right wing extremists and racists that their non-partisan claims were rendered pure folly. Meanwhile, poll watcher manuals from both True the Vote and the Republican Party showed false information. All of this significantly undermined their relationships with election officials and their credibility in the eyes of the news media.

5. Election Protection works.

Some people are saying that pre-election voter suppression threats were overhyped. Maybe. Or maybe there was enough of a counter-movement through Election Protection lawyers who were on the scene in such bulk that their presence thwarted voter harassment, or fended it off when it appeared. I personally saw Election Protection lawyers intervene when poll watchers got rambunctious, while also helping older people get through long lines and mitigate voter confusion, which was prevalent. Our community journalist Hillary Abe wrote about how one team not only helped deflect voter suppression efforts targeting Native Americans, but also how they mobilized this year to expand their political power, fighting off voter ID proposals in the process.

6. Grassroots organizers can turn out voters on shoestring budgets—but that’s not a good thing.

In Orlando, Miami and Tampa, I spent time with get-out-the-vote advocates who were working on the flimsiest of budgets, if they had budgets at all. Many of the organizers were themselves unemployed and doing volunteer work. I learned that this was also true elsewhere. In Minnesota, Hana Worku tells us that “organizers in communities of color were scrambling just to find materials, translation, and funding to pay for their work, even part-time.” In Pittsburgh, organizer Celeste Taylor was somewhat positive about it, telling me, “It is so important to understand that the success of nonprofits, nonpartisan and effective community based organizing work is that they utilize a lot of volunteers, which includes folks like myself who were being paid for part-time work and worked nearly all the time—many 12-to-18 hour days! It was a huge sacrifice to earn so little and work so much, but the payoff was seeing how the people in our communities appreciated the information and turned out to vote!” True, but there’s no reason why putting in 60-plus hours of work shouldn’t be adequately compensated. If it’s bad for Wal-Mart, it’s bad for voter work.

7. People of color were self-motivated to vote, not just motivated by Obama.

As I wrote previously, people didn’t wait hours in line just to vote in the guy known for deporting the most immigrants or failing to make a dent in black unemployment. There was a deeper dedication at play. Our community journalist Noni Grant said that while in the field she asked several people why they felt it was important to vote. The overwhelming response was “black folks have fought and died for the right to vote.” The history of civil rights and voting rights in America is still within the active memory of many people of color, and so this was a civic-duty calling, especially in the face of such a vocal and overt suppression effort.

8. A lot of people didn’t vote, because they couldn’t, because of felonies.

In Florida and Virginia alone, felony disenfranchisement kept almost two million people from voting this November. And even though the process in Virginia for restoring rights to those with felonies was streamlined by the governor, it is still cumbersome enough that many weren’t able to apply for rights restoration in time. Rosana Cruz, of New Orleans-based Voices Of The Ex-offender wrote about this problem saying, “Nearly half a million people in the five Gulf states didn’t vote today, because as formerly incarcerated people, people on probation and parole, or currently incarcerated people, they’ve been denied that right. That number doesn’t count the Formerly Incarcerated People who don’t even know if they have the right to vote, because the laws blocking voting rights vary from state to state.”

9. Hundreds of thousands of votes still haven’t been counted.

In Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania, there are still outstanding ballots to be counted. Many voters in these states got to the polls only to find that their names were not listed, even though they were certainly registered. In Arizona, hundreds of thousands of people are wondering where their registration, or their vote went. In Philadelphia, it’s the same deal. Philadelphia City Paper has attempted to get to the bottom of what happened to the disappearing votes, and was not able to come up with anything. Like President Obama said, “We have to fix that.”

10. Gerrymandering and redistricting caused confusion.

This is probably the most under-reported story in the country. Following the 2010 Census, new voting district lines were drawn, which changed where many people go to vote. If you’ve moved since the Census came out, then there’s even more room for confusion. In Philadelphia, a lot of the mysterious vanishing voters are suspected to be a result of newly drawn lines and a failure by county commissioners to alert voters of their new voting districts.

Trupania Bonner, of Moving Forward Gulf Coast, Inc., was able to get communities in Louisiana not only educated about the redistricting process, but also taught them how to get involved in it. Says Bonner: “No one really understands what redistricting is, and how when gerrymandering occurs you see how the Southern Manifesto and those types of ideologies progress from that. So for us, we learned the process of redistricting and then also how to draw districts ourselves. We then bought the software used by legislators to do redistricting, and taught residents how to do it too. What all communities need to fully understand is how our rights are protected by learning and engaging in the census and redistricting process.”