Election protection

Progressive activists in Detroit were trying to get the message out last week: The right to vote needs to be protected, and any efforts at curtailing that right during this election are going to meet vigorous opposition.

If you have problems at the polls, there are numbers that you can call to get immediate assistance. And if you want to lend a hand by standing watch and guarding against any attempts at voter intimidation, there's still time to join a broad coalition of groups mounting what one member described as the "most aggressive" voter protection strategy ever seen in this country.

Election Protection, a coalition of more than 100 local, state and national groups, is coordinating the effort. Members of the coalition include the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, NAACP, ACLU and Common Cause. Although there are a number of members from the political mainstream, a significant number tilt left.

Still smoldering from the 2000 fiasco in Florida and a similar scenario that played out in Ohio in 2004, progressives in Michigan and across the country are mounting an all-out campaign to counter voter suppression tactics often aimed at minority and low-income communities.

In other words, people more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.

However, this is an effort being waged largely by nonprofit organizations that, because of their tax-exempt status, aren't allowed to engage in partisan politics; the campaign officially isn't about seeking to help one party or another.

"When it comes to election reform, this is not a right-wing or left-wing issue for us," says Tanya Clay House of the left-leaning group People for the American Way. "On this issue, our agenda is just to promote democracy."

However, the reality is that during the last two presidential elections there have been a number of well-documented efforts by Republicans to suppress the vote of those likely to vote Democratic, especially African-American voters, says Heaster Wheeler, executive director of the Detroit branch of the NAACP.

It is a continuation of the same kind of block-the-vote strategy that began during the Jim Crow era following the Civil War and led to passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Wheeler was part of a panel convened by U.S. Rep. John Conyers last week at Detroit's Central United Methodist Church.

"We want to maximize voter participation, make voting as easy as possible, and make sure ballots are counted," said Conyers, a Detroit Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. "And we want to protect against the opposite ... people and organizations that want to intimidate or discourage people from voting."

A key tactic this time around for those who want to guard against attempts at voter intimidation involves the recruitment and training of so-called "poll challengers."

In 2004, according to a Detroit Free Press article, 4,276 Republican volunteers were deployed as challengers in 1,800 Michigan precincts. A similar effort, said a party official, would be mounted for this election.

What will be different this time, say those connected with Election Protection, is that coalition members are recruiting and training people who will be dispatched to polling places so that they can keep a watch on those designated challengers to make sure there are no illegal attempts of voter intimidation or suppression.

"We're going to be there to make sure if someone is challenging a person's right to vote, that they are doing it under the law," Tierney Eaton, coordinator for the Michigan Election Coalition, told a small group attending a voter's rights forum last week at Detroit's Plymouth United Church of Christ. "We're going to challenge the challengers."

In addition to having volunteers monitoring activities at polling places on Election Day, coalition members have been staging a number of events designed to inform voters of their rights.

One particular issue raised at two events attended by Metro Times last week involves the type of apparel voters are allowed to wear when going to the polls. There is a rumor circulating that people wearing shirts, hats, buttons, etc. promoting a particular candidate can be prohibited from voting. That's not true, according to Jocelyn Benson, a professor who specializes in election law at Wayne State University Law School. However, election officials are permitted to request that such clothing be covered or removed. Those who don't comply can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Also of concern is the issue of photo ID. People lacking ID cannot legally be prohibited from voting. "Every voter has the option of voting by simply signing an affidavit if they don't have ID with them," according to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Among other things registered voters — the only basic requirements are that you be a Michigan resident, 18 years of age or older — should be aware of:

• Convicted felons not currently incarcerated retain the right to vote.

• If you are in jail awaiting arraignment, plea or trial, you can vote by absentee ballot.

• If you have a disability and need assistance voting, a person of your choice can accompany you into the voting booth.

• Graduation from high school is not required for a person to vote.

• Home foreclosure does not affect your right to vote.

• Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 4. If you are in line before 8 p.m., you must be given the opportunity to vote no matter how long the wait.

For those who do encounter problems Election Day, help is just a phone call away. Assistance can be obtained by calling the Election Protection hotline toll-free at 866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683).

Also, if you are interested in volunteering to be a poll challenger, contact the Michigan Election Coalition at 313-965-8987 or e-mail [email protected].

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]