I’m a lifelong registered Democrat. So I reflexively think of the GOP when someone brings up the subject of voter suppression.
But a recent article by Greg Palast, an investigative journalist and author, expanded my perspective.
Democrats also suppress the right of eligible citizens to vote, I learned after reading a Palast article.
Most of the piece I linked above is about Georgia, a state run by Republicans. That part of the story didn’t surprise me. The GOP lives to fight another day by creating new ways to make it more difficult to register and to vote in our country. Some call it voter suppression; others voter subtraction, or even theft of a sacred American right.
At the end of the Palast article, though, Michigan residents learned about the last day to register to vote in their state. The writer encouraged readers to go to his voter-support website, SaveMyVote2020.org, to determine whether officials had purged them from the voter rolls. The Save My Vote site also lets people register again.
Palast, a powerful story-teller, grabbed me by the throat with this warning: “The Palast team wants to thank Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib for contacting us with an offer to try to convince the Michigan Secretary of State to return 313,000 purged voters to the rolls. Good luck with that, Congresswoman. While Democrats have recently taken over that office, the Jim Crow systems put in place by the previous Secretary of State remain in force.
“There’s a lesson in that: Don’t expect a party to save your vote. You must save your own vote.”
These are powerful words from a powerful writer. I wanted to learn more.
That’s why I sent an email to the spokeswoman for the Democratic Secretary of State in Michigan. Jocelyn Benson took office on Jan. 1, 2019, replacing a Republican Secretary of State.
Aneta Kiersnowski, Benson’s spokeswoman, wrote back, saying, “The subjects you are asking about are the topic of pending litigation, and we will not comment on them specifically at this time. Secretary Benson continues to maintain the state’s qualified voter file in accordance with the National Voter Registration Act, which states the process by which voter registrations may be cancelled nationwide. Michigan uses the Social Security Master Death Index to remove voters who have died, and is a participant in the Electronic Registration Information Center, which tracks when voters move out of state.”
The general response to my questions give me more questions for Secretary Benson and other Democratic election chiefs in the states.
For starters, the National Voter Registration Act was passed in 1993 by a Democratic Congress and signed by Bill Clinton, a Democratic president.
Is this law clear enough for state election officials to protect registered voters? Or is there leeway in interpretation, which lets states wipe away registered voters from the voter rolls? If so, what do you want the Congress and president to do next year if voters paint D.C. entirely blue? What legal language must be passed and signed into law to limit or eliminate voter roll purges?
To be sure, registered voters are taken off the voter rolls for a number of reasons, including death and failing to report a change of address. Some states even banish registered voters who have not voted in a certain number of elections.
Yanking voters off the rolls may not sound like a big deal, but it stands out even more nowadays because election outcomes sometimes hinge on a small number of votes.
The comments I got from the Michigan spokeswoman also centered my mind on another issue: I’d like election chiefs to confront the role the Electronic Registration Information Center plays in providing less-than-accurate information about voters and potential voters.
Palast brought up ERIC in a recent article about how Wisconsin purged registered voters from the voter rolls for allegedly moving and not reporting their new addresses. Detailed reporting by the Palast team revealed many of the people deprived of their right to vote had in fact not moved.
Wrote Palast, “Whatever the intent, how could Esenberg’s group get it so wrong? It begins with a misuse of what is called the ‘ERIC’ list. ERIC is the Electronic Registration Information Center of Washington.
“ERIC, controlled by 30 state officials uses a limited and amateurish system for identifying those who have moved from their registration address. But that’s not a problem, as ERIC was not established to hunt voters for the purge but to find those who moved into a state or town and invite them to register.
“ERIC often confuses common names like James Brown. But if the wrong James Brown gets a postcard inviting him to register, no harm done. But the Wisconsin Legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker added a stinger: If a voter does not return the postcard, they must be removed from the voter rolls.
“The card looks like ‘junk mail’ – so less than 2% returned it. Our lead address verification expert John Lenser says, “not returning a postcard does not at all indicate someone has moved. People think it’s so-called ‘junk mail’ and toss it.” Indeed, he says, unless a card is returned “undeliverable,” that is evidence the voter has not moved.”
To be fair, I sent an email to the executive director of ERIC. I shared the information I quoted above, and invited Shane Hamlin to comment. I have not gotten a response.
I’m not including the ERIC details to knock the organization, which I support. I think ERIC does a lot right.
But the Palast piece opened the door for me to wonder whether ERIC can make some improvements to help states get even more accurate information about voters and potential voters. Making the ERIC system more effective might also decrease the chances that partisan groups bent on purging voters take advantage of gaps in the data ERIC gives to member states.
I still believe that the Grand Old Party continues to feast on a buffet of voter suppression and voter subtraction.
But my home team, the Democrats, need to figure out what they can do to make voting and registering to vote easy, convenient and fair. The old donkey will have to do more than bray against voter suppression if D.C. celebrates in a blue wave come January.