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Republicans Succeeding In Suppressing Minority Voter Registration
Registration patterns vary significantly from state to state, but 26.7 percent fewer new voters have registered in Florida this year than in 2006, along with 21.4 percent fewer in Maryland and 16.9 percent fewer in Tennessee, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute at New York University. And while there’s no single cause for the decline, experts point out that many independent organizations are withering under a combination of public attacks by conservative activists alleging voter fraud and new state laws making it difficult for such groups to operate.
“A four-year wave of attacks on voter registration drives, both in terms of state laws that either shut down voter registration drives or made it too onerous to do it, and other public attacks have certainly had an effect,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Project.
And while voter registration drives have languished, state governments aren’t picking up the slack. Voting rights advocates argue that many states aren’t adequately complying with requirements in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 to register voters automatically at state agencies and keep their addresses up to date when they move. The result is a gaping hole in the country’s voter registration efforts that threatens to undo the positive strides that have been made over the last decade and a half.
The most obvious cause for the decline in voter registration is the shuttering of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. At its height, ACORN had a budget of close to $35 million and was credited with registering approximately half a million voters in 2008 alone. Amid allegations from conservative activists that the group engaged in widespread voter fraud, Congress voted last fall to defund ACORN(http://j.mp/9RSrGC), which received approximately a third of its budget in the form of government grants. The rest of the group’s funding soon dried up, and ACORN was forced to cease operations at its approximately 75 field offices soon thereafter.
But rather than rest on the laurels of their victory against ACORN, conservative activists have been emboldened to seek out new(http://j.mp/9qDMyo) organizations engaging in voter registration drives and levy similar accusations against them, creating an increasingly hostile landscape for them to perform their mission.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the public attacks,” says Weiser. “It’s not a law prohibiting you, so it’s a little harder to demonstrate, but the chilling effects have nonetheless been palpable. People are nervous to do drives and support groups that do this kind of work.”
Tea Party groups, revved up by accusations made against ACORN in 2008, have worked(http://j.mp/9ZycNX) to challenge voter registration drives and contest votes on election day in a number of states, including California, Wisconsin and New Mexico. But the clearest example of attacks launched against new groups seeking to register voters occurred in Harris County, Texas, where True The Vote, which is affiliated with the Tea Party group the King Street Patriots, dug through the county’s registrations and accused a voter registration organization called Houston Votes of engaging in widespread voter fraud in August.
The controversy centered on a number of voter registration forms filed by Houston Votes that were rejected because they were linked to vacant lots and people that did not exist. Many of these registrations, Houston Votes argues, had been made in 2008 and 2009 — before the group was founded and when many of the lots still had homes on them. But the damage had been done. King Street Patriots’ leader Catherine Engelbrecht allegedly referred to Houston Votes as the “New Black Panthers’ office”; Houston Votes responded by filing suit for defamation.
“When someone says you’re associated with racists that are trying to kill all white people, then it has a chilling effect on donors willing to give to your organization, which has an effect on the amount of work you can do. That’s pretty simple-minded stuff,” said Jim George, the lawyer representing Houston Votes. In recent months, the group has been forced to slow its activities(http://j.mp/9WuOqa) to registering just 200 votes a day, down from over a 1,000 before the allegations were leveled.
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