Civil rights coalition plans to keep watch over polling places

25,000 volunteers enlisted for nationwide effort

October 24, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

The polls on the East Coast had been open for only two hours on Election Day 2000, but the phones at the NAACP's national headquarters in Baltimore were already buzzing with voters' grievances.

Names were erroneously missing from voting rolls. Police were demanding minority voters produce identification near polling places. Poll workers wouldn't allow Spanish-speakers to have an interpreter translate the ballot.

This election year, with a heated battle for the White House headed for the finish line, civil rights groups - from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights - are gearing up to ensure that voters' rights are protected on Nov. 2.

A coalition made up of groups such as the NAACP, People for the American Way and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has enlisted about 25,000 volunteers to monitor precincts nationwide and to answer a toll-free voter assistance hot line. Nearly 5,000 of those volunteers are attorneys, prepared to challenge voting irregularities with lawsuits.

Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace group, and the NAACP are dispatching international poll watchers to Florida.

"We're very concerned," said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. "This is about as urgent a need that this organization has been faced with. The nation was burned in the last election."

With the Florida voting controversies of four years ago still fresh, civil rights groups are bracing for the worst, warning voters that voter intimidation is alive, even four decades after the historic Voting Rights Act.

"New voters have to be as vigilant as people were in the civil rights movement, who were willing to suffer all kinds of harassment," said Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which published a report in 2001 that was based on three days of testimony on the Florida voting irregularities.

Not all are convinced that voter intimidation is a problem. Some conservatives have said that the coalition is a tool of the Democratic Party.

"This tactic is an exercise to get political power by scaring people," said Mychal Massie of the black conservative group Project 21. "It's a blatant attempt to bring ... divisiveness into this year's election."

But for Louis Linden, one of the volunteers tapped by the civil rights coalition, the effort is essential. The retired civil rights and criminal attorney from South Baltimore will head to Palm Beach County, Fla., the weekend before Election Day to monitor the polls that were the site of 2000's infamous "butterfly ballot."

"I'm doing it because of three words: Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney," said Linden, refering to three civil rights workers killed 40 years ago in Mississippi for trying to register black voters: Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney.

"I remember when that happened. I was a kid then, but it really affected me," Linden said. "I was just a kid who grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis and in South Dakota. There weren't even any black people in South Dakota, but it was very clear to me that what was going on in the South was very important to the United States."

Volunteers such as Linden will be armed with cell phones and cameras as they monitor polls from open to close. They have been trained to spot everything from mechanical breakdowns to what Linden calls the "classic" forms of intimidation.

"The traffic stops [by police] in the areas around [voting] precincts that just sort of coincidentally happen around primarily African-American precincts," he said. "That's so creepy. It goes back to 1963. You can almost hear ghosts."

Many of the problems identified in the Commission on Civil Rights' 2001 report - faulty equipment, poorly trained poll workers, problematic registration lists and laws that prohibit felons from voting and disproportionately affect blacks - were supposed to be corrected by the Help America Vote Act.

But since President Bush signed it into law in 2002, some reforms have yet to occur, Berry said. "Many states didn't have enough time to comply," the civil rights commission chairwoman said. "They were supposed to have computerized lists of voters in every state, but most states got waivers."

There are other problems, civil rights officials said.

For instance, the voting act says that all states must have provisional ballots for voters who show up at the wrong precinct, but there is no uniform mandate that those votes be counted, said Janai Nelson, director of political participation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

"The Help America Vote Act leaves that interpretation up to the states," she said.

Others worry that voting lists will be wrong again. The American Civil Liberties Union released a report last week that claimed purge lists in many states, including Maryland, could include eligible voters.

"I don't have much faith that this will be sorted out by Election Day," Berry said.

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