Watchdog Groups Head to Polls to Protect Voters
By Gabrielle Newton
Boston University News Service
Focusing on areas with past voting problems, members of several civil rights and voting organizations today headed to the polls to educate voters about their rights.
The groups, part of a coalition intent on protecting voters, planned to focus on such hot spots as Lawrence, Fall River, New Bedford, and historically underrepresented areas within Boston. The latter includes Dorchester and Roxbury. Members of the groups will hand out ACLU-designed cards titled “Know Your Voting Rights in Massachusetts”, which list the basic rights voters should be aware of, including the right to vote without showing photo ID and the right to vote if registered at least 20 days before the election. Statewide, the groups also will conduct poll monitoring to watch for intimidation tactics on voters.
“Most people think, ‘Oh, voter suppression doesn’t happen here in Massachusetts,’” said Whitney Taylor, the American Civil Liberties Union field director for Massachusetts. “The Constitution has been amended four times to make sure every citizen who is 18 years or over can vote”.
New Bedford, a predominantly Latino city, is just one of a few locations in the state where voter protection organizations have had to intervene during past elections.
Republican and Tea Party supporters, for example, formed a “Show ID to Vote” movement, which pushed to make it a requirement to show ID in order to vote. In New Bedford, as a way to intimidate voters, people dressed in suits and ties and sat at a table in the polling station holding clipboards and “Show ID to Vote” signs as people lined up.
But Massachusetts does not require voters to show an ID before they cast a ballot. The signs that told voters to show ID included that fact at the very bottom in tiny font with the words, “This is not law.”
Prompted by such practices, MassVOTE, the NAACP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and the League of Women Voters, created the Election Protection Coalition to educate voters in the state. MassVOTE also puts the Massachusetts Voters’ Bills of Rights on its website. The list includes the right to vote whether or not a person can speak or read English.
“We’ve been meeting and talking for several months now about how voters’ rights should be protected at the polls,” said Sara Brady, the policy director for MassVOTE. “We are in this election protection coalition, working to mobilize ourselves and volunteers in ‘hot spot’ areas especially, where the voter turnout rate hasn’t been as high as it should.”
In recent weeks a federal appeals court reinstated early voting for all voters in the state of Ohio. This ruling proved a victory for the Obama campaign, who argued that the former law was too restrictive because it only allowed early voting for the military.
The court’s decision symbolizes an effort to improve voting conditions for citizens, but more must be done to make voting even more attainable, voting rights advocates say.
“Trying to make it as easy as possible for voters is what we all should be moving toward,” said Taylor. “People don’t think about it as much in dense cities like Boston, but people really have to go out of their way to vote in many rural towns, which is illegal.”
Taylor and others say that having Election Day on a Tuesday makes it hard for certain groups of people to practice their right to vote because of job constraints. Taylor said that if Election Day remains on Tuesdays, early voting and same-day voter registration, which would allow voters to register at the time of elections, should become federal law as well.
Complete election reform is the long-term goal for MassVOTE in the Bay state, said Francisco White, the Youth Coordinator for MassVOTE. The three parts of this reform includes getting registration online, having same-day registration, and allowing youths ages 16 and 17 to register to vote before they turn 18.
“We all must exercise our right to vote, it is a basic right in this country after all,” said White. “And while you’re out voting, take an extra 10 minutes to look around and make sure there isn’t a long line, that all the machines work, and no one is there challenging voters.”
If anyone sees something at the polls that appears suspicious, the election coalition advises calling 866-OUR-VOTE, where Massachusetts lawyers are manning the call center all day. They can offer legal advice and solutions.