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Coalition of Latino groups sounds alarm over intimidation of voters
San Francisco Chronicle. October 27, 2004. By Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer.

A coalition of national Latino civic organizations raised concerns Tuesday about intimidation of Latino voters and potential obstacles to their participation in the Nov. 2 election.

"We're seeing more direct intimidation of people with Spanish surnames and individuals who are bilingual," said Ann Marie Tallman, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, in a telephonic press conference.

In such a closely contested presidential race and in the wake of the Florida debacle in 2000, in which thousands of voters were disenfranchised Tallman and other leaders said they are determined to ensure that Latino voters are not turned away from the polls.

"In any election that is very balanceado, the Latino vote will make a big difference," said Hector Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. But, he added, "First-time voters with limited English proficiency are easily intimidated."

The groups which also include the National Council of La Raza and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials cited several situations in which they said Latino voters were wrongly singled out and discouraged from voting, including:

In Alamance County, N.C., earlier this month, the sheriff submitted a list of registered voters with Spanish surnames to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in an attempt to determine whether or not they are U.S. citizens.

In two Georgia counties, individuals recently challenged the citizenship status of dozens of people on the voter rolls, based on their Spanish surnames.

In Pima County, Ariz., during the September presidential primary, two men dressed in black shirts with "U.S. Constitutional Enforcement" emblazoned on the back and armed with a video camera patrolled several polling places in Latino neighborhoods, ostensibly looking for illegal immigrants trying to vote.

The incidents mirror similar voting concerns raised by the NAACP in a recent report, "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today."

Over the past year, MALDEF has been investigating concerns ranging from whether provisional ballots will be made available to voters whose names don't appear on the rolls to whether polling places can close early even with would- be voters still waiting to vote, according to Tallman.

The group is also working to ensure that voters have bilingual ballot assistance in the more than 200 counties across the country where it is mandated by the federal Voting Rights Act, said MALDEF staff attorney Steven Reyes.

Though some groups concerned about voter fraud allege that noncitizens are registering to vote in large numbers, election officials say they have not seen such a problem.

"We have not heard of any instances of that in this election cycle," said Carol Dahmen, a spokeswoman for the California secretary of state. "It's a deportable offense, so generally noncitizens will not take that chance."

UC Berkeley political science Professor Henry Brady concurred that there is scant evidence of such voter fraud, but he added that the integrity of the electoral process is politicized by both Republicans and Democrats.

"Each side is working for its partisan advantage and probably will do things that are excessive," he said. "Democrats want to register voters and will take anyone who comes in the door. ... (Republicans including former Florida Secretary of State) Katherine Harris go overboard trying to purge all the felons off the rolls."

But even isolated instances of vote suppression have raised alarms among groups that are working to increase Latino voter participation. They estimate they have registered as many as 1.5 million new Latino voters.

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