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Mpls hosts voting rights events

Secretaries of state, civil-rights groups meet on historic anniversary

by Burt Berlowe   Pulse of the Twin Cities   22 July 2005

On an historic March day 40 years ago, an angry but peaceful group of civil rights activists led by Martin Luther King Jr. marched across a Selma, Alabama, bridge toward a new era in American democracy. As police beat them back with billy clubs, the protesters stood their ground in a pitched battle for a most basic human liberty?the right to vote. Their message rang loud and clear in the annals of political power. Within five days, President Lyndon Johnson told Congress that he would soon bring them a voting rights bill. On August 6, Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act?believed by many to be the most effective civil liberties law ever.

Forty years later, the right of people of color to cast their ballots freely and equally is still being questioned.


To find evidence of that, look no further back than the last two presidential elections, both of which were fraught with efforts to deny minorities their right to vote. Black names were purged from Florida voting lists; Ohio voters in minority precincts stood in line for up to 10 hours while their white counterparts had virtually no wait at all; and in our own Minnesota, Native-American ID cards were challenged.

In contrast to four decades ago, the culprits in this case have come not primarily from the White House but from the state houses?specifically the office of those in charge of running elections, the secretaries of state. In 2000, it was Florida Secretary of State Kathryn Harris who led efforts to keep blacks away from the polls. In 2004, Ohio?s Kenneth Blackwell drew fire for alleged discriminatory election practices. In Minnesota, secretary of state Mary Kiffmeyer has used various tactics to make voting more difficult for minority populations. All three of these secretaries were Republican Party activists?Harris and Blackwell both were state coordinators of George W. Bush?s presidential campaign.

This weekend the ongoing conflict between the secretaries of state and voters of color will be played out in the Twin Cities. While the two entities will not meet face to face, their agendas will collide in separate but intersecting events.

On Friday, Minneapolis will host one of a series of national public hearings sponsored by the Voting Rights Project, Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights (LCCR) and several other concerned organizations. It will be held all day at the Dorsey and Whitney Law Firm in downtown Minneapolis.

The object of the event will be to assess the impact of the Voting Rights Act on individuals and communities as a proposed renewal of some its provisions draws near. The event will feature a series of panel discussions by experts in voting rights followed by open public testimony. Citizens are invited to attend and testify about their voting experiences.

Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project and an LCCR member cautioned that while public testimony is welcome, it has to be fact-based to be valid.

For example, ?one person?s personal experience with discrimination isn?t as good as the fact that they witnessed widespread discrimination at several places in a locality,? he said.

Beginning that same Friday and continuing through the following Monday, the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) will stage its annual summer convention at the Radisson Riverfront Hotel in downtown St. Paul. Some 300 to 400 secretaries and/or their representatives from 40 states are expected to attend the four-day conference. Voting rights and election reform issues of various kinds are among the items up for discussion.

Minnesota will also host a third event with some relationship to the electoral process, immediately following those two mentioned here. There will be an international E-Democracy conference July 26 and 27 at the U of M Humphrey Center. Julian Bowery will be a featured speaker, and one session focuses on the use of computer technology in voting and data collection. Go to DoWire.org for more information.

In addition to the Voting Rights Act anniversary, there are other specific reasons for the staging of the Twin Cities events. According to Greenbaum, three areas of the Voting Rights Act need to be periodically re-authorized: requiring language assistance at all levels of the voting process; mandating voting jurisdictions to report to the U.S. Department of Justice any changes they propose to make in election procedures; and permitting the U.S. Justice Department to send observers to make sure voting provisions are enforced.

The Upper Midwest hearing in Minneapolis will be the fourth in a series of such regional meetings being held around the country. It will cover the largest geographical area, including not only the traditional Midwestern states but also Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. After the final public hearing in October in Mississippi, the commission will report its findings to Congress.

Greenbaum explained that a Voting Rights extension bill being sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner and pushed by the NAACP could come before Congress?s judiciary committee within a few weeks.

?We want to make sure that Congress has all of the facts and that any action they take on renewal is constitutional,? Greenbaum said. ?Some conservative groups may oppose it and there will probably be constitutional challenges to it as there have been in the past. There has been significant progress made since the act was enacted. But there still is a long way to go to eliminate racial discrimination in voting. Hopefully, this will be a significant step in that direction.?

On Saturday morning, Greenbaum will take his case for the Voting Rights bill to a committee of NASS seeking their support for the legislation. NASS enacted a resolution last July expressing its support for voting rights and its desire to participate in the process.

Nevertheless, Greenbaum is concerned that some secretaries of state may oppose the latest bill because its outcome could increase their work load. ?We want to let them know why this is important,? he said.

Most of the discussion at the NASS conclave is expected to center on the implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) according to press secretary George Munro.

?States are in different stages of HAVA implementation,? Munro said. ?Many have already implemented it. Some don?t have all of the money in place.?

HAVA was drafted after the 2000 presidential election to improve voting systems technology and election administration procedures. It was signed into law in Oct 2002 and has since received mixed reviews. Congress initially allocated $3.9 billion for three fiscal years, but the actual funding may fall short of that goal.

Congress will be considering an allocation of $800 million for HAVA for this fiscal year, thereby bringing it to full funding. NASS has written a letter of support for this legislation to key members of Congress and is asking them to engage chief state election officials in the decision-making process.

Greenbaum?s presentation to NASS will be part of Saturday?s opening conference events that will include a keynote speech by Julian Bowrey, an e-democracy expert and program coordinator for the Deputy Prime Minister in the United Kingdom, and a presentation by outgoing NASS President Kiffmeyer.

According to Ken Kaiser, press consultant for the Minnesota Secretary of State?s office, Kiffmeyer?s status as NASS president was a major factor in the conference coming to Minnesota. It has been a NASS tradition to hold its conferences in the home state of its most recent past president.

Kaiser added that Minneapolis is a national electoral model, with its statewide voter registration data base and its highest-in-the-nation voter turnout in national elections. He hopes that other states can learn from Minnesota?s example.

Most of the relevant election-related issues, including HAVA, will be discussed during the last day of the conference. The public is invited to attend any of the open sessions for a fee of $250 a day or $475 for the entire event by registering at the NASS web site.

In addition to the conference business, delegates will be treated to cruises, tours and parties during the conference, most of which are paid for by conservative corporate sponsors, including voting machine manufacturers who sell their products to state election officials. Among them is Accenture, a company with a history of questionable electoral practices, including close ties to the Republican Party, a role in the purging of felons from the roles in Florida in 2000, and numerous breakdowns and failures.

Ellen Theisen of Voters Unite, a national election reform advocacy organization, is critical of this practice.

?Not only are the voting machine manufacturers directly sponsoring much of this conference, most of them are also corporate affiliates of the National Association of Secretaries of State, paying up to $20,000 a year for the privilege,? she said. ?When the Secretaries of State are under this constant influence from the vendors, it?s difficult to see how they can make objective decisions about our voting systems.?

The debate over voting rights and electoral reform is just beginning to heat up on the streets and in Congress. The coinciding events in Minneapolis this weekend will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire. ||

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