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Voters Excluded in Iraq -- and at Home

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, October 6, 2004; Page A27

In Iraq, it is just about time to start registering voters. If the national elections scheduled for January are to be held, registration of the nation's 12 million eligible voters must begin in early November.

That, of course, is no easy task. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's optimistic estimate is that 15 of the nation's 18 provinces are sufficiently secure for elections to proceed, while Carlos Valenzuela, the U.N. man in charge of monitoring the elections, said he doubts the number is that high. The violence in the Sunni Triangle means that one of Iraq's three distinct groups may end up with little or no representation in the national assembly-to-be.

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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says that a fragmentary election is better than none, but a bipartite assembly in a tripartite nation sounds like a prescription for civil war. Accordingly, U.S. soldiers, Marines and Special Forces are girding themselves for offensives against the Baathist, Islamist and Sunni resistance forces in Fallujah and other cities. It will be, as the president says, hard work, and then some. The U.S. casualty list in the first such offensive, in Samarra, was mercifully light. Then, the opposition forces may have faded away to fight another day -- the day, for instance, that voter registration begins.

But while U.S. troops are fighting and dying to bring the vote to Samarra, their families may be struggling to hang on to the franchise here at home. Our force in Iraq is a fair cross-section of working-class America, with a heavy representation of African Americans and Latinos. And even as those soldiers are strapping on their body armor to bring the vote to Sadr City, back home -- in Florida, Ohio, New Mexico and other battleground states -- Republican election officials are working to reduce the number of black and Latino voters.

In Ohio, just days remaining before the close of registration, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell announced that registration forms had to be printed on thick 80-pound (the weight of a ream) stock paper -- thus invoking a long-forgotten regulation only when it became clear that many registration forms in heavily black and Democratic Cleveland had been printed on lighter stock. Confronted by a public uproar, and unable to plausibly argue that he was in any way combating voter fraud, Blackwell was forced to back down.

In Florida, Secretary of State Glenda Hood has announced that the state will not recognize voter registration forms on which the applicant has neglected to check the box affirming his or her citizenship, even though the applicant's signature on the form is itself a legally binding assertion of citizenship. Hood made her announcement after tens of thousands of registration forms for first-time immigrant voters from such nations as Mexico and Haiti had already been submitted, and as the time to resubmit forms had all but run out. Arguing that Hood's ruling runs counter to the Voting Rights Act, organizations such as People for the American Way will ask a court to invalidate it if she does not reverse it herself.

In New Mexico, Republicans argued that first-time voters who were registered by voter-registration groups had to produce identification at the polls. But the New Mexico Supreme Court just ruled that this requirement, tantamount to creating a second-class citizenship so long as established voters don't also have to produce identification, is illegal. And in five states -- Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Colorado -- election officials have ruled that voters may cast provisional ballots only in the precincts where they're registered to vote. When voters show up at a polling place that has no record of their registration, they are given provisional ballots, which are counted only if their registration is later verified. A high percentage of them, not surprisingly, are cast at the wrong polling place. These rulings are being challenged in the courts.

Whatever the outcome of these specific conflicts, the largest efforts at voter suppression will occur on Election Day itself, when thousands of registrants in the minority communities of battleground states are sure to have their right to vote challenged at the polls. With the election so close in so many states, and with the political climate in the nation approaching that of a nonviolent civil war, it's hardly likely that the Marquis of Queensberry rules will apply in polling places in black and Latino neighborhoods. Yesterday the Democrats unveiled a task force that will guide the efforts of the thousands of volunteer lawyers whom the party plans to deploy at the polls and in the courts on Election Day, to ensure that the United States defends the right to vote in Cincinnati as urgently as it does in Samarra.

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