The NAACP and other civil rights leaders yesterday charged that recent events suggest the Republican Party is mounting a campaign to keep African Americans and other minority voters away from the polls this November.
In a new report, the NAACP and People for the American Way cite incidents from Florida to Detroit. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said efforts at intimidation and suppression, once a tool of Democrats in the Jim Crow South, "have increasingly become the province of the Republican Party" as it seeks to counter the overwhelming advantage Democrats enjoy among black voters.
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson said that the two nonpartisan groups are attempting to spin unrelated events into a conspiracy and that their motivation is to help Democrat John F. Kerry defeat President Bush.
RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie wrote a letter last month to Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe offering to send bipartisan teams to precincts to ensure fair play, Iverson said. The offer was rejected. Republicans want every eligible vote to count, she said, and "if Democrats are serious about this, they will join us."
DNC spokesman Tony Welch said the GOP's silence on recent events in Florida shows that the offer "isn't worth the paper it's printed on." There, the GOP secretary of state was forced to abandon an effort to remove felons from the state's voting rolls after newspapers discovered that the "purge" list erroneously would have disenfranchised thousands of qualified voters, many of them African Americans. Additionally, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement intimidated black voters in Orlando to scare them away from the polls in November.
Democrats and Republicans have long feuded over whether efforts to protect against ballot fraud constitute voter intimidation. But the debate has taken on more urgency in the wake of the deadlocked 2000 presidential election.
Studies suggest that as many as 4 million to 6 million voters were disenfranchised in 2000, either because registration problems prevented qualified voters from casting ballots or because of errors caused by faulty, outdated technology. In Florida, the Civil Rights Commission found that black voters were 10 times as likely as whites to have their ballots rejected, a trend also found in other parts of the country.
To prevent against a repeat, more than 60 nonprofit groups have banded together to form a "Voter Protection Coalition." The group is planning to have 25,000 volunteers -- including 5,000 lawyers -- staff Election Day hotlines, videotape polls and go to court if necessary. In the meantime, the coalition has been collecting anecdotes that form the basis of yesterday's report.
Among the incidents cited: A Republican state representative in Michigan told the Detroit Free Press that the GOP will have "a tough time" if "we do not suppress the Detroit vote." Detroit is 83 percent black.
In Jefferson County, Ky., the local GOP plans to send poll watchers to Democratic, predominantly black precincts to challenge voters' eligibility. A similar, 2002 plan provoked cries of voter intimidation after a recruitment filer became public. The flier asked for volunteers to protect Ernie Fletcher's gubernatorial campaign against potential fraud by "the black militant division of the AFL-CIO" and the NAACP.
In South Dakota, where Native Americans are a key constituency for Democrats, some said they were turned away from the polls during a special election this summer because they did not have photo-identification The secretary of state has blamed the problems on well-intentioned poll workers who did not understand a new law passed by the GOP-controlled legislature.
In many cases cited it is unclear who is behind the incidents. In Maryland's 2002 gubernatorial election, anonymous fliers were distributed in black neighborhoods in Baltimore gave voters the wrong date for Election Day and told them to be sure to pay parking tickets, overdue rent and outstanding warrants.
"We are reminding voters, election officials, and the media about the kinds of dirty tricks that can be expected," Bond said.