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Voter Suppression

Millions could be surprised on Election Day

The question came just as I was loading the last bag into a car packed with everything I would need between now and Nov. 6, Election Day. 

“Which grater do I use to make coleslaw?” my husband, Bill, asked.

I knew that he really didn’t want me to get in the car. My grown children and even the dog looked forlorn. Leaving Oregon in the fall to go help register voters in Florida may be a fool’s errand, but frankly, I’m wondering why we all aren’t heading east to do the same. 

Through Idaho and Utah, I heard stories that will be mentioned in future columns, but the picture of what voter suppression means became clear in Carbondale, Colo., where I stopped to visit my friend Barbara Dills. 

Barbara moved from Oregon to Colorado last year and has taken many opportunities to become involved in the civic life of her new community. She works in the garden at the school near her house and volunteers at the town library. Recently she went to the local Organizing for America office — Obama’s field office — for her first volunteer stint to help register voters. What she learned in what turned out to be an hour-long training would be enough to scare most people away from participating, much less hitting the streets alone with a clipboard loaded with legal paper-sized voter registration forms.

Republican Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler has implemented strict new rules for community-based voter registration drives, typically organized by the Democratic and Republican parties and the League of Women Voters, among others. In Colorado, if an organization loses a form issued to them, that organization can be fined $2,500 for each missing form.

As a former Oregon voter, familiar with the vote-by-mail system and used to seeing piles of blank voter registration forms stacked in post offices and other public places for easy access, Barbara was surprised that the form and the process are so complicated in Colorado. She learned in her training that it isn’t enough to ask someone if they are registered to vote here. The two questions the Obama field organizer instructed her trainees to ask are: 1) is the address on your voter registration up-to-date?; and 2) did you vote in the 2010 mid-term election? 

On her first shift, Barbara learned why these two questions are so critical. She asked a young woman if she had updated the address on her registration. The woman answered that she had lived in the same house since 2006 and started to walk away, but Barbara followed her and asked the second question.  

“I don’t think I did vote in 2010,” she replied. “I really can’t remember.”

Barbara explained the hitch. If she didn’t vote in 2010, even if she previously requested to permanently receive her ballots by mail, she won’t receive a ballot in the mail for the Nov. 6 election this year. Secretary of State Gessler’s new rules — purportedly designed to prevent voter fraud — include kicking all the by-mail voters who didn’t vote in 2010 off of the active voter lists. They can still vote in person at a polling station on election day, but the majority of them won’t know that until it’s too late.

This woman was incredulous but willing to walk five blocks to her car to get her driver’s license so she could update her registration there on the spot. Not everyone would be so determined.

By the end of her first shift, Barbara was shocked at how many people she had talked to that had no idea what Gessler’s new rules might mean to them and their ability to vote. 

 “Any sane person would assume that if they had checked that box for mail-in ballots, there would be no issue,” says Barbara. “What makes it more confusing is that these folks do receive mail-in ballots for local elections, like the one we had recently here in Carbondale. The two lists are completely separate.”

None of the new requirements address voter fraud, which is illegal, but only occurs when someone impersonates a registered voter and actually attempts to vote. Most volunteers I know who’ve done voter registration have watched pranksters register as Jack Daniels or Mickey Mouse and then walk away laughing. Those are the forms that normally get thrown away, the forms that could now cost an Obama field office $2,500 each. 

Of course, Jack Daniels and Mickey Mouse never show up at the polls, but the secretary of state isn’t so sure. He sent a letter to nearly 4,000 Coloradans asking them to provide proof of citizenship or voluntarily remove their names from the voter rolls. According to his office, 86 percent of the letters went to registered Democrats or Independents. 

And while his focus has been on finding the illegally registered voters, Gessler has until recently left the registration of new voters to volunteers. More than 3.5 million Coloradans are registered to vote. As of Sept. 1, Gessler’s office lists 2.3 million as active voters and 1.1 million as inactive. 

There are 59 days left for volunteers like Barbara to find the 1.1 million who don’t know their vote may not count.