Right now, there are only five states that have strict photo voter ID laws. Six more states have flexible photo ID laws that allow for a broader range of acceptable identification than the strict states. And then there are 19 states that require some non-photo form of ID to vote. But if you live in Illinois, where there is no voter ID law at all, you might be alarmed to find out on Election Day that you still may have to produce ID to vote. Reason being, it is one of 24 states where your voting rights can be challenged by a poll watcher — any random person, really, who happens to be at your polling place — even if the watcher doesn’t have any evidence that you actually need to be challenged. And if you are challenged in Illinois, you have to produce two forms of ID to prove that you’re eligible to vote.
Last month, we published a story on a Tea Party group called True the Vote, which trades in voter ID law advocacy, voter registration challenges and poll watcher trainings. Challenging people who may have illegally registered to vote, and training people to observe poll activity are innocuous activities, but only when divorced from their racial history in the U.S. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, “Voter Challengers” details that troublesome history while spelling out just how problematic such poll-watching activities can be, especially when administered by hyper-partisan and racially insensitive groups like True the Vote.
Still, 39 states allow private citizens to challenge voters at the polls. According to the Brennan study, election officials in those states are “under immense time pressure to decide challenges quickly in order to avoid voting delays.” True the Vote is aware of this, but they put it differently, saying at a recent poll watcher training that election officials are “under immense pressure to do the wrong thing” — namely let undocumented immigrants vote, and let people vote multiple times.
Scarier, of the 39 states that allow random people to challenge voters inside polling places, only 15 of them require the challengers to prove that the person they’re challenging isn’t an eligible voter. Which means in 24 states people can wage all kinds of frivolous accusations — that a person is an “illegal alien,” or that they are using a dead person’s identity to vote — to burden if not intimidate voters. In these states, the poll challenger statutes can be abused and used for racial profiling, when not sending a chill effect to others who might be vulnerable for no other reason than having a Latino surname.
In those states, people can make up a reason to challenge a voter’s rights without any evidence backing them up, and do so with impunity. It’s the same as when people drum up charges of voter fraud to pass voter ID bills and go unpunished when it’s revealed that no such fraud exists. You can’t fabricate a police report by saying you were mugged if you weren’t; you can’t file a false claim saying you lost possessions in a disaster. In both cases, you face jail and fines for bearing false witness, but not if you fabricate voter fraud or voter ineligibility in many states.
The Brennan report points out that South Carolina and Virginia allow people to challenge voters even if it’s nothing but a whim. Consider that both South Carolina and Virginia both have passed voter ID laws. In South Carolina, that law is currently being challenged in a federal court, where it was discovered that the law’s author Rep. Alan Clemmons made racist comments about black voters in an email while discussing how to pass the legislation.
Both states have strong True the Vote connections. In South Carolina, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Cibby Krell, is a True the Vote volunteer with the Spartanburg Tea Party. In Virginia, the Virginia Voters Alliance is a group that trains Tea Party groups in challenging voters while pressuring Virginia election officials to engage in reckless purging processes.
These poll “challenging” and “watching” operations are not race-neutral. The nation has a history of white people taunting and haunting black and Latino voters that goes back centuries. Much of this racial history is recounted in Brennan’s “Voter Challengers” report, which tells how states like Florida, Ohio, Texas and Virginia created poll watcher rules precisely to suppress black and women voters, and also to enforce voting laws that disenfranchised these groups.
Keep that in mind when you read about the Code Red USA project, which rallies Tea Partiers from around the country to join a “conservative army” that will infiltrate battleground states in November for voter registration and “election integrity” efforts. Code Red says it has “partnered with True The Vote to maintain election integrity by training volunteers to be poll watchers and combat voter fraud.” Get ready to tumble.