Campaign 2016: Progressive Attorneys Plan Voter Protection Program

Led by the American Constitution Society – whose members include many union lawyers — progressive attorneys nationwide are planning and implementing a massive voter protection program at the polls on November 8.

Their object: To make sure that members of groups threatened by right wing intimidation or potentially stopped by local interpretations of so-called “voter ID” laws get their rights to vote — and know where to call for aid if they can’t.

The voter protection program is especially important this year. Republican-run governors and legislatures enacted the restrictive laws. And when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a key section of the Voting Rights Act — in a vote along partisan lines — it also deprived the U.S. Justice Department of its authority to send poll watchers nationwide.

Voter protection is also important to workers and their allies, because they are the ones likely to be challenged or intimidated at the polls. The voter ID laws target minorities, workers, women, students and the elderly. And Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has issued commands to his supporters to go “watch” at the polls in majority-minority cities and areas such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and parts of St. Louis and Chicago.

In past years, Trump and his followers didn’t try that, because DOJ was watching. Nor could the states pass the restrictive legislation, because of the Voting Rights Act. In areas with histories of discrimination by race, color or sex, DOJ sent hundreds of attorneys to monitor the polls. And, before the court ruling, DOJ could overturn such voter ID laws. Now, it’s tough.

That’s not to say voter intimidation didn’t occur before. Gerry Hebert, director of the Campaign Legal Center’s Voting Rights and Redistricting Program, told the telephone conference call with both journalists and attorneys that the last federal election in Houston featured the “King Street Patriots, who were hovering and intimidating voters” there.

“We called local officials to put a stop to that,” he said. But there was also “voter surveillance” in the North, he added, citing Minnesota and Wisconsin, without being specific.

Paul Smith, the lead civil rights attorney at the noted Chicago-based law firm of Jenner & Block, gave practical directions for what people should do if they suspect something is going wrong at the polls.

“If you’re in a polling place and you see these problems, first go find out who’s in charge and see if they can police it,” he said. If that doesn’t work, call several hotlines that attorneys and the Justice Department have established to alert squads of lawyers to come to your aid. The lawyers’ hotline is 1-866-OUR VOTE and DOJ’s toll-free number is 1-800-253-3931. He also suggested contacting local U.S. attorneys.

“And if there’s actual physical violence against voters, call the cops, as well as the U.S. attorney and the political parties whose supporters might be victims,” Smith said.

The AFL-CIO Lawyers’ Coordinating Committee is spearheading voter protection efforts among union attorneys and for union members, along with everybody else. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO lawyers went to court there to overturn one voter ID law. So did the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the AFL-CIO constituency group for African-American workers, in Michigan. They succeeded in both states.

In addition, the Justice Department, using what was left of the Voting Rights Act even after the Supreme Court gutted its key provision, got federal judges to toss out voter ID laws in North Carolina and Texas. The North Carolina judge laid out in detail how the GOP in the legislature, down practically to the house-by-house level, targeted blacks with its voter ID law.

Nevertheless, the threat to voters remains. In a typical union response, the Government Employees (AFGE) will concentrate on informing its members “in multiple demographics about the rules and their responsibilities as voters” while giving them “resources and contacts” to report intimidation and denial of the right to vote.

“We want to ensure every registered voter is permitted to cast a ballot and that every vote is counted!” AFGE declared.

But local officials, especially in the GOP-run states, may not have gotten the word that some so-called voter ID practices cross the legal line. That’s why voters themselves “have to be the eyes and ears” against intimidation, surveillance and threats at the polls, Hebert said.

Ironically, the national Republican Party is subject to an outright federal ban on intimidating voters. In 1992, federal courts issued injunctions against its voter suppression campaigns, and those orders still stand. The Republican National Committee’s general counsel recently declared the GOP would abide by the orders, Smith said.

“But the election protection hotlines will be manned by a whole host of organizations and attorneys who are trained to answer calls from voters covering everything from helping them locate the correct polling places to what identification they need to meet challenges,” Hebert said. Further details about what voters need to protect themselves are available on the AFL-CIO website’s myvotemyright.org and other sites such as www.866ourvote.org.