Broad coalition fights voter suppression efforts

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From threatening billboards to restrictive photo ID requirements, tactics to keep low-income voters, people of color, students, the elderly and language minorities from exercising their right to vote are proliferating as Election Day approaches.

Designed to silence a particular segment of voters most likely to support workers' issues, these restrictions target people with misinformation, fear and red tape so that many individuals will never make it to the polls to cast a ballot.

Among the more outrageous examples is a controversial billboard that towered over low-income neighborhoods in Cleveland, Columbus and Milwaukee. "Voter Fraud is a Felony!" the billboard proclaimed, driving home the point with a menacing image of a judge's gavel and a warning: "3-1/2 Years & $10,000 Fine."

More than 100 local, state and national partners—including Project Vote, Rock the Vote, Common Cause, several unions and the AFT—launched protests against the billboards as a blatant attempt to intimidate and scare voters in targeted neighborhoods. After weeks of pressure from members of the community and these organizations, Clear Channel, the company that owns the billboards, removed them. Cincinnati billboards, owned by Norton Outdoor Advertising, remain but pressure continues to eliminate them as well. Some have been replaced by Voting Rights billboards from the coalition.

Other voter suppression tactics have involved eliminating weekend hours during early voting, thereby restricting access for those who hold down multiple jobs that keep them from voting during the week. In past elections, voters have been told they could vote by phone, or on a second day of elections, to avoid crowds.

A more institutionalized suppression effort is under way in state legislatures across the country, as many have adopted or are considering voter photo ID requirements. These would exclude many elderly citizens— including those born in impoverished, rural areas during a time when midwives delivered babies and birth certificates (now needed to obtain IDs) were nonexistent.

Individuals who have never held a driver's license, the most common form of voter ID, also could be shut out, along with many students voting in the state where they attend school.

Eight states already require photo voter ID. In more than two dozen others, photo voter ID is requested of voters, though not required, or legislation to require it has been proposed. (See a map showing various state requirements.)

To protest and combat these policies, the AFT has partnered with four of our locals in targeted areas—Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Toledo—to inform voters of their rights. Working with organizations like the NAACP, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and with clergy, union members are reaching out to inform people of their voting rights; inserting voting tips into church bulletins, distributing newsletters about voting rights, and holding education sessions and voter registration drives to ensure that minorities have the opportunity to vote and the information they need to do it without fear.

"We're going to have to educate the public," says Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and an AFT vice president. In Pennsylvania, the photo ID law was delayed so that ID is not required during this election, but will be in subsequent years. "As a minority, I myself grew up and I watched people who were killed for the right to vote in this country," says Jordan. "It's not something that we can allow to be taken away by anybody."

In Ohio, Cleveland Teachers Union member Meryl Johnson says the suppression effort is only confirming the will to vote. "It's a fight-back reaction," says Johnson, a high school English teacher who is publishing a monthly newsletter to inform residents of their voting rights. "People are even more determined to vote than ever." Johnson is working with seven churches, urging parishioners to vote and helping them get to the polls; she's knocking on doors, making phone calls, and using her weekly radio show to reach as many people as possible. And she'll be taking her three days' leave to drive voters to the polls, the three days before Nov. 6. "That's the best way I can use them this year," she says. "Toward elections."

October 24, 2012