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U.S. ELECTION: Republicans Urged to End Intimidation

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Oct 29 2004 (IPS) - National civil rights groups are urging the leadership of President George W Bush’s Republican Party to put a stop to party activists’ efforts to discourage potential voters believed likely to cast a ballot for Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry.

With political analysts agreeing that voter turnout, especially of minority and youth voters, will likely determine the outcome of next Tuesday’s presidential election, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) on Thursday pressed the Republican National Committee (RNC) to end vote-blocking activities.

At a press conference held in front of RNC headquarters here, the LCCR, the country’s largest civil and human-rights coalition, demanded that RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie ensure the party does nothing to suppress the vote or try to intimidate voters, particularly in minority communities.

"In state after state, Republican officials and operatives are working to deny American citizens the right to vote," charged LCCR Executive Director Wade Henderson. "We’re here today to ask the RNC chairman to put a stop to these activities."

With the election just four days away and the polls showing a statistical tie between Bush and Kerry, many veteran observers believe the outcome will depend on voter turnout.

Some 105 million voters cast ballots in 2000 in which the Democrat, then-Vice President Al Gore, actually defeated Bush in the popular vote, only to lose the electoral count as a result of a controversial decision on the vote count in Florida by a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court.

While the Republican secretary of state at the time, Katherine Harris, certified a Bush victory in Florida by just over 500 votes, tens of thousands of eligible voters, mainly African Americans, were either disenfranchised or unable to have their votes counted as a result of malfunctioning voting machines. African Americans were found to have voted for Gore by a greater than eight-to-one margin.

Analysts expect the turnout next Tuesday will exceed 2000’s by a significant margin. According to Charlie Cook, often referred to as "the pollsters pollster," if turnout is less than 115 million, Bush is likely to prevail; more than that could well result in a Kerry victory.

According to recent surveys, eight of 10 African Americans support Kerry; among Latinos, the margin is estimated as somewhat greater than six in 10. Among voters aged between 18 and 29, Kerry also does well, with about 60 percent support. On the other hand, the same groups are those that historically have participated least in major elections.

Republicans have long tried to suppress minority turnout precisely because of the groups’ presumed allegiance to Democrats. Indeed, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was nominated by former President Richard Nixon in 1971, participated in challenges of minority voters 40 years ago when he was a Republican activist in Arizona.

The party is believed to have mobilised tens of thousands of attorneys and poll-watchers for that purpose this year, particularly in so-called battleground states, such as Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Last week, LCCR sent letters to both Gillespie and his Democratic counterpart, Terry McAuliffe, expressing concern about published reports regarding plans to mount aggressive challenges to voters Tuesday.

The letter cited an article published in ‘U.S. News & World Report’ in which Michigan State Representative and Bush campaign official John Papageorge was quoted as saying Republicans could lose the state "if we do not suppress the Detroit vote." Detroit has one of the highest concentrations of African Americans of any large U.S. city.

While the Democratic National Committee (DNC) replied in writing and met with LCCR officials, Gillespie and the RNC failed to respond, Henderson said Thursday. The Republicans have said their sole interest in posting poll-watchers is to prevent "vote fraud."

But on Wednesday, a federal judge in Ohio ordered the party to temporarily halt hearings to challenge 35,000 voters in the state. U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott ruled in favour of Democrats who said Republicans were unfairly targeting voters registered by political groups backing Kerry, reported the Associated Press.

At the same time, Wisconsin Republicans have announced plans to initiate what they called "background checks" on newly registered voters, reports have surfaced of Republican plans to mount aggressive challenges against the credentials of voters in "urban areas," where minority voters are predominant.

The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) has also disclosed a memo to top Republican officials in Florida identifying voters in predominantly black precincts for possible challenge.

Such efforts, according to Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a member of the LCCR coalition, amount to intimidation.

"They are designed to induce fear on the part of newly registered voters, particularly in minority communities," she said, adding the RNC should "work with us to empower minority communities, not deny them their fundamental rights."

"Sometimes, there is a thin line between enforcement of election law and voter intimidation," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a grassroots Latino group. "Selective access to the polls, arbitrary voter purges and speculative complaints … will diminish or weaken the very process we are trying to energise."

Adding to these concerns are the facts that the secretaries of state – usually the chief election official at the state level – in the battleground states of Michigan, Missouri, Florida and Ohio have taken top campaign posts for Bush and have been accused of manipulating election laws to restrict voter access on behalf of Republicans.

In Michigan, Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land, who is co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign there, has been criticised by a federal judge for restricting access to "provisional ballots" by voters unsure of which precinct they are supposed to vote in and for failing to act against voter intimidation efforts in heavily Democratic areas.

In Missouri, Secretary of State Matt Blunt, who is also running for governor and serves as Bush campaign chair, has also restricted access to provisional ballots, authorised an insecure voting system, and used federal funds to promote himself in public-service ads.

Glenda Hood, Florida’s secretary of state, was accused of leading the effort to apply a controversial "purge" list to disenfranchise black voters and former felons. More recently, she also moved to restrict access to provisional ballots and intervened in a court case to ensure that independent Ralph Nader appeared on the ballot (a move that it is believed will siphon votes away from Kerry).

"In light of the widespread disenfranchisement of minority voters in 2000, it is more important than ever that this November’s election proceed smoothly and equitably," said Henderson.

Those concerns were echoed Thursday when an independent group of international election observers sponsored by California-based Global Exchange complained that election officials in two Ohio and three Florida counties have refused their requests to observe at polling sites and tabulation centres.

"I am shocked to find out that officials are not giving us access to the polls," said Sergio Aguayo, a founder of Mexico’s independent electoral watchdog group, Alianza Civica, who also served as president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights. "It reminds me of how things used to work in the old Mexico."

"My suspicions are immediately aroused when officials appear to want to deny observers access to polling sites," said Owen Thomas, the chief executive of Electoral Reform Services in London and another member of the group. "International observation throws light on the workings of democracy. Why is anyone against that?"

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