In Nevada in late August, Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, met with the registrars from the Reno and Las Vegas areas. Peck says Washoe County registrar Daniel Burk “noted that he had received calls” from people identifying themselves as members of the Republican Party. These Republicans, Peck stated, said “they intended to be out at polling places to challenge voters.”
Many members of the media are looking at the dangers voting machines may pose to the integrity of the national election. Others are wondering whether voters may be disenfranchised by the use of faulty felon lists, as happened in Florida in 2000. Indications of efforts to depress turnout in Democratic precincts have appeared in numerous states, including Nevada, most of them swing states.
In Florida, disenfranchised felon purge lists were issued that contained 2,100 names of voters who are actually fully eligible to vote. In Michigan and Missouri, there are techniques being used for suppressing the vote in minority precincts, such as heavier use of poll watchers to challenge voters in cities such as Detroit than in other areas. In New Mexico, the state GOP sued to stop first-time voter registrations through progressive groups that are not accompanied by identification cards.
In Nevada, the techniques seem just as aggressive. “An official of the Republican Party” came to Burk’s office one day with a small group, he says. The official asked how to launch a “full-scale program for challenging voters who come to the polls.” Burk says he informed the Republicans that vote challenges should be used narrowly, when one voter with personal knowledge of another calls attention to a problem.
“One [person] said, ‘Well, we were thinking of a wider-scale use of it. We were thinking of challenging lots of voters,’ “ says Burk. It was the way they looked at each other, he says. “I began to wonder, ‘What are they up to?’ I just told them I wouldn’t tolerate it. The process isn’t designed for one party challenging another.”
Burk worked as a registrar in Oregon for 18 years before he came to his position in Nevada seven years ago. “I have never in all those 25 years had a person challenge another person,” he says.
The revelations, says Peck, are “consistent with reports people are getting all around the country. Republicans have a national strategy of going out and challenging voters” come Nov. 2.
“Our concerns are utterly nonpartisan,” says Peck. “It’s the integrity and fairness of the election.” Although Nevada law does allow for voter challenges when a challenger has personal information about a voter’s citizenship or place of residence, “it becomes problematic when people are using this strategically, in a partisan way.” For instance, he says, “it would certainly be improper if they picked out the names of Latinos.”
Juventino Camarena, a field representative for the Painters Union, is registering voters and keeping an eye out on voter protection issues as part of the My Vote–My Right campaign of the AFL-CIO. He is worried.
“The people have been thinking what happened in Florida couldn’t happen in Nevada,” Camarena says. “Now, we’re seeing little tactics here and little tactics there. There are all kinds of ways to confuse a person so bad that he takes it to his heart that it’s so difficult, and I’m doing it for what? I’ve seen it in Mexico since I was a little kid. That’s why I took it to heart to stop it. They’re suppressing the right of the voter.”
This story is an edited excerpt from a longer piece that ran in the October 2004 issue of The Progressive magazine. The entire story can be found at www.progressive.org/oct04/cusac1004.html.