As I explained in “Preventing election problems–AFTER the election. Part One.”, Denise Lieberman spent the better part of two years researching and analyzing which provisional ballots were rejected in the ’06 election in five critically important counties and why. But what I wrote was misleading in a way. What I mean is that I only focused on Denise, who works as the Missouri state coordinator for a national group called the Advancement Project. But Denise doesn’t work alone here. In fact, she isn’t even the leader of the group of activists she works with. She’s just one person at a table of equals comprising perhaps two dozen different groups interested in voting issues.
The St. Louis Voter Protection Coalition includes representatives from ACORN, Pro-Vote, different labor groups, a variety of people representing minorities and the disabled–NAACP, black trade unions, Latinos–and Missourians for Honest Elections (MOHE), which specializes in e-voting issues.
So the Voter Protection Coalition relies on Denise’s research and she in turn depends on the members to be her eyes and ears on the ground. She knows what the documents can tell us, but they know what their members can tell them about the practical realities of voter disenfranchisement. And besides, each representative brings that depth of knowledge in his area of specialty that makes the group what it is. The members of MOHE, say, can tell everyone at their table about the intricacies of the e-voting issue and about the most credible research on the topic.
Once everybody at their table has been heard from, the coalition decides on its common goals, decides how to implement them and then leverages its power as a group to advocate for election reforms. Most often that means working with local boards of elections, but sometimes it means advocating for legislation. The group plans to work, for example, to get early voting legislation passed.
Beyond pooling the knowledge and power of its members, the Coalition is important for several reasons. First, it avoids duplication. It hammers out the most appropriate way to frame any request to the Board of Elections. Otherwise, eight different groups might end up asking for similar information from the Board of Elections. The Board’s already got enough on its plate without the rising irritation of eight similar–but not exactly the same–requests … or fifteen of them. By the same token, the Board need not scramble to communicate with two dozen different voting rights groups. They just have to keep in touch with the Voter Protection Coalition’s liaison–usually Denise.
The group stresses that it is working to make the jobs of people at the Board of Elections easier by spotting the source of problems and offering solutions. The coalition points out that in some particular area, “we think you’re vulnerable. We know you don’t want people to be disenfranchised, so if you did the following ….” Many times, the Board has taken the Coalition’s suggestions. Of course, if the Board digs in its heels, the activists can sue, but the aim is cooperation.
So, for example, Denise’s research proved that minorities were disproportionately receiving provisional ballots and disproportionately having those ballots rejected. The question was why. And one of the answers–the most common answer–was poll worker error. That much became obvious early enough in the two year cycle for the group to address the problem.
The reasons for poll worker error are no mystery. It’s a complicated job. It may not require a law degree, but the training manual is thick. When an election judge is faced with a line snaking out the door and a voter she can’t find on the rolls, which part of the manual should she consult? It’s not easy to put her finger on the right page, especially if she’s tired: the day does start before daybreak and lasts approximately forever. And maybe she hasn’t had a potty break or lunch because there’s no one to relieve her.
If the election judge is lucky in that situation, she’ll have at her elbow one of those 4 X 6 palm cards that the Voter Protection Coalition wrote. It lists the top ten most useful pieces of information for election judges. And it’s so helpful that the Secretary of State’s office printed up 30,000 copies to put in polling places during this last election.
So the St. Louis Board of Elections recognizes that the St. Louis Voter Protection Coalition can be helpful. Just how much the Board sits up and takes note–or doesn’t–when the Coalition’s liaison speaks will be the subject of the final part in this series. Velda City, here we come.