By Esmeralda Simmons, Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and Susan Lerner Common Cause/New York.
Scary news: today is the last day that New Yorkers can change their party enrollment from one party to another if they want to vote in the 2018 primaries.
Unaffiliated and non-Democratic Party voters, in particular, got a fright last year when they tried to vote for Bernie Sanders – an independent running for the Democratic presidential nomination – in the April primary and found they’d long missed the deadline to change their registration. This is a real issue in New York City where the rising rate of voters who don’t register with a party pass up the opportunity to vote in the near-definitive Democratic primaries.
That means you need to pick a party months before you know who the candidates are. Don’t think you have enough information or lost your crystal ball? In the spirit of Friday the 13th: tough luck.
While this news is frightening, it’s right in line with the horrors coming out of Washington D.C. One of the most outrageous is the Trump Administration’s demand that states hand over voter roll data to effectively undermine confidence in U.S. federal elections.
The comically misnamed Presidential Commission on Election Integrity, known as the Pence-Kobach commission, was formed in an attempt to legitimize President Trump’s false claims that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election, and convince us that he somehow actually won the national popular vote (he lost by almost three million votes), never mind FBI confirmation of Russian interference. The commission has requested that each state release private information about voters, such as the last four digits of a social security number, felony convictions and military status.
The commission is just an underhanded way for the Trump administration to intimidate and discourage people from voting.
As Common Cause pointed out in its recent report, Flawed From the Start, the commission is stacked with “individuals well-known for crafting policies designed to take voters off the rolls and make voting more difficult for those who remain.”
Allegations of voter fraud have followed a predictable bait-and-switch pattern throughout history. The motive behind the Pence-Kobach Commission isn’t new; America has a long, disgraceful history of intimidating citizens out of their legal right to vote, minimizing their political influence. For centuries, millions of Americans were denied their right to vote based on discriminatory practices that used race, skin color, gender and land ownership to stifle political participation. Registration boards used literacy tests, poll taxes, violence and other tactics to harass and intimidate people from becoming registered voters.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were two hard-fought achievements of the civil rights movement that sought to end political disenfranchisement of American voters by providing real legal protections. Unfortunately, the Pence-Kobach Commission is yet another reminder that voter intimidation hasn’t disappeared. With every advancement our country has made towards protecting voting rights, blatant ploys to undermine fair voting practices and put eligible voters at risk have only evolved.
For now we can take some comfort from the fact that 44 states – blue and red – have so far refused to hand over the data requested. Astonishingly, New York is not among them.
The Board of Elections in New York could have stopped short of fulfilling the panel’s request for even partial Social Security or driver’s license numbers. It could have conducted further inquiry into the way the Commission will use the requested voter information, or whether its planned uses should be considered a non-election use, before turning over the voter data. Further, it could have inquired about what procedures would be put in place to safeguard New York voters’ information. Instead, New York state turned over its voter rolls without any public notice or protections demanded at all.
Now, too many eligible voters are afraid of their private information getting into the wrong hands, so they’re opting to take themselves off the voter rolls entirely. The scariest part in all of this is that if you take yourself off of the rolls, you’re only feeding into the president’s horrifying agenda.
But that’s what the commission wants.
From New York’s unnerving party enrollment registration deadlines to Washington’s chilling attempt to frighten people from voting, the few in power are constantly taking opportunities to squash the collective voices of those they believe are beneath them. This Friday the 13th, the attacks on voting rights are more terrifying than any Jason slasher film.
We can’t let the state or federal government intimidate us into accepting this horror show.
Susan Lerner is the executive director of Common Cause/New York. Esmeralda Simmons is the founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College.
This article originally appeared in City & State Slant and can be found here.