Citizen Green: The war on the voting poor

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

Elections are won and lost by relatively small slivers of the electorate — those on either side of the political ledger who can be persuaded to care, inform themselves and show up at the polls.

Want to move the needle enough to change the outcome? Just nudge the numbers by tinkering with the machinery. For example, if your goal was to prevent the Democrats from taking control of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board, you might restrict early-voting hours to manufacture long lines that prompt discouraged voters to go home instead of following through and casting their votes. During last year’s general election, a tide of Democratic sentiment shifted county government from the conservative control to a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. Democrat Kathie Fansler fell 303 votes short of winning one of the three at-large seats on the school board. During the final day of early voting — more heavily utilized by Democratic-leaning constituents — voters lined up around the block in the rain, sometimes waiting as long as three-and-a-half hours to cast their ballots. Is it possible that more than 300 people who would have voted for Fansler gave up and went home? We’ll never know.

Those who are anxious to restrict the franchise of voting will always argue that voting is such a precious responsibility that citizens should be prepared to endure any hardship and inconvenience to get to the polling station. This line of argument brings to mind the famous quote by Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

In other words, making voting more inconvenient does not have an equal impact on the salaried manager who sets his own hours and the wage-earner who is strictly held to an hourlong lunch break, or the homemaker who serves on volunteer boards and the working mother who has to get to daycare to pick up her kids.

It’s insulting to all of us who work hard to eke out meager livelihoods while trying to guide and teach our children as best we can — and those of us who have experienced unemployment or had to turn to public assistance on occasion — to insinuate that we must not care about voting if we argue for more convenient accommodations.

That’s why it’s so troubling to learn that, according to an analysis by election watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, voter registration applications from public assistance agencies fell from a yearly average of 38,400 between 2007 and 2012 to an average of 16,000 in 2013 and 2014. Those happen to coincide with the first two years of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration.

The Daily Kos blog, which looked at the same data, concluded: “North Carolina’s voter registration rolls are missing some 40,000 or more poverty-level citizens (and still counting), due to what may prove to be systematic actions by the McCrory administration, in possible violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.”

If indeed, the dramatic drop in voter registrations from public-assistance agencies is the result of systematic voter suppression, consider that Thom Tillis’ margin of victory over Kay Hagan in last year’s US Senate race was only 45,608 votes.

The state Department of Health and Human Services emphasized its support for increasing voter registration in a formal statement in response to the findings, while pledging to “fully review any alleged variance along with our processes to determine if the department needs to revise its procedures.”

The state agency deflected responsibility to its local partners, adding that its “relies on county departments of social services, which have long-standing processes in place, to make voter registration available… to applicants of public assistance.”

Field investigations by a consortium of advocacy groups reported widespread evidence of staff at 19 social service agencies across the state failing to distribute voter registration applications to public assistance clients.

“While workers at some public assistance offices described NVRA-compliant procedures, their factual assertions were not supported by interviews conducted with clients exiting the offices,” the letter stated, adding that three quarters of clients reported that they had received no offer of voter registration of any kind.

It may be that local agencies are dropping the ball, but plunging registration numbers across the state raise questions about the possibility of a more coordinated effort. It’s also worth noting that Republicans took control of county government in Guilford County in 2012, the same year McCrory was elected. The local transfer of power was entirely due to a gerrymandered redistricting plan imposed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Local and state government reporters need to be asking hard questions of state DHHS and county-level public assistance agencies, and we should be relentless until we get satisfactory answers.

Politics might be a game to those who consider themselves players, but we the people are not laughing.