In Key Florida Battleground, Tea Party-Linked “True the Vote” Challenges Voters at the Polls

Democracy Now*

Brentin Mock

HAVANA TIMES – Election Day 2012 has arrived, and the battle over voter suppression has reached a fever pitch in battleground states. We go to Virginia, where volunteers with the tea party-linked group True the Vote are challenging voters at the polls.

We speak with Brentin Mock, the lead reporter for Voting Rights Watch 2012, a collaboration between The Nation magazine and Mock also describes voter suppression efforts in Florida, where True the Vote has also targeted alleged felon voters who will be asked to submit a provisional ballot if they attempt to vote today.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s been a long time coming, but today is the day when people across the country head to the polls to cast their ballots in what remains a tight presidential race. As they do so, voting rights advocates are closely watching, monitoring confusion over whether they’re required to show photo ID. In fact, many of the most stringent new voting restrictions at the state level have been blocked or weakened by courts, including a key swing state, like Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, in the battleground state of Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has issued a new, last-minute directive that would disqualify ballots not accompanied by a form accurately documenting the type of identification used. Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich was asked about whether this could lead to a greater number of provisional ballots, which could delay election results. This was his response Monday on CBS News.

GOV. JOHN KASICH: A lot of people got ballots to vote early. And if you don’t turn those in, you know, and then you show up to vote, then—that you become a provisional, you know, ballot operator. And so, it is possible, if it’s very, very close, that, you know, we won’t know the results of this for a while. But, you know, again, I’m just not a fortune teller, you know? I can’t predict that. The provisional ballots could be numerous, but, you know, we’ll see. We still have today, and then people can drop that absentee ballot into the ballot box on Election Day.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the weekend, Democrats called attention to other voting challenges by filing a lawsuit to force Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott to extend early voting. Last year, Scott and the Republican state legislature reduced early voting times. Now voters are seeing waits of more than six hours at the polls. Still, the 2012 election is also expected to set a record for early voting. Thirty million Americans have already cast their ballot through early voting across 34 states.

To talk more about about what’s happening at the polls, what voters can expect, and who they can call if they encounter problems, we’re joined now by two guests: Myrna Pérez is senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, part of the Election Protection Coaliton’s voter support hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE.

In the battleground state of Virginia, we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Brentin Mock, lead reporter for Voting Rights Watch 2012, a collaboration between The Nation magazine and His latest article is called “Tea Party Group Blocks Florida Voters, Stops Water Handouts at Polls.”

Welcome, both, to Democracy Now! Explain the title of your piece, Brentin.

BRENTIN MOCK: Sure. I mean, if it sounds a little ridiculous, that’s because it is. I mean, let’s take the second part of it, where poll watchers are basically trying to stop water from being handed out. You just talked about the really long lines in—throughout Florida, whether we’re talking about Miami or Tampa. I was just in Tampa, and the lines were literally out the—you know, going stretching around blocks in many of the black neighborhoods. And so, what you had were Republican poll watchers who were standing by, looking for, I guess, voter fraud activity or something of that sort. When you had Election Protection volunteers going to hand out water to the people who were standing in lines, Republican poll watchers intervened, said this was illegal, said that the NAACP and SEIU volunteers were bribing black voters with water to vote for Obama, with the flimsiest of evidence. In fact, no evidence was even offered of this. Basically, you just had volunteers who were trying to hand out water to people who were standing in really long lines.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain the lines.

BRENTIN MOCK: Well, so there’s early voting going on right now in Florida. And at least in Tampa, there have been 15 different polling places where you can go to early vote, from last Saturday running all the way into this past current Saturday. And so, about three of those polling sites are predominantly African American, are in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. And, you know, starting with the Sunday previous, where there was a Souls to the Polls campaign, you had churches sending dozens of buses and vans full of people out to these locations to have people vote. And, you know, as a result, the lines have been, you know, backed up, you know, for going—you know, stretching back blocks. And it’s been really hot in Florida. You have a lot of elderly people, a lot of disabled people in these lines. You know, unfortunately, to the credit of the advocates and the volunteers, they have been out densely trying to do whatever they can to help accommodate the voters, not—again, not to bribe them into voting for anyone, but just making sure that, you know, they have water, that some of them have chairs to sit down in if the line is too long. I spoke with people who had been in line as long as five, six, seven hours.

AMY GOODMAN: True the Vote, who is funding it?

BRENTIN MOCK: I think people are still trying to connect the dots on, you know, where the major funding is coming from. We know in Florida, specifically, True the Vote has had a number of—has held a number of meetings and trainings with Americans for Prosperity. We know that Americans for Prosperity was founded and majorly funded by the Koch brothers. We haven’t been able to connect direct dots between the Koch brothers and True the Vote, but we do know that True the Vote has collected money from the Bradley Foundation in Wisconsin. That was a group that was responsible for putting up the voter intimidation billboards in Wisconsin and Ohio. We know that they have, you know, collected money from a lot of tea party groups throughout not just in Texas, where they’re—you know, where they were born out of, but also from a number of different other group—tea party groups around the country. So the money is coming in from a lot of places. We haven’t been able to, you know, find the grand puppeteer yet, though.

AMY GOODMAN: And do people identify themselves as True the Vote at the polls?

BRENTIN MOCK: No. So, there’s a really tricky thing going on right now. I mean, True the Vote itself, you know, as an organization, is born out of the King Street Patriots tea party group in Houston, Texas. But they have these affiliates all throughout the country. So, in Florida, you have Tampa Vote Fair, which is now—you know, it’s a tea—it’s a True the Vote-trained volunteer group. And then, here in Virginia, where I’m at right now, you have the Virginia Voters Alliance, again trained by True the Vote, but we also have learned from the head of the Virginia Voters Alliance himself that True the Vote instructed them not to use True the Vote’s name because of all of the legal—all of the lawsuits that True the Vote was having in Texas right now. So they basically said, you know, “Don’t—don’t use our name, not in your title or anything, so that we can have some kind of safe distance between each other.”

But I also think, you know, based off of certain lawsuits that exist right now, that True the Vote might be telling these tea party groups not to use their name, so—mainly because if any of these groups they have trained go out and they do do intimidation or if they do engage in anything that’s unlawful, that True the Vote can kind of wipe their hands of it and say, “Hey, that’s not one of our groups. You know, you don’t see our name on there anywhere.” You know, so—and there’s—I’m not pulling that out of my head. I mean, there are some actual legal lawsuits that True the Vote is involved in in Ohio and also in Wisconsin, where they have literally said in their legal complaints that—that they have no ties to these groups and they’re not responsible or liable for what these groups do when they go out to the polls, even though these groups have been trained by True the Vote.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, an affiliated group with True the Vote, you write about, has challenged 75 people in Tampa, an official challenge, where the person has to sign—what is it? Under oath, that they know the person is not eligible to vote.

BRENTIN MOCK: Right, right. And I’ve been making this point a lot. A lot of reporters who have picked up on True the Vote over the past few months, they, you know, understandably and rightfully, have reported on what they suspect True the Vote will do at the polls, you know, based off of what True the Vote has said they would do at the polls.

But that’s really not the most dangerous part. The most dangerous part is what True the Vote does before people even get to the polls. And what—and through that, it’s the filing of challenges. And in states like Florida, you can file—a citizen or a poll watcher can file a legal challenge, you know, at the county elections office, which is what happened in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is the seat. And so, Kimberly Kelley, who’s the head of Tampa Vote Fair, a True the Vote-trained group, filed 77 challenges against people in the Hillsborough County area, over half of those in Tampa.

And these people, when their vote—when their voting status is challenged, they don’t know this. They won’t know this until they show up at the polls and, you know, the person tells them, you know, “Your vote has been challenged.” And at that point, that person will not be able to—will not be able to file a regular ballot. They will have no choice but to file a provisional ballot. This is completely unfair to a voter to not know that their vote has been challenged, you know, and you can understand the kind of frustration and confusion that this is going to cause, you know, if someone waits five, six hours in line, finally gets their right to vote, gets up to the front of the line, then they’re told, “Well, actually, you can’t go to the booth; you have to file this provisional ballot, because some person that you don’t know has challenged you.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about Virginia in a moment after break, but I want to bring in Myrna Pérez, who has been following the issue of voting rights and suppression with the Brennan Center. Stick with Florida.

MYRNA PÉREZ: Sure. Florida is an interesting case, because you had one of the most restrictive laws being passed by the state legislature that did a number of things. It put restrictions on third-party registration groups, which are groups that go into our traditionally disenfranchised and disadvantaged communities, groups like the League of Women Voters, who make—you know, their bread-and-butter activities is including people in our democracy. And the restrictions that were passed made it so onerous that they had to close down shop for a little bit. That’s also the same law that brought us the early voting reductions.

Fortunately, like as was the case with other laws around the country, the advocates and the voters fought back. And the courts definitely blocked and blunted a lot of the provisional—a lot of the aspects of this law that made it very difficult for voters.

Now, we’re still seeing some aftermath. One of the things that’s obvious is that while the early voting restrictions are better than they were before, there clearly is a demand and a need for more early voting time. And one of the things that I like about the Florida story is that it speaks to a narrative of voters standing up for themselves. Here was a very suppressive piece of legislation, people trying to shut them out, and they responded in enormous numbers, being willing to wait in line, understanding that advocates have their back, and are there trying to exercise their fundamental right to vote in the face of a legislature that passed laws trying to stifle it. So I think we need to—we need to take away, you know, the very powerful and very beautiful thing that is happening, which is people realizing that, you know, our right to vote is fundamental, it is something that we should not be scared to exercise, and when it is challenged, we need to demand it.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you getting many calls on your voter protection hotline from Florida?

MYRNA PÉREZ: I am not in the call center that deals with Florida, but one of the things that we do know—and I do think that the viewership should know—is that if a voter has a problem, they should call 866-OUR-VOTE. It is a national nonpartisan hotline where there are trained legal volunteers who are able to answer questions that range from “I don’t know where my polling location is?” “Am I still registered on the books?” or “Someone is asking me to present an identification.”

This is the day where, as Americans, we all come together, and our vote matters the same. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, you know, young or old, rich or not, like—and we need to make sure that we exercise that right and take advantage of the opportunity being given to us. It’s our civic obligation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue our discussion after break. Brentin Mock is with us. He is the lead reporter for Voting Rights Watch 2012. And Myrna Pérez, who is with the Brennan Center and is particularly involved with the voter protection hotline for people to call throughout today.

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