Three Reasons Why Voter ID Laws Should Be the #1 Issue for the Occupy Movement

In early 2009, I had dinner with a prominent, conservative political operative at the Rainforest Cafe in Downtown Disney. He calmly (and accurately) predicted that the 2010 mid-term election would see the largest Republican gains in half a century. He then leaned in and half-whispered, “but you haven’t seen anything yet. Just wait until 2012 .” I pressed him on specifics, but he would only allude to a campaign that would rewrite the political rules. With the revelation that a centralized, state-by-state voter suppression campaign is underway, I now know what he was alluding to.

In 2011, a sudden wave of state-level voter restrictions in Republican-controlled states has swept the nation, just in time for the 2012 election, with 19 new laws and two executive actions on the books. Some of these laws reduced or eliminated early voting, while others did away with weekend voting and same-day registration. All 50 states require voters to prove their identification at the polls, but 17 states have pending or approved law mandating government-sponsored IDs in order to vote, despite the fact that approximately 11% of citizens don’t have such IDs (for various reasons). For some Americans, even those with ample resources, getting an ID can be quite a challenge (even for nuns!).

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 5 million eligible voters face disenfranchisement from these new voter ID laws.

On its face, an ID requirement to vote may seem reasonable, especially for the vast majority of Americans with IDs who use them to fly, purchase cigarettes, etc. But when considered within the broader political context, the anti-democratic intent of such legislation become clear.

The voter ID movement is based on a bald-faced lie that voter impersonation is an issue. It’s not. As the DNC humorously notes, a person is 39 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to engage in voter impersonation, and 3,600 times more likely to report a UFO.

This voting fraud figure is based on a Bush Administration investigation into the matter that involved only 70 prosecutions nationwide, some of which were honest mistakes.

We don’t have a voter impersonation fraud problem in the U.S., but we do have a voter turnout problem. Turnout in presidential years has declined since 1960, and pitifully hovers below 60% of the eligible electorate. We should be undertaking Herculean efforts to increase voter turnout, not erecting barriers to voting based on trumped-up problems to serve partisan ends. Yet, despite the data, untold resources are being spent to “correct” a problem that simply doesn’t exist. These new laws will cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually to implement, not including the cost of certain litigation. When a situation like this arises in politics, it means there are other motives at play.

The motives here are startling to those concerned about democratic representation. In short, this is a corporate-sponsored attack on democracy, spearheaded by Republicans intent on disenfranchising certain groups in the electorate in order to gain political control.

1. Corporate ties are first reason why voter ID efforts are ideal for the Occupy Movement, a grassroots effort that started in New York this past September to challenge “the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process.”

The corporate organization behind the new spate of voter ID laws is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which claims to be a “nonpartisan public-private partnership” between legislators, the private sector, and the general public to promote “principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty.” (How is requiring government-issued ID to vote a promotion of “limited government” and “individual liberty”?) In actuality, ALEC is a hyper-conservative Republican organization that receives 98% of its funding from corporate entities, such as Exxon Mobil, Atria (formerly Phillip Morris tobacco), AT&T, Coca-Cola, and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.

And ALEC is more than just a corporate lobbying organization. They work directly with legislators (who are ALEC members) to craft model legislation that is then introduced in statehouses across the country without acknowledging that corporations drafted the bill. ALEC drafted model ID voter legislation, and every single new voter ID law was passed with ALEC member involvement. ALEC’s policy agenda for 2011 included bills to deregulate polluting industries, privatize education, eliminate unions, and voting restrictions.

David and Charles Koch, two brothers who have quietly promoted their radical, free-market agenda with $100 million in contributions to conservative causes, including bankrolling Scott Walker’s election and subsequent recent assault on public unions in Wisconsin, have long ties to ALEC. Koch Industries has been one of a select group of members on ALEC’s governing board for nearly two decades, and from what little financial information is available, the Koch contribution to ALEC likely exceeds $1 million. The lead lobbyist for Koch Industries formerly chaired ALEC. Koch brother involvement in voter ID laws should be of particular interest for the Occupy Movement considering that David Koch’s project, Citizens for a Sound Economy, spearheaded the effort to repeal Glass-Steagall that enabled banking institutions to gamble in securities and tank the economy in 2008.

The purpose of new voter ID laws is to demobilize certain portions of electorate who are more likely to vote for Democrats, a goal laid out by ALEC founder, Paul Weyrich many decades ago who stated that “I don’t want everybody to vote… Our leverage in the elections goes up as the voting populus goes down.”

2. The second reason why voter ID laws are a great target for the Occupy Movement is that they disproportionately affect Black Americans, Latino/a voters, U.S. citizens who were born in other countries, elderly people, people with disabilities, transgendered people, and students — all of whom are less likely to have the required ID for different reasons. A 2006 Brennan Center study finds that 25% of Black , 16% percent of Latino/s, and 18% percent of elderly Americans lack the necessary ID. Some on the left have accurately likened these new laws to Jim Crow Era poll taxes because the expense involved in obtaining an ID place a disproportionate burden on many groups that have been historically disenfranchised.

What do all of these groups have in common? With the exception of elderly Americans who have shifted Republican in recent years (although they still comprise the most active voting group for Democrats), the Americans who will be disproportionately affected by voter ID laws all vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

3. The third reason that a voter ID campaign is ideal for Occupy is waning public support for the movement, most of which is based on a rejection of OWS tactics. Occupy still garners more support(44%) than opposition (35%), so this movement is anything but dead, but tactical shifts are required for longevity and continued relevance.

A grassroots movement is precisely what is needed to stem the tide of anti-democratic tendencies conjured by voter ID efforts. The corporate sponsors of voter suppression timed these efforts perfectly — enough time for implementation prior to the 2012 election, not enough time for constitutional challenges to move through the courts, and Republican control of the Department of Justice would certainly put an end to inquiries recently initiated by Eric Holder.

There is little doubt that voter ID efforts will affect the upcoming presidential election. The states that have restricted voting rights also have 185 Electoral College votes, two-thirds of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Out of the twelve battleground states in the upcoming election, five have already restricted voting rights and two others are considering new limitations.

Occupy could mount a state-by-state response with the concrete goals of getting people ready to vote, registering new voters, and overturning these laws.

The Dangerous NOPD

Last summer, I broke up a fight between two men near my Los Angeles home, and last night I stood between a man and a woman who were quarreling loudly in the street outside a friend’s home in New Orleans.  A few moments earlier, the man had hit his girlfriend so hard that she landed sideways in a mud puddle, and I was there to make sure he didn’t do it again.

Police response to these two incidents reveals just how dangerous the NOPD can be.

In both situations, someone else called the police and the physical violence had subsided before they arrived.  Two squad cars arrived in Los Angeles and three LAPD officers quickly but calmly assessed the situation by talking to the victim, perpetrator, and witnesses.  They arrested the perpetrator after conferring with the witnesses.

Last night’s incident was handled quite differently by the NOPD.  Three squad cars arrived with seemingly panicked officers who started yelling orders at everyone involved without understanding who was who.  One officer told me to come to her, and as I walked over, another officer got out of his car and yelled at me to “back off.”  I thought their abrasiveness would subside once they had identified the victim, perpetrator, and witnesses, but this was not to be.

They rounded up the perpetrator and two male witnesses — Good Samaritans who had also intervened.  I tried to calmly tell the officers what had happened, but they acted like I wasn’t even there as they placed handcuffs on all three of the black men — the perpetrator and the two Good Samaritans.  The female officer eventually asked if I was the victim.  I informed her that I was a witness and led her to the victim, Cindy (not her real name), who was crying on a stoop a block away.  Walking over, the officer asked me if I knew what had started the fight, as though there exists a legally justifiable reason for a person to hit another person.  This officer posed the same impertinent question to Cindy and pressed her for details as to what might have caused her boyfriend to hit her.  The officer actively engaged in victim blaming.

When I arrived back at the squad cars with Cindy, one of the Good Samaritans had been let go.  The other Good Samaritan was arguing with a police officer over confusion about whether the officer had asked for his Social Security number or a license.  After getting his license, the officer shoved this Good Samaritan into the back of his squad car.  I kept saying, “but he was trying to help!”  I was ignored.  A friend came out of the house and protested loudly that this man had tried to help, but I motioned for him to go back inside as the NOPD was obviously indiscriminately detaining people at this point.  I fully expected to be arrested if I continued to talk, so I stood silently waiting, shivering in the cold.  I would have already been in cuffs if I were a Black man.

Moments later, a despondent Cindy started apologizing to her boyfriend, and the third officer barked, “Shut up. You have nothing to say. You have nothing to say to him now.”

Thankfully, the NOPD let the second Good Samaritan go after lecturing him about his “attitude.”  They also let the perpetrator go, despite Cindy’s leg and side covered in brown water, several witnesses to the violence, and my report that he had threatened to kill her.  The officers seemed to enjoy a conversation with the perpetrator about how “Yankee bitches” don’t know “how we do with our bitches.”

To sum up, the NOPD arrived on the scene in a panic, didn’t clarify what had happened or who was who, handcuffed all of the black men (even though the call was mistakenly for two women fighting), verbally abused the victim, made the victim feel like she was to blame for getting hit, intimidated and detained witnesses, and failed to enforce the law.

It would be easy to blame this on the individual officers involved, but as a 2011 DOJ report indicates, “the deficiencies in the way NOPD polices the City are not simply individual, but structural as well.”  Various deficiencies were identified “that lead to constitutional violations that span the operation of the entire Department, from how officers are recruited, trained, supervised, and held accountable…”  More specifically, the DOJ found that officers routinely conduct illegal stops, searches, and arrests, and too frequently use excessive force.  The harassment of the Good Samaritans I observed last night was clearly in violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

Cindy was the victim of domestic violence, and it is not surprising that the NOPD failed to enforce the law and arrest her perpetrator since, according to the DOJ, they are particularly “negligent” in handling of sexual assault and domestic violence cases.  As co-founder of the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, I was privy to the NOPD’s pattern of inaction in response to rape and domestic violence that led many victims/survivors to simply not report crimes against them.

This isn’t to say that the LAPD hasn’t had their share of problems (here, here, and here), or that most NOPD officers act in problematic ways, but the fact that it might be more dangerous to call the NOPD  in a crisis situation than to not call them is simply ludicrous.  Nine months ago, the DOJ labeled the New Orleans Police Department a “significant threat to the safety of the public.”  While changes are underway, based upon recommendations from the DOJ, this experience suggests that the NOPD still falls far short of its mission to  “provide professional police services to the public in order to maintain order and protect life and property.”

Pennsylvania Public Service Announcement Blames Rape Victims

Rape reporting, prosecution, and conviction rates across the country are appallingly low, but it’s easier to get away with sexual assault in some places compared to others.  Pennsylvania is one of those places. In Pennsylvania, expert testimony isn’t allowed in the courtroom.  Instead, jurors frequently rely on abundant, harmful rape myths.

We shouldn’t be that surprised, then, that earlier this week the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) aired an ad plainly promoting the idea that women are to blame for being raped.

Pennsylvania PSA

The ad shows a young woman sprawled on what appears to be a bathroom floor, underwear down at her ankles, with the caption, “She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say no.”  The victim blaming here couldn’t be any clearer, right down to the illogical language suggesting that the victim both had agency (she is to blame) and lacked agency (because she couldn’t say “no”).

Crafted by the Neiman Group, this ad was part of a larger $600,00 campaign — two years in the making — to raise awareness of the ill effects of drinking.  Several different themes were proposed, but this was the “winner.”  Another ad in the same campaign holds a rape victim’s friend responsible for her rape.

The PLCB pulled the ad campaign in response to hundreds of messages from concerned citizens, some of whom claimed they were traumatized by the image/message.  However, a statement from the PLCB shows that those in charge still don’t comprehend the problem:

“We feel very strong, and still do, that when we entered the initial discussion about doing a campaign like this it was important to bring the most difficult conversations about over-consumption of alcohol to the forefront and all of the dangers associated with it—date rape being one of these things.”

The PLCB is right that alcohol and “date” rape (a term that trivializes rape) go hand in hand, but not because women are responsible for the criminal actions of the approximate 6% of men who perpetrate this crime.  Instead, perpetrators exploit cultural narratives — like the idea that intoxication = miscommunication and that “date rape” isn’t “real” rape — to repeatedly commit this crime.  In a recent study of college students, 4% of men were found to be serial rapists; they committed an average of 5.8 rapes each.

Sexual assault is committed by perpetrators.  Ad campaigns like this ensure that rape/sexual assault will continue to be the only crime in which society treats the victim like a perpetrator.