- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

Just when civil rights advocates were celebrating recent advances in restoring the voting rights of 5.3 million Americans prohibited from voting in several states because of their felony convictions, along comes the news that the Bush administration has been playing politics with meaningful electoral reform.

Geez, can’t they focus on governing without engaging in partisan warfare?

The New York Times has reported that the Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency charged with administering federal elections, “played down the findings of experts who concluded last year that there was little voter fraud around the nation.” According to the New York Times’ review, the “original report on fraud cites ‘evidence of some continued outright intimidation and suppression’ of voters by local officials, especially in some American Indian communities, while the final report says only that voter ‘intimidation is also a topic of some debate because there is little agreement concerning what constitutes actionable voter intimidation.’ ”

Just why would the EAC suppress or alter a report that could have helped restore citizens’ confidence in our electoral system? Did someone pressure them to disown reports they commissioned? If so, we need to find the guilty parties and bring yet another shameful episode of partisanship to public attention.

As the Times notes, this issue played a “significant role” in the Bush administration’s “firing of eight United States attorneys, several of whom, documents now indicate, were dismissed for being insufficiently aggressive in pursuing voter fraud cases.” Perhaps disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez will have the decency to respond to these allegations next week when he testifies on Capitol Hill.

The Election Assistance Commission, according to its own mission statement, is supposed to be a clearinghouse for all “matters that affect the administration of federal elections,” providing “information and guidance with respect to laws, procedures and technologies affecting the administration of federal elections.” Fair enough, but why did they shove aside a report that could have provided timely guidance to members of Congress trying to address so-called voter fraud by imposing restrictive voter-ID requirements?

The EAC not only refused to accept the reasoned conclusion of its bipartisan consultants, they also refused to release those findings at a time when doing so would have discounted claims of rampant voter fraud that were the justification for the restrictive voter ID law passed last year by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Thank God the Senate had no appetite to take up a similar measure being pushed to address the phantom of voter fraud.

Here we approach another major electoral season and the agency in charge of helping states reform their electoral practices has lost its credibility. Loyola Law professor and election expert Richard Hansen have written that the “EAC needs to remain a credible broker and cannot be timid by what it finds.” Mr. Hansen believes that if the evidence supports one side of the debate, that is “not a reason to disown a report and start over.” Hmmmm, unless it’s about politics and helping one side gain an electoral advantage.

Since the 2000 presidential election, states have moved to enact stringent voter ID requirements. According to election experts, as of the November 2006 election, 24 states had enacted some form of voter identification law, up from 11 in 2000.

While state and federal courts have thrown out some restrictive and punitive photo ID laws on the grounds they may lead to disenfranchising poor, elderly or minority citizens otherwise eligible to vote, the drumbeat still rages to put in place more punitive laws. The motives are simple: Suppress the turnout of eligible citizens who may not embrace the political priorities of one of the major political parties. Shameful.

No citizen should vote twice, and felons and others seeking to have their voting rights restored must remain patient while the wheels of justice turn in their favor. But, under the guise of people “stuffing ballot boxes,” allowing the dead to vote or undocumented workers attempting to claim citizenship, Republican lawmakers have begun to erect new laws that could severely curtail the right of all eligible citizens to vote and have those votes counted accurately.

Perhaps it’s time we all put aside partisan consideration and agree that no eligible citizen should have to pay to vote. As many civil rights advocates will tell you, proof of citizenship requirements can place an undue financial burden on voters. I know because many of my family members who had all their possessions washed away during Hurricane Katrina are still scurrying to replace passports, birth certificates and other proof of citizenship, and the expense is shocking.

We should also agree that no eligible citizen should face intimidation by partisan poll workers or be asked to produce ID at the polling place when state law only requires first-time voters and those who did not list an ID number on their registration forms to do so. It’s wrong, and it’s illegal.

The Justice Department and the Election Assistance Commission, you are now on notice that civil rights groups are watching your every step, your partisan reports and, yes, your role in destroying one of the most important ingredients of our democracy: the right of all citizens regardless of race, gender, disability, age or class to participate in the electoral process.

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and National Public Radio and former campaign manager for Al Gore.

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