Tens of thousands of shop stewards, union activists and labor lawyers will be enforcing the Voting Rights Act on Election Day and in the weeks leading up it. Through a non-partisan campaign it calls “My Vote, My Right,” the AFL-CIO has launched a massive drive to protect the vote in working-class neighborhoods in this year’s presidential election, and to prevent the violations that occurred in 2000.

“We’re particularly concerned about treatment of African American, Latino, Asian American and Native American voters, who were disproportionately disenfranchised in the 2000 federal elections,” said Cecelie Counts, the AFL-CIO’s director of civil, human and women’s rights.

The campaign has identified 32 communities in 12 states where it will focus its efforts. The states are Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin.

An AFL-CIO lawyers’ coordinating committee, headed up by Jonathan Hiatt, the federation’s general counsel, has already signed on hundreds of labor lawyers to work pro bono with labor and community activists.

“We are working with voting rights advocates to address problems at every stage of the election process, from registration procedures to polling place hours, to the use of provisional ballots,” said Hiatt.

Counts said the program aims to encourage voter participation by pressuring election officials to correct problems before Election Day, and assuring voters that someone will be at the polls to help them if they encounter difficulties. She described an array of problems encountered by “national minorities and people using languages other than English.” The problems include “under-resourcing” of precincts in minority areas, with too few voting machines, poorly functioning equipment, or too few polling place officials.

In Tucson, Phoenix, and Yuma, targeted cities in Arizona, Counts cited a “long history of vote suppression. In 2002, we saw vigilante groups out in force to make sure Latino voters didn’t make it to the polls.” In addition, Native American groups never received the full assistance they were entitled to, she said.

My Vote, My Right is using the primaries as a testing ground. Recent primaries have dramatically demonstrated the need for the vote protection effort, said Lora Jo Foo, My Vote, My Right director.

The campaign had representatives in 17 Kansas City polling places during the Aug. 3 Missouri primary, Foo said. “Numerous voters had registered three weeks earlier, but were not on the rolls,” she told reporters. Some sites were inaccessible for seniors and the disabled. When voters went to the wrong polling places, their provisional ballots may not have been counted as required by the Help America Vote Act.

In the Aug. 31 Florida primary, AFL-CIO representatives and voter protection coalition members monitored polls in Miami-Dade, Broward, Duvall, Orlando-Orange and Gadsden counties. Alma Gonzalez, from the lawyers’ committee, told the World that in Orlando, voters were singled out by skin color and accent to be illegally questioned by voting officials about their citizenship.

In Gadsden County, she said, extreme police presence pointed to deliberate vote suppression. State police were out in force. One African American voter on the way to the polls reported he had been stopped by a cruiser and given the explanation, “This is ‘don’t run a red light’ week.”

Local school districts hired off-duty police to stand prominently in the doorways of schoolhouse voting locations. The voter protection teams reported dealing with many voter problems “up close and personal.”

“In every county there is still confusion about provisional ballots, lots of people sent to the wrong polling places, polling places moved with no notice to voters,” the teams noted.

The Help America Vote Act requires that voters be allowed to cast provisional ballots in such cases. With Florida facing its second devastating hurricane in weeks, indications are there will be a lot of provisional ballots. But a Florida law requires officials to discard the provisional ballots of voters who show up at the wrong precinct, even if they are in the correct county. The lawyers’ committee has filed a suit to invalidate the law.

Nevada and Arizona’s primaries take place Sept. 7 followed by Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin on Sept. 14.

Hiatt voiced concern about getting newly registered voters processed. My Vote, My Right is urging union members to verify their registration. It is calling on newspaper editors to help disseminate its voter bill of rights and to “put the microscope on things.”

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.

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