A wiki, saving democracy?

But what about the votes that don’t count? What about the systematic attempts to erect barriers between voters and the ballot box? What about voter suppression?

In order to educate, document and mobilize action, I’m excited to introduce the Voter Suppression Wiki.

— Baratunde Thurston, Announcing The Launch Of The Voter Suppression Wiki – Learn, Report, Act on Jack and Jill Politics

In May, I was on a panel on e-Deceptive campaign practices at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, and all the panelists agreed that with partisan feelings high and the polls likely to be close, this election would be particularly nasty from a voting rights perspective. Sure enough, potential issues are already cropping up: absentee ballot applications sent to voters with the wrong return addresses, a lawsuit in Wisconsin likely to cause incredibly-long lines at the polls, another suit in Ohio attempting to prevent people from voting when they register, misleading warnings from county officials in Virginia with the apparent purpose of discouraging college students from registering, and apparent plans to use foreclosure lists to challenge voters in Michigan that’s sparked a lawsuit from the Obama campaign.   And it’s only September!

Many forms of voter suppression* revolve around voter registration: voter caging and other ways of purging legitimate voters from databases, discouraging or preventing people from registering.  Others focus on preventing registered voters from actually voting: spreading false information about polling places, not providing enough ballots, intimidating rumors such as “you’ll be arrested if you have any outstanding parking tickets,” and poll workers not respecting voters’ rights.

A couple of important things to keep in mind when discussing voter suppression:

  • Despite the stereotypes, voter suppression isn’t a purely partisan affair.  Earlier this year, the NAACP’s complaint against Women’s Voices Women’s Vote for misleading robocalls in North Carolina and the Double Bubble Trouble incident in Los Angeles County — where it took almost a month to decide to count 47,000 disputed votes — related to the Democratic primaries; the Prarie View A&M/Waller County “We will vote” march was a bipartisan affair.
  • The line between voter suppression and unintentional mistakes (which can have the same disenfranchsing effect) is often blurry.  Kim Zetter’s Voter Database Glitches Could Disenfranchise Thousands in Wired discusses the  software failures of centralized state voter registration databases; without knowing the political maneuvering behind the individual states’ legislation and choices of vendors, there’s no way to tell how much of this is incompetence as opposed to voter suppression.  With Double Bubble Trouble, the original problem of a badly-designed ballot** was almost certainly an unintentional design error; a subsequent decision not to count the votes could have been voter suppression.   Fortunately, most of what we’ll be discussing here applies to unintentional disenfranchisement as well.

Almost all voter suppression relies to a large extent on information asymmetry.   If voters know that they may have been purged from the database and it’s still before the registration deadline, they can check and if necessary re-register.  If college students know that they actually won’t put their student loans at risk by registering, then they’ll ignore the misleading information from the county.  And once tens of thousands of people realized that their votes might not be counted in LA County, there was an outcry — which meant that officials had to react rather than sweeping problems under the table.

So simple as it sounds, broad awareness of potential voter suppression efforts and how to counter them, both during the registration period and in the final rush to voting, could make a huge difference.  Which brings us to …

The voter suppression wiki

There’s a lot of organizations out there doing great work on voter suppression, including Project Vote (whose Voting Matters blog is an excellent starting point), the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights (who just announced their Election Protection initiative) Common Cause, the NAACP, and People for the American Way, and the National Committee for Voting Integrity.  There’s a vibrant voting rights blogosphere as well, with national blogs like Brad Friedman’s The Brad Blog and Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog as well as state-specific blogs like Kim Alexander’s California Voter — and Courage Campaign’s work with Double Bubble Trouble shows thatsocial networks are getting involved as well. Still, there are a couple of pieces of the puzzle that could use some significant improvement:

  • there’s no good real time source for data about all the voter suppression activity going on across the country.  Since the same techniques are often used in multiple locations, this is important  for discovering patterns as well as collaborating on responses … and of course it would make it much easier for media and the broader blogosphere to cover the stories and spread the word.
  • coordinating action between many of the groups and people involved is ad hoc at best — and frequently nonexistent

I got a chance to see this first hand during Double Bubble Trouble.  As the stories first started coming out, I and a lot of other people were frantically posting information in comments on various blogs and writing summary posts to try to keep people up to date; it took several days before hubs started to emerge, and even longer before word got to some of the larger organizations.  And even though we (mostly) won in the end, similar problems occurring in Washington State and elsewhere, never got a lot of attention, so it’s not clear how broad the issue is — or whether, as seems likely to me, there’s a pattern of voter suppression focused on independent voters.

The voter suppression wiki is focused on filling those gaps.  (Why a wiki?  See the first comment below.)  It has three major goals: educating people about voter suppression, tracking incidents of voter suppression activity, and mobilizing action to combat and prevent voter suppression.

Right now, incidents are tracked very simply: a list of reported incidents, each of which links off to more details.  For example:

  1. Michigan GOP Threatens To Use Foreclosure Lists To Challenge Votes
  2. Wisconsin incorrect absentee ballot applications
  3. Virginia College Students discouraged from registering
  4. Veterans administration blocks voter registration
  5. Wisconsin AG sues to force database check of voter registration
  6. SC Elections Officials Lack Knowledge Of Voting Rules

Even from this small subset, you can see the potential value.  If another half-dozen states start showing up with incorrect absentee ballot information — or attempts to discourage college students from registering — that’ll really leap out.  And it’s also easy for journalists and bloggers to take a quick look and see “is there anything that my readers need to know about?”

The Action Center is intended to for people who want to get involved in opposing voter suppression, with information about organizations and active campaigns.  As Baratunde says,

Knowledge is powerful, but only to the extent that you use it to inform decisions. We don’t just want to create a group of pissed off people. We want to create a group of pissed off people who are going to write letters, make phone calls and file lawsuits to protect citizens’ votes.

By itself, this is only one piece of the “coordinated action” puzzle; it needs to be coupled with some communication mechanisms to get the word out online (email, RSS feeds, etc.) and a strategy to reach those who get their voting information other ways.  Still, it’s an important component; and Wetpaint (the software the voter suppression wiki is using) has good RSS support, so it’s something to build on.

Saving democracy?

Not to be alarmist or anything, but democracy in America is looking very fragile these days.  The last two presidential elections have been close enough that voter suppression and other forms of fraud may well have tipped the scales; the reports so far of hundreds of thousands of voters being affected at a time, combined with another close race, mean that the results may once again be disputed.   Whichever party wins, it would be a disaster if a large percentage of the population doesn’t believe the results — a point I and many others have been making since the New Hampshire recount back in January.

There are a lot of potential threats to election integrity; voting machine fraud continues to get the most publicity, and Christopher Beam’s Hack the vote in Slate covers several more.  And there are a lot of responses, too, including invaluable efforts like the Voting Information Project (Google’s work with Secretaries of State to provide voters better access to information) and Election Protection (the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline for election questions as well as state-by-state information online).

In the grand scheme of things, the voter suppression wiki seems tiny.  But it’s very complementary to the other efforts going on: tracking voter suppression and helping to coordinate responses can make all the other organizations much more effective — imagine all of Election Protection’s volunteers staffing the hotline taking advantage of this information as well as feeding back new incidents as they detect them.  If it works out, it really could make a difference.

There’s a lot more information on the Jack and Jill Politics announcement thread, including how people can get involved.  The wiki itself is at http://votersuppressionwiki.wetpaint.com … so please, check it out, contribute, and help save democracy.

jon — cross-posted on Pam’s House Blend

* defined by Wikipedia as “the use of governmental power, political campaign strategy, and private resources aimed at suppressing (i.e. reducing) the total vote of opposition candidacies instead of attempting to change likely voting behavior by changing the opinions of potential voters.”  Almost all of them rely on some kind of information asymmetry, whether it’s simple misinformation trying to convince voters that this year the election’s on Thursday or the more complex scheme of “voter caging”, where voters arrive at the polls unaware that they’re no longer registered.

** a difficult-to-notice and unnecessary extra bubble that independent and decline-to-state voters needed to check to say “count my vote”