Ruling close in fight to protect voting rights

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Judge Tanya Walton Pratt

By Stephanie Gadlin, Special to the Gary Crusader

A federal judge is set to rule on whether or not to issue an injunction to stop the state of Indiana from purging more people from its voter rolls, which will disproportionately impact African Americans, Latinos and other citizens of color, according to advocates.

Last year, Indiana had the dubious distinction of removing the most people from its voter rolls when it removed a quarter of a million people, the largest such purge in the nation. Though done legally at the time and, in accordance to federal law, the General Assembly then moved to circumvent restrictions that would allow them to kick people off the rolls without legal notice and for a variety of reasons.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt will decide on a lawsuit filed by Common Cause Indiana, according to its policy director Julia Vaughn, who in a lengthy interview with the Crusader, said, “If this isn’t stopped” this will allow Indiana to engage in bigger targeting, which could lead to targeted racial profiling of voters,” she said. “A tremendous amount of discretion will be left to counties who will use this Kansas Crosscheck system to match the surnames and dates of birth of voters. This is problematic because in African American, Asian and Latino communities, there are common surnames (such as Lopez, Johnson or Lee), and this system has been known to render false positives.

“County officials have also told us that they are more likely to purge someone if they think their name is unusual because there’s less chance of matching,” Vaughn explained, before noting she isn’t against list maintenance. “So if someone is named ‘John Smith,’ they will deem that a common name, but if they come across a person named ‘Devonte Greenspan’ they would assume it as unusual and would then flag it for removal–and do so without contacting the person. Well who gets to decide whose name is unusual or not–and who do you think will be the ones most likely impacted by all of this?”

Crosscheck compares registration lists for participating states and alerts them if registrations in two states appear to match, implying that someone might have moved or failed to cancel his or her earlier voter registration.  Indiana is one of 30 states to participate in the program, despite it being dubbed as inaccurate by researchers.

The lawsuit noted: “A match methodology using only first name, last name and date of birth is thus more likely to produce matches among such minority populations. Indeed, existing studies show that incorrect matches using such a methodology are disproportionately concentrated among minority voters. Crosscheck flagged one in six Latinos, one in seven Asian-Americans, and one in nine African-Americans as potential double registrants. Using Crosscheck to directly purge voters from the rolls will discriminatorily impact certain racial minority registrants by subjecting them to burdensome re-registration requirements (without informing them of the need to do so).”

Vaughn and other advocates seem to take special umbrage at who administers the system, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Hailed as a star by Republicans, Kobach has been accused by opponents of being a darling of the “alt-right,” and those with white supremacist views.  A rising star in national politics, he also served as vice chair of President Donald Trump’s so-called election fraud commission. The disbanded commission also included Indiana’s Secretary of State Connie Lawson and was headed by former Indiana governor, Vice President Mike Pence.

“People in Indiana need to be aware of Kobach’s record in our state and be vigilant in fighting any attempts to suppress voter participation,” said Zachary Mueller, researcher and organizer for a political action committee working against Kobach’s campaign for governor.

“Kobach is at the center of a lot of voter suppression efforts happening around the country,” Mueller told the Crusader. “What has been found is that [Crosscheck] is at a 99 percent rate of false positives. That means 99 percent of people it targets is wrong. A Harvard study showed that [this program] has the ability to eliminate 200 legitimate voters for every one double voter.”

Both the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the League of Women Voters have also filed a lawsuit to stop the new law from taking effect on July 1. Neither NAACP state official Attorney Barbara Bolling-Williams or Gary NAACP President Steve Mays responded to the Crusader by press deadline.

Lake County Clerk Mike Brown has sat on the Election Board since 2010 and has been a staunch defender of voting rights.  The Democrat told the Crusader that any attempt to thwart democracy and target minority voters in Lake County will continue to be met with vigorous opposition. “Right now they are trying to do away with precincts using an legal argument that is dubious, at best,” he said. “We know that when the State moves to remove people from voting rolls, who will be most impacted—Black people, Hispanics and the poor.”

The clerk said, “This is yet another law geared toward the northern part of the county, which is heavily Democratic in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago,” Brown said. “Who lives in those communities–us. If you reduce the amount of polling places, if you keep changing the locations of the polling places, if you reduce the number of people who can vote, this is suppression, plain and simple.”

Lake County is one of the few counties in the state to have early voting. However, with 527 voting precincts, only 17 percent of registered voters in the county cast a ballot in the recent election. Still, the outgoing clerk says, low turnout should not be a reason to chip away at voting rights.

Brown credited a coalition of groups, including the NAACP, Urban League, Gary Crusader, and a bevy of local leaders for being effective in galvanizing the community to fight voter suppression schemes. “This is such a team effort …, and the fact that as a precinct committeeperson I have the responsibility to ensure that people are treated fairly. I don’t think this law is fair. When you see something that isn’t right, you try to get as many people as you can to help to make absolutely sure that people understand that this is an injustice.”

Added Vaughn, “We can’t leave the decision to purge voters to county clerks who can circumvent federal law,” she said.  “All of this is political–and there’s one party that has the majority here. While it is true that we should regularly maintain our voting rolls, we have to do it in a way that complies with federal law.

Secretary of State Connie Lawson did not respond to the Crusader’s inquiry.

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