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Voter Suppression versus Voter Fraud: It Is Not Even Close – posted 7/24/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 8/7/2016

July 24, 2016 Leave a comment

As we head toward the general election, voters on both sides of the political divide bring their own sense of paranoia to the process. Each side is worried about the other side cheating. The Republicans concern has been voter fraud. On the Democratic side, the concern has been voter suppression.

John Lennon once described paranoia as a heightened sense of awareness. So you have to ask: whose paranoia is more justified?

I don’t think the answer is close. Concerns about voter suppression have a substantial basis in fact. The same cannot be said about voter fraud. In our historical period, in the United States, almost all allegations of voter fraud have turned out to be baseless.

While Donald Trump has said that you have people fraudulently voting many times, there is zero evidence that is true. In 2014, Justin Levitt, a law professor and now an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, surveyed more than a billion votes cast in general, primary, special and municipal elections across the United States from 2000 through 2014. He found only 31 credible instances of voter impersonation. Statistically, that is an infinitesimally small number.

Levitt has written that voter impersonation is rarer than being struck by lightning.

Other types of voting fraud – voting in the name of dead people and voting by foreign nationals – have not been substantiated. Saying there is fraud does not make it so. Those concerned about voting fraud have not made a case based on evidence.

On the other hand, concerns about voter suppression do have a basis in fact and that can be easily demonstrated. Seventeen states have new voting restrictions in place for this upcoming presidential election. This is the first presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. Also, this is one of the first elections in the aftermath of the Citizens United decision from the U.S. Supreme Court where the full power of Big Money can weigh in. And that only scratches the surface.

I would begin with voter ID laws. They are now in place in 33 states. Although they are justified as a way to insure election integrity, there is evidence that the photo ID requirement discriminates against groups that are less likely to possess photo IDs. Typically these voters are poor, Black, other minority, elderly or disabled.

On July 20, this argument received powerful validation from an unexpected place. The full United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, widely seen as a very conservative court, ruled that Texas’ voter ID act had a discriminatory impact on minorities and did violate the Voting Rights Act.

A 2011 study from the New York University’s Brennan Center had previously shown that 6-11% of the U.S. population that is voting age lack a government issued photo ID. A more recent 2014 study by the Government Accountability Office found that voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout by 1.9 and 2.2 percent respectively compared to four states that did not pass voter ID laws – Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware and Maine. The report found that young people, black people and newly registered voters were most likely to see reduction in turnout.

A second cause of concern is early voting cutbacks. States vary dramatically as to when and how much early voting can go on. For example, in 2012, Florida cut early voting from 14 to 8 days. In 2013, North Carolina cut early voting from 17 to 10 days. It seems to me there should be some national standard so there is uniformity among the states. In the absence of a national standard, cutting voting days seems both arbitrary and destined to deflate voting numbers.

States also vary on same day registration which allows any qualified resident of a state to go to the polls on election day, register that same day and then vote. States with election day registration have 5-7% higher turnout. At present 13 states plus the District of Columbia offer same day registration. New Hampshire, to its credit, does. Procrastinators and those who wait until the eleventh hour benefit from same day registration.

We have witnessed the repeated embarrassing spectacle of voters standing in line for many hours waiting to vote. In March, during the Arizona primary, people waited five hours to vote. Many disgusted voters left without casting a ballot. The cause: election officials reduced the number of polling places by 70% from 2012 to 2016. The officials said they wanted to save money.

In Florida, in the 2012 general election, people waited up to seven hours to vote. In this instance, the lines disproportionately affected African American voters and other minorities. The question arises: how could this be happening in Florida, the state of Bush v Gore ? And how many more times is this going to happen? The track record of too many states, especially Southern states, is not reassuring.

While many may not remember or may not want to remember, in 2000 then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris had ordered the removal of over 57,700 “ineligible” voters from the voter rolls. Harris had claimed the voters were ex-felons and ineligible to vote. It turned out, after the election, that the scrub list distributed by Harris was full of errors. She disenfranchised up to 12,000 legally registered voters, 41% of whom were African-American. That was an election Bush won by 537 votes. That was the margin in Florida.

That election remains the classic example of how small manipulations in the electoral process can make a huge difference.

I would be remiss if I did not mention both voter purges and felon disenfranchisement. While states have an interest in accurate and correct voter rolls, too often legitimate voters disappear from the rolls, show up election day, and can’t vote. As for felon disenfranchisement, even though many states have moved forward and removed archaic state statutes, it remains a big deal. One in every thirteen Black adults cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction. Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million voters are banned from the polls. States vary significantly in their rules about when the voting ban is invoked but, bottom line, these rules still affect millions.

To appreciate the historical background of voting suppression, all the restrictions I have mentioned must be understood inside the context of the struggle over the Voting Rights Act. In his book, Give Us the Ballot, the writer Ari Berman shows how these issues have played out since 1965. We have moved from poll taxes and literacy tests to voter ID and subtler ways to discourage the vote.

I am struck by how much more attention gets paid to the question of who people are going to vote for rather than the question of whether every eligible voter will be able to cast a ballot. Just considering the experience of Bush v Gore, we appear to be sleepwalking.

With voter turnout so low in the United States (only 57.5% of eligible citizens voted in 2012) it is past time to work to increase voter participation and to modernize voter registration. Many states still rely on outdated paper records.

I would make the case for universal automatic voter registration at age 18. Unless the potential voter chooses not to be on the rolls, the government would automatically register eligible citizens. If this vision was fully implemented it would add 50 million voters to the rolls. There is something wrong with the perspective that hopes to win by minimizing the vote.

If the election this fall is close, voter suppression could be quite consequential. We should not have elections decided by a concerted effort to keep the turnout down.

I saw this quote from James Madison which seems especially apropos now:

“Who are to be the electors? Not the rich, more than the poor, not the learned, more than the ignorant, not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.”

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Some Late Justice for Victor Jara – posted 7/8/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/20/2016

July 8, 2016 2 comments

Throughout history, accountability for political torture and murder has been exceedingly rare. The world is full of unpunished crimes. Horrible things happen and, more often than not, perpetrators act with impunity.

It is typically impossible to get foreign war criminals into an American courtroom. And we generally do not look too hard at our own war crimes.

So it was a total shock when I saw that on June 27 a Florida jury returned a guilty verdict in a civil trial against the murderer of Victor Jara. No one symbolizes the struggle for human rights in Latin America better than Victor Jara.

Jara was a leading Chilean folksinger, songwriter, theater director, activist and supporter of the socialist government of Salvador Allende. I have heard him described as a Chilean version of a cross between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Jara was executed in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 1973 military coup that overthrew the Allende government.

The coup led by General Augusto Pinochet initiated a very dark chapter in Chilean history. It is estimated that 3,100 victims were either killed or disappeared by Pinochet’s dictatorship. An estimated 29,000 people were tortured by Pinochet’s forces in the years following the coup.

The day of the coup, Jara went to work at the Santiago Technical University where he was a professor and researcher. He had a date to sing at an event with Allende later that day. Jara did not come home.

His wife Joan waited for a week not knowing what had happened to him. A young man came to the Jara home on September 18 and told Joan that Victor’s body had been recognized in the city morgue. Victor had been very well known. He was very popular in Chile.

Joan Jara accompanied the young man to the morgue where she saw hundreds of bodies piled up in a parking area. She was able to identify Victor’s body and save him from disposal in a mass grave.

It took years for Joan Jara to find out what happened to her husband. On the day of the coup, the military arrested him. The military detained him, along with thousands of others, in Chile Stadium. He was beaten badly at the university and then later tortured for three days at the stadium.

While there are many stories about his torture, the amputation of his fingers by the military, and his singing to the other prisoners before his death, a forensic pathologist found he sustained a single bullet wound through the back of his head. When Joan Jara and other family members claimed his corpse, they found he had been shot 44 times, his wrists were broken and his face was disfigured from beatings.

On the 40th anniversary of Jara’s death, Joan Jara filed a civil lawsuit in Florida against a former military officer Pedro Barrientos, a lieutenant under Pinochet who had command responsibility at Chile Stadium. Joan Jara filed her lawsuit under the Torture Victims Protection Act, a federal civil statute that allows American courts to hear about human rights abuses committed outside the United States.

The trial presented a wealth of information about what happened at Chile Stadium. Several witnesses who had been Chilean military conscripts identified Barrientos as Jara’s murderer. Other witnesses testified that Barrientos had repeatedly bragged that he was the one who shot and killed Victor Jara.

The jury found Barrientos liable for Jara’s torture and murder and awarded his wife and daughters $28 million in punitive and compensatory damages.

Barrientos had fled Chile in 1989 and he became a U.S.citizen through marriage. According to Peter Kornbluh, a reporter for the Nation Magazine, Barrientos misrepresented his involvement in the 1973 coup when he filed his naturalization application. Barrientos has lived in Deltona, Florida.

In 2012, he was one of eight retired officers indicted for Jara’s murder in Chile. In 2013, the Chilean government formally requested Barrientos’ extradition back to Chile. For whatever reason, the U.S. Department of Justice has not yet responded to Chile’s request.

Complicating the pursuit of justice is a blanket amnesty passed in Chile in 1980, when Pinochet was still in power, which absolves all government officials of any wrongdoing. Pinochet died in 2006 but the remnants of his old regime have tried and are still trying to throw a veil over their human rights atrocities.

Why should Americans care about Victor Jara and these sad events that happened more than 40 years ago?

I would say that Jara’s murder is fundamentally a matter of justice that transcends national boundaries. As a symbol of the struggle for human rights in Latin America, his example and accountability for his torture and murder matter. If torturers and murderers can act with impunity, the likelihood of future torture atrocities increases everywhere in the world. Making torturers pay for their crimes has some disincentive value.

We also need to recognize the American role in these events. While it is disputed, there is substantial evidence that our government bears a degree of responsibility both for the 1973 Chilean military coup and for the gross violations of human rights that occurred in Chile and more generally in Latin America in the 1970’s. We trained the Latin American military dictatorships in how to torture.

There are many layers to this story. The writer, Isabel Allende,a relative of Salvador Allende, explained it this way:

“On September 11, 1973, a military coup ended a century of democratic tradition in Chile and started the long reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Similar coups followed in other countries, and soon half the continent’s population was living in terror. This was a strategy designed in Washington and imposed upon the Latin American people by the economic and political forces of the right. In every instance the military acted as mercenaries to the privileged groups in power. Repression was organized on a large scale; torture, concentration camps, censorship, imprisonment without trial, and summary execution became common practices. Thousands of people “disappeared”, masses of exiles and refugees left their countries running for their lives.”

I personally cared about these events because the Chilean revolution was a thunderbolt that rocked my political world. Conventional wisdom had previously dictated that no socialist government could ever be democratically elected. The 1970 election of the Popular Unity government led by Allende and his 1973 reelection showed that was not true.

Chile symbolized the electoral viability of democratic socialism. The coup, on the other hand, was a devastating rejoinder.

I recall Henry Kissinger’s oft-quoted, reprehensible quote from the time: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

The Jara trial revealed a tremendous need to fill in gaps in the public record about what happened in Chile and more generally in Latin America in the years from 1973-1980. Much effort has gone into concealing the history.

The best American political tradition is committed to transparency and intellectual honesty. The public deserves to know the truth. There is a seamy underside to the American role in supporting Pinochet and the other torturing Latin American regimes that included Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The full extent of the American role in the Chilean coup has not been revealed. Nor do we know the American role in Operation Condor, Pinochet’s plan, in conjunction with other Latin American militaries, to eliminate his perceived enemies all over the world.

The verdict in Jara’s trial is a long-overdue victory for his family and brings a measure of accountability for the egregious human rights violations of the Pinochet regime . Life can be so surprising. I never expected to see justice for Victor Jara, and finally, it has come.