Civil Rights Groups Sue to Keep African American Voter IDs from Being Restricted

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

Civil rights groups came prepared Tuesday with the one of the largest efforts ever to monitor elections.

A tense buildup to the midterm election included warnings from President Donald Trump of widespread voting fraud, concerns about hacking and accusations of voter suppression through identification laws in states including Georgia and North Dakota.

For the most part, however, there was no widespread breakdown in the voting system, according to the Election Protection Coalition, a network that includes the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Common Cause and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

But voters across the country nonetheless hit snags as voting machines malfunctioned, lines in precincts extended for hours and confusion over new voter ID laws reigned at hundreds of polling sites. Civil rights groups successfully launched last-minute lawsuits in several states to extend voting hours late into the night, including in Fulton County, Ga., and Harris County, Texas.

The nonpartisan Election Protection Hotline received more than 30,000 calls by Tuesday night, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which operates the line. The number is the highest it has gotten during a midterm election in the 18 years it has monitored Election Day issues. During the 2014 midterm, the hotline received just over 17,000 calls.

Many of the problems seemed to be a result of precincts overwhelmed with unusually large numbers of voters, aging technology and human error.

Isolated incidents were reported in California. The nonpartisan voting monitoring group California Common Cause said its volunteers received 2,000 calls to its voting hotline, many with questions about changes to polling places. In one unusual interruption in Bakersfield, a driver crashed into an elementary school and ran away, leading police to lock down the polling place.

In the North Hollywood and Canoga Park sections of Los Angeles, a jammed ballot box and a broken voting machine led to problems. At the Los Angeles County registrar’s office in Norwalk, hundreds lined up for more than two hours to iron out registration issues, including new voter registrations.

In Gwinnett County, Ga., voters said lines ran for more than four hours after four machines malfunctioned early in the day and left them to submit provisional ballots. In Chicago, a judge ordered voting hours to be extended at five locations after precincts opened late and voters said ballot pages were missing. In parts of the Deep South, storms led to blackouts, including one in Knox County, Tenn., that left several polling places without electricity, forcing them to resort to paper ballots.

Complaints also came in about how voter identification laws were being applied in many states, said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. Many calls originated in Georgia, home to a hotly contested governor’s race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.

Last week, civil rights groups sued to keep tens of thousands of mostly African-American voters from having their votes restricted because the names on their IDs did not precisely match voting rolls, including middle names and hyphens.

Clarke said it was unclear how much voter ID and other restrictions affected turnout and results in different states. She said that such laws could swing elections in theory by keeping people from voting but that “whether it has an impact on elections today remains to be seen.”

Across the country, the Department of Justice and nonprofits had dispatched voting observers to ensure smooth elections. The Election Protection Coalition, a network of civil rights groups that includes the Lawyers’ Committee, had 6,500 volunteers in 30 states to watch for problems at the polls.

The coalition said calls came in about voting machines flipping votes in Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas, though they said the events did not seem to be widespread.

In Maricopa County, Ariz., those attempting to vote hit several stumbling blocks throughout the day. For at least 20 minutes before noon, the entire computer system for the county stopped working. That meant that voters could not check in at the polls. Printers were also down at polling places for several hours, meaning that voters could not get custom “on demand” ballots for their precincts. Late Tuesday, a judge denied a request by the Lawyers’ Committee and the Arizona Advocacy Network and Foundation to extend voting hours to make up for the mishaps.

Despite Trump’s warning this week that there are “a lot of people — my opinion, and based on proof — that try and get in illegally and actually vote illegally,” elections officials did not report any widespread voter fraud.

“No. None,” said Rick Barron, the elections director in Fulton County, Ga., when asked of fraud. The county includes most of Atlanta. But Barron said there were other voting problems, including at a recreation center that received fewer than half the number of voting machines it was supposed to get. That led to unusually long lines in the morning before the problem was resolved. The center is among those that a judge ordered to stay open later after a lawsuit was filed to complain about its malfunctioning.

“We also see problems with poorly trained poll workers,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, a member of the Election Protection Coalition.

Lacey Johnson, a Houston resident who attempted to vote in the morning at her polling place, said a mistake by poll workers left her temporarily unable to cast a regular ballot when they accidentally scanned her in the electronic voting system as having voted before she actually did.

“They tried to re-enter my information, but because they had already entered it moments before, it now falsely claimed I had already voted,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

In an interview, Johnson said she voted via a provisional ballot but felt her vote was “suppressed” since it was unclear whether it would be counted. Hours later, she returned to the polling site with an elections board official on the phone who was able to help poll workers generate a new code for her to vote.

In another incident in Houston, an elections official was dismissed after reportedly making a racist comment to a black voter in which she suggested the voter would understand voting rules better if the official had worn “blackface.”

In North Dakota, Native American tribal leaders had rushed to print thousands of new IDs to comply with a new voter ID law that requires voters to have IDs with residential addresses, something many Native Americans there do not have. Many instead use post office boxes because they live on reservations without traditional addresses.

The state’s election’s director Tuesday said that the ID issue was not widespread, though civil rights groups said they received reports of Native Americans who encountered difficulties voting.

In predominantly Latino Dodge City, Kan., civil rights groups said fears over voter suppression may have been misplaced. Groups had warned about voter turnout in the city after county officials moved its only polling station to a new location a few miles outside of town, more than a mile beyond the city’s last bus stop.

Liberal observers feared that the move would depress turnout among working-class Latino voters, who typically favor Democrats, and volunteers rushed to the city from across the state and the nation — one from as far away as San Diego — to provide carpools and buses to voters. Instead, the vehicles mostly stayed idle as voters needing rides didn’t show up in big numbers.

American Civil Liberties Union observers reported that only 10 or 15 voters mistakenly showed up at the old voting location, and voters overwhelmingly drove to the new polling station.

“The national story doesn’t really appear to be the real story on the ground,” said Edgar Pando, a Dodge City attorney who provides legal aid to low- and middle-income Kansans. “People sort of extrapolated a meaning that wasn’t there, outside looking in, and that seems to be the general consensus.”