At what point is it fair to say that minority voter suppression is looming in Boston in 2017?
As the city’s municipal elections approach Tuesday, will its communities of color be impacted by unfair electoral practices that stymie local democratic participation? Or will advocates in Boston challenge the voter suppression bulwarks being erected by those attempting to circumvent unfettered elections?
Based on recent allegations, voter disenfranchisement is a real possibility Tuesday in a city otherwise praised for its progressive politics. Black and Asian voters are most vulnerable at losing fair access to the polls and their voting rights this election cycle.
In one instance, the city’s Chinese Progressive Association is claiming that the voting rights of Asian-Americans are being violated.
The organization claims that “people” are collecting absentee ballots from Asian-American elderly voters in the city’s Chinatown neighborhoods. The ballots are making it to the election department but they may be illegally marked to advantage city council candidate, Mike Kelley, in a hotly contested race in a district once identified as the bastion of Irish political hegemony. Chinese-Americans are now an emerging force in the district abutting downtown Boston.
Kelley is endorsed by the city’s political establishment. His opponent is Ed Flynn, a experienced political organizer and the son of the city’s onetime popular mayor who served as ambassador to the Vatican under president Bill Clinton.
“Over the past two weeks, Chinatown’s elderly voters have been victims of blatant voting rights violations, this time involving absentee ballots,” said a statement released by the Chinese Progressive Association and Chinese Progressive Political Action organization last week.
The CPA, which has filed suit voter rights illegalities with the US Justice Department in the past, further claims that Kelley’s “Chinatown Operation” has deceptively treated elderly voters by retrieving “unsealed envelopes.” The organizations intimate that Kelley’s campaign volunteers may have marked the ballots in favor of their candidate.
The CPA statement adds that “... in some cases, Mike Kelley himself joined the team to knock on doors and suggest that voters request an absentee ballot.”
Allegations of voter fraud in Chinatown, so far, are amorphous and may go unfounded as the city’s election department investigates the charges. Nevertheless, the charges in Chinatown are worth looking into ― given past attempts to disenfranchise Chinese-American voters.
Simultaneously, claims of voter suppression are being made in the city’s black neighborhoods, where voting locations have been changed for the Tuesday mayoral election, where incumbent mayor Walsh holds an advantage over challenger Jackson, a current Boston City Councillor.
Of 12 new polling locations announced by the city’s election department this fall, seven were located in heavily minority or progressive communities — changes that will cause voter confusion on election day and likely suppress turnout within the city’s communities of color.
Within some neighborhoods — where voting has been historically low — moving polling locations without massive efforts to notify voters in the impacted areas should be taken seriously.
Before sweeping reversals to the federal Voting Rights Act, black and other minority voters where protected by “pre-clearance” provisions requiring local election departments to report changes in voting to federal officials overseeing potential voter disenfranchisement. This why the Voting Rights Act — fought so bravely for by Civil Rights stalwarts like C.T. Vivian, Hosea Williams and Annie Lee Cooper — served as an invaluable tool that shielded minority voters from electoral terrorism at the ballot boxes.
A particular hardship being placed on black and Latino voters in the Tuesday Boston election is the change of one polling location to nearly a mile away: Voters at the largely poor, minority housing projects called Orchard Gardens in Roxbury must now vote at the Kroc Center in Dorchester. This is unfair and onerous to minority voters.
“Changes before any election with and without [extensive] notification is troubling. People have a difficult time voting as it is,” said Darnell L. Williams, president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.
Councillor Jackson noted that the changes present “concerns,” adding that relocating “polling locations less than 30 days prior to an election [will] lead to lower turnout and engagement.” When pressed on whether the changed locations reflect voter suppression in the city’s black neighborhoods, Jackson responded “yes.”
Sometimes voters suppression claims are ephemeral. They are diaphanous charges raised in light of the hurt of past practices against maligned, minority citizens. They are lodged out of bad memories from so-called minority groups who have been the victim of voter suppression tactics in the past.
But democracy is precious. It is a right won by brave Americans who opposed having their electoral liberties truncated.
For these reasons all claims of voter suppression ― especially those made by communities of color ― deserve special attention. They deserve the scrutiny of the city. They deserve the watchful eye of the federal government. They require the full vigilance of the grassroots civil rights organizations on the ground such as the Boston NAACP, MASSVOTE and the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.
For these reasons the national Voting Rights Act, decimated by the current right leaning U.S. Supreme Court, needs to be fully restored. Equally important, Bostonians must serve as the first line of defense for voter protection claims, whether they are false or fair.