Learning from Missouri: Can Progressives Get a Fair Election?

With the presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain heading towards a close, hotly-contested election, it's up to progressives at the state and local level to make sure that it's a fair one. That's why the recent victory of a fast-acting Missouri voting rights coalition in defeating a proposed photo ID measure is so important: it shows progressives who are confronting right-wing policies how to rise up and effectively challenge them.

As the new article in Alternet points out:

Why did progressives succeed this year despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision -- and how did they pull off an organizing campaign against the measure so quickly? It's a remarkable victory with lessons for progressives and Democrats who are often out-maneuvered by conservatives everywhere from the Florida 2000 recount dramatized recently on HBO to the U.S. Congress to Republican statehouses.

Ultimately, as Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan underscores, there was a smart messaging strategy behind the coalition's success: "We told stories about real people who wouldn't be eligible to vote. Putting a human face on the issue was more important than talking abstractly about the myth of voter fraud." Yet that latter argument is often the key talking point of progressives in their mixed record in fighting ID laws in legislatures and in courts. For instance, in the Indiana Democratic Party's failed legal challenge to the 2005 Indiana law, the lawsuit was filed before the law took effect, so there weren't any individual plaintiffs who suffered grievous harm, weakening the case on appeal before the Supreme Court.

After recounting the lobbying and insider politicking, I point out in the article:

Yet, amid all the backroom deals and publicity and organizing, it was the real-life stories of people like Lillie Lewis [a Mississippi-born woman notified by that state that she had no birth certificate] that may have made the biggest difference. After the bill was defeated, she said, "I am relieved that I will be able to vote this fall. I've been voting in every election since I can remember, but if I needed my birth certificate, that would be the end of that. I hope this is the last we hear of this nonsense." Unfortunately, it probably won't be the end of the story: Half a dozen states are still considering similar photo ID and citizenship bills this year, and the issue is sure to re-emerge when state legislatures reconvene in early 2009.

But right now, if the lessons of the Missouri victory aren't learned by activists in other states, the omens are poor that all those citizens drawn to the Obama campaign -- and who are eligible to vote -- will actually be able to register and vote in large enough numbers to propel Obama to victory. Nor can they expect that their votes will be counted accurately and fairly. Congress won't be taking any meaningful actions to fix our broken election system before November, so as I previously reported in Alternet:

As a result of Congressional inaction, look for more long lines, failed machines, questionable voter purges, election-day dirty tricks, GOP challenges to minority voters and ill-trained poll-workers who, following the Supreme Court's Indiana photo ID court decision, are even more likely to ask for photo ID where it's not required, among other voting obstacles.

But it's heartening to see the way a progressive coalition in Missouri that also included such mainstream groups as AARP and the League of Women Voters beat the GOP's fear-mongering photo ID drive in a Republican-dominated state.

Many other states have laws and policies that could deny the right to vote to minorities, the poor and students. Nearly 30 states have Missouri or Indiana-style proof of citizenship or strict photo ID voting bills pending, with half a dozen in play this year, but virtually any state or locality where highly partisan Republican officials are in control could pose a risk to fair voting, because of a plethora of vote-denying schemes. These include vote "caging," improper photo ID requests, blocking registration drives for disabled vets, unaccountable purges, unreliable touch-screen machines, and outright intimidation and deception -- and these measures have to be resisted by well-organized state and local activists. That's in large part because you can't count on the state or national Democratic Party, Congress, or Republican Secretaries of State to stand up for your voting rights this year.

Activists, then, have to turn to resources like Project Vote to stay informed, and to join with coalitions such as Election Protection 365 and other leading groups to preserve voting rights. Otherwise, Obama won't get the chance for a fair, accurate and honest election that he, and progressives, deserve.