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The US Commission on Civil Rights has issued their final draft assessment of the George W. Bush administration's record, and concludes that "the administration has failed to exhibit leadership or define a clear focus, relegating civil rights to a low priority" on matters ranging from voting rights to racial profiling, equality in education and environmental justice.

   * Equal Educational Opportunity: The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) does not sufficiently address unequal education, a major barrier to closing the achievement gap between minority and white students.

    * Affirmative Action: Instead of promoting affirmative action in federal contracting and education, the administration promotes "race neutral alternatives," in many instances not applicable and in others not overly effective at maintaining diversity.

    * Environmental Justice: EPA has taken few actions to ensure disparate impact of minority communities to environmental contamination.

    * Racial Profiling: The administration responded to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by instituting regulations that facilitate profiling rather than prevent it. Immigrants and visitors from Arab and Middle Eastern countries were subjected to increased scrutiny, including interviews, registration, and in some cases removal.

From the report's summary (link goes to report PDF):

Several themes emerge from this study. Specifically, this report will show that the administration's statements frequently do not match their actions. Its civil rights promises often suffer for lack of funding and ineffective implementation. To his credit, President Bush has not dismantled some good programs that previous administrations had implemented. However, he has not comprehensively advanced them or demanded accountability for their outcomes. And finally, through the views of his executive and judicial appointments and his own professed priorities, President Bush redefines civil rights, at times by promoting unrelated initiatives under a civil rights banner.

In addition to damning Bush with the faintest of praise, the Commission takes Bush apart in the section titled "Democracy Damaged: Modern Day Disenfranchisement". After reciting the litany of problems surrounding the 2000 election which appointed Governor Bush to the office of the  presidency, the report indicts Bush for slow walking and underfunding the changes necessary to avoid a repeat, asking the fundamental question: Has President Bush helped repair democracy?

The answer, as you'll read, is a resounding no.

Democracy Damaged: Modern-Day Disenfranchisement

In 2000, the presidential election and its aftermath turned international attention to the application of America's election laws and policies. The outcome of the election was undecided for weeks as several hundred votes separated then-Governor Bush from then-Vice President Al Gore in official Florida vote tallies. Confusing ballot designs, registration problems, and computer malfunctions made the effort of recounting votes frustrating and controversial. Election officials' treatment of absentee and military ballots, and registered voters turned away at the polls, magnified the controversy. The Supreme Court intervened and ceased the recount process, effectively awarding the presidency to Governor Bush. The election proved that the nation had far to go to protect voting rights for all.

Nationwide, an estimated 4 million to 6 million votes for President and 3.5 million Senate and gubernatorial votes were lost, half because of registration list errors, and 1.5 million because of equipment problems. For example, officials in Florida removed names of thousands of voters from registration rolls before the election on grounds that they were convicted felons. Few actually were; most were Floridians who had similar names. After the election, state officials ordered the names replaced on the rolls, but affected Floridians had already been barred from voting. Overall, disenfranchisement in Florida fell most harshly on black voters who, statewide, based on county-level statistical estimates, were nearly 10 times more likely than nonblack voters to have their ballots rejected.

Other votes were lost to long lines and polls inaccessible to disabled voters. Disparate state policies regarding ex-felon rights, and the effect on African Americans who are disproportionately represented in the penal system, became apparent. In 2000, all but two states denied prisoners the right to vote; 29 states prohibited individuals on probation; 32 states prohibited parolees; and 14 states prohibited some, if not all, ex-felons from voting. Those that permit re-enfranchisement often impose a morass of laws and procedures for doing so.

The Commission, after an extensive public investigation into allegations of voting irregularities, issued two reports documenting its findings and making recommendations applicable to Florida and the nation. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, the Commission urged Congress to: (1) consider its recommendations; and (2) legislatively articulate the duties of federal and state governments to promote the exercise of the right to vote. The Commission's comprehensive list of recommendations for federal election reform were designed specifically to protect the right to vote and have votes counted. The reports offered advice for holding officials more accountable and rendering systems that register voters and record their intent more procedurally sound. Key recommendations included developing national equipment and procedural standards, requiring provisional ballots, providing access for individuals with disabilities and limited English proficiency, reinstating voting rights for felons, and improving poll worker training and voter education.

Has President Bush Helped Repair Democracy?

When he took office, President Bush promised to unite the nation and to reform its election system. Almost two years passed before he did so by signing a national reform bill, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. Upon signing HAVA into law, President Bush said:

When problems arise in the administration of elections we have a responsibility to fix them. Every registered voter deserves to have confidence that the system is fair and elections are honest, that every vote is recorded, and that the rules are consistently applied.

Funding Delays

As noted in the preceding chapter, funding is an important part of presidential policymaking and also an indicator of government commitment to civil rights. However, prior to signing HAVA in October 2002, the administration had requested no money in its budget proposals for election reform. Worse, the President remained virtually silent about election reform when Congress became bogged down over the bill's provisions and did not demand swift resolution. HAVA promised $3.86 billion in federal aid to states for improving elections, set deadlines (most of which have been missed), and established standards for rendering voting equipment, registration lists, and general election administration apt. For example, the law required that, by January 2004, all states offer provisional ballots to voters, verify identities of first-time voters who register by mail, post voting information at polling places, and establish effective voter complaint procedures. Most states passed legislation to enable those actions but, because of delayed funding, still lack the supporting infrastructure, equipment, and momentum that implementation requires.

Infrastructure Problems

Much of the delay in HAVA implementation owes to the fact that an oversight board, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), responsible for the law's execution was seated 11 months behind schedule. The President made no public statements during this time to push Congress to act any faster. Beset by this and other problems, 41 states asked the federal government to waive the 2004 deadline for new equipment and statewide registration rolls, and 24 states requested extensions for equipment replacement. Now, most states are not required to make these reforms until 2006. Accessibility standards for individuals with disabilities must be in place by January 1, 2007.

Encouraged by the prospect of federal funding, some states purchased new technology. However, studies are proving that without appropriate safeguards and guidelines, some electronic systems can be rendered insecure and vulnerable to break-ins. Foremost, technology experts assert that voting equipment that does not offer printed proof of a vote leaves room to escape from accountability. In the 2000 elections, most Americans could not ascertain whether problems were more the fault of flawed equipment, missteps by poll workers and election officials, or a lack of voter education. Because EAC, and hence its technology panel, were seated late, national equipment standards were not developed in a timely manner, and states were not provided guidance as they purchased equipment.

Voter Intimidation

New evidence suggests that minority vote suppression continues to be a problem. For example, Native Americans have lodged complaints that they must brace themselves for registrars who mock their names as a form of intimidation. In 2002, poll watchers in the midterm Senate race in Arkansas photographed black voters as an intimidation tactic. A Texas prosecutor in this, an election year, threatened to arrest students at historically black Prairie View A&M if they tried to vote using campus addresses.

Thus, the potential is real for significant lingering problems that will continue to restrict the right to vote. Avoiding disenfranchisement requires effort and leadership by the Bush administration, particularly DOJ, which has authority to enforce HAVA and other voting rights law. The administration was passive; its failure to fight for reform funding during its first two years and absence of leadership in actions and public statements suggest indifference to its duty to protect voting rights and are counter to the President's own promise to do so. For laws are of no use if they do not secure rights of the people they were enacted to protect. History offers myriad examples of using equipment, people, and processes to manipulate elections and disenfranchise voters. If measured by the pace at which it enacted and funded HAVA, or is promoting implementation, the administration appears unmotivated by political pressure, sense of duty, morality, law, or personal agenda to ensure that America has robust, well-designed election systems to preserve the vote, the bedrock of the nation's democracy.


Originally posted to edverb on Sun Oct 10, 2004 at 01:20 PM PDT.

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