Head of NAACP Details Plans to Monitor Elections

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The NAACP says it will keep a close eye on the midterm elections in 10 states — Maryland, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. NAACP President Bruce Gordon talks with Farai Chideya about why these states will be monitored.


From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Midterm elections are coming up fast: Tuesday, November 7th. Now the NAACP says it will keep a close eye on the voting process in 10 states. Those are Maryland, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. Monitors will be sent to polling places, taking citizens complaints and notifying the Justice Department of any serious issues.

For more on why these states are being monitored, NAACP President Bruce Gordon joins us by phone from New York. Welcome and thanks.

Mr. BRUCE GORDON (President, NAACP): Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So why did you choose to do election monitoring, and why in these specific states?

Mr. GORDON: I think we have all observed over the past six, eight years that individual states have had very troublesome experiences when people have gone to the polls. And we've obviously recognized in both 2000 and 2004 that the presidential elections ultimately came down to one state, Florida in 2000, Ohio in 2004. And as we saw in both of those states, there were real issues around people voting and then getting those votes counted.

We want to be proactive this year at these very critical midterm elections and make certain that we don't have any incidents. Because we had incidents actually in the state of Maryland for the primaries that really prompted us to step out and be more proactive and prevent any abuses from taking place.

CHIDEYA: Let me just go into a couple of them.

Mr. GORDON: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Maryland. Tell me more about what happened in Maryland during the primaries.

Mr. GORDON: Well, in Maryland, we had polling places that didn't open on time. People were there to vote, the polling places were not open. Election officials assigned to those locations had not arrived. We actually had to file suit that very day in court to ensure that those polling places stayed open to compensate for their late opening.

We also have the infamous Diebold machines in Maryland. A number of those machines malfunctioned. The fact of the matter is, and this is the true testimony to why we should be concerned, the governor of Maryland is promoting or encouraging people to vote by absentee ballot because he does not believe that the traditional voting processes are reliable. Obviously, you know, that the governor is a Republican. The Democratic county executive in Montgomery County is also encouraging people to vote by absentee ballot.

My point in pointing out their political affiliations is to say on both sides of the political spectrum concerns are being raised by the highest-ranking people at the state and county level about the reliability of the voting process. And for that reason, we think we need to be on site. We need to be available to people who encounter any kind of Election Day problems so that we can address them and ensure that the turnout is good and that votes get counted.

CHIDEYA: Before I move on, I want to talk about Ohio. But regarding Maryland, if both Democrats and Republicans agree that the machines are flawed, why don't they just pass a law and requisition some money and change the machines?

Mr. GORDON: That's too good a question. And unfortunately, there's not a good enough answer yet. I corresponded with the governor. I had conversations with him last week. He clearly is concerned about the reliability of the process. But frankly it's caught up I think in some political gamesmanship. There are representatives on the State Election Commission from both parties. The chair happens to be a Democrat. The governor is a Republican. There are debates about who's really in charge, who's trying to fix what.

So I think that getting the election process, the voting process streamlined and made more reliable is being compromised by some political infighting. And at this point in time we're down to a few weeks before November 7th, and that's too close a timeframe to make any major overhauls. And as a result of that, we're going to have to accept the processes that are currently in place and just make sure that they work right.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of major overhauls and deadlines, in Ohio during the 2004 election there were a lot of complaints about long lines in certain neighborhoods and short lines in other ones based on race and class. Your process of election monitoring will not in and of itself allow people to face shorter lines, will it? Or will you be able to turn things around, for example, on a day?

Mr. GORDON: We've been in the state of Ohio, as have some of our colleague organizations like the People for the American Way and the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights, working on a local level trying to do what we can to ensure that adequate voting machines are placed in critical locations. Having said that, once again we have no assurance that that will be that case. So the best that we can do at this point in time is once again to be on site to monitor what's happening, to take reports, to document the experiences, to take legal action if legal action is required, and then on that day do everything in our power to make sure the people vote and have their votes counted.

But beyond that, in anticipation of the presidential elections in 2008, we have - that gives us two years to really take corrective actions in terms of the processes themselves. And you can be assured that we will use those two years productively.

CHIDEYA: Tell us more about exactly how this works. You sign up some volunteers and then they do what?

Mr. GORDON: It works in a couple of ways. One, we put people on the ground. So we have people on site at the critical voting locations. Secondly, we have an operation center that is staffed by lawyers, voting process experts and the like. Just to give you a quick example, in Maryland, Marvin Cheatham, who is the president of the Baltimore City Branch for 15 years, served as the head of the voting commission in Baltimore City. So we have some professionals who really have expertise.

The way this works is that our people on the ground, if they observe any kind of problems, voters themselves can call in to 1-866-OUR-VOTE and report problems. We then will activate our legal staff and our voting process experts to interface with the state attorney generals to make sure that they get out and correct the problems immediately.

As was the case in Maryland, we acted so quickly on primary day that we changed the hours; because they opened late, we got them to close late. What we want people to do is we don't want them to give up. We don't want them to encounter a long line, get discouraged and walk away. And if I could say one other thing about this, Farai, and that is I will bet you, despite our best efforts there will be those who have to stand in line or encounter some problem.

And I will simply say to the people who experience that that they should keep in mind that some people lost their lives for the right to vote. And if it means that they've got to stand in line longer than they would like to, they've got to make that sacrifice. They've got to cast their votes.

CHIDEYA: Do you believe your efforts are helping people of other races and ethnicities?

Mr. GORDON: Yes, I do. And at the end of the day - let's be clear, this country as a democracy is founded, among other things, on expressing your democratic obligation through the vote. This country has gone to war in other countries to fight for the right to vote. Our mission as a nonpartisan organization is to increase voter participation. We have spent time this year getting people registered. Now it's time to get the people who are registered to vote.

We want all people to vote. We might end up getting people who have a different set of values than we have to participate in the voting process. If that's the case, so be it. But I believe, broadly speaking, that we advantage our community and our country by maximizing participation in the lection process.

CHIDEYA: Have you had a chance to catch up with President Bush after he made a highly publicized visit to your last convention? And have you been able to talk to him about these issues?

Mr. GORDON: We've exchanged letters. I've talked to members of his staff. Candidly, I've not had a direct conversation with him on voter participation of late. But I have talked with the attorney general, I've talked with a number of people in the administration to make sure that they understand just how much of a value we place on the voting process and how important it is to us, and I think to them, that America and Americans have no question about the integrity of the election process.

CHIDEYA: And finally, the midterm elections on November 7th are very significant for the two largest groups of color in this country: African-Americans and Latinos. There's immigration issues on the table. There are six black candidates running for either governor or senator. Are you concerned about criticism that the NAACP could be playing partisan politics with the monitoring plan?

Mr. GORDON: We will always be accused of playing partisan politics. Unfortunately, our detractors will look for every opportunity to discredit us. The fact of the matter is we are all about maximizing registration and participation. And we take positions of issues. One of the states we didn't talk about is Michigan.

In Michigan, there's an affirmative action initiative on the ballot. It's Proposal Two, which would eliminate affirmative action in the state of Michigan. Ward Connerly has been the champion of that proposal; he succeeded with it in California and Washington, failed in Florida. It is a dangerous proposal. It works against communities of color. So in that particular case we have a very clear position.

Our position in Michigan goes beyond participation; our position in Michigan says vote no on Proposal Two. That's not partisan, that's simply is a vote that totally consistent with our value systems. So we are value-driven voter participation people. And anybody who wants to, as a candidate, support our values, is someone who deserves our vote. So that's the way we come at it. Will some criticize us as - or accuse us of being partisan? Of course. But those are just people who are partisan themselves and are looking for ways to discredit their opponents.

CHIDEYA: Have you reached out to the Latino community at all?

Mr. GORDON: We work very closely with the Latino community. Their issues in many cases are our issues. I think that there are some in America who would like our communities to be at odds with one another, would like to see us fight for, what I call, the crumbs beneath the table.

The fact of the matter is I think we have more in common than we have in difference, and yes we do have a very strong alliance with our sister organizations in the Latino community.

CHIDEYA: Well, we'll be looking ahead to see how you do this time on the election monitoring and what lies ahead on the march to 2008.

Mr. GORDON: Farai, thanks so much and I would hope that between now and November 7th, every day you will encourage your listeners to get out on November 7th and cast their votes.

CHIDEYA: NAACP President Bruce Gordon, thank you very much.

Mr. GORDON: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, an Alabama school board wants to end a desegregation order. And some folks might say stop smoking snitching. A city law allows witnesses to call 911 on those who light up. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable next.

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