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Far too many voters were misled, mistreated and disenfranchised



When the nice little elderly lady at the polling place smiled beatifically and handed me an "I Voted" sticker on Election Day, I took it home and added "even though they tried to stop me" before slapping it on.

So, how was your voting experience? I realize that's a loaded question, and the answer depends heavily on where you live, how you voted, the spelling of your name, how long ago you moved and other factors. Here's mine. I presented my voter-registration card and yellow postcard indicating my southside polling location to the first poll worker. She barely glanced at these items as she asked me for a photo ID. I replied that I didn't need one.

She insisted that I did. I politely explained that the documents I presented were legally sufficient identification. Condescendingly, she said, "I have to see a photo ID. Otherwise, how are we going to know you're who you say you are?" I refused again.

Exasperated, she called over her supervisor, who in turn repeated the poll worker's assertion. I picked up the yellow card, showed her the identification requirements listed on the back, and asked her to read them. Finally, my documents were closely examined, after which the supervisor shrugged and said, "Well, I guess we'll accept that."

I closed my case rather firmly with, "You must accept that, because it's the law."

All of the poll workers told me they had been trained that a photo ID was required. I responded that this was very disconcerting, that people were being given false information that presents a significant barrier to voting. I explained that this happens virtually every time I vote, and that it clearly seems to be an institutional problem.

Toward the end of the line, in a voice just above a conspiratorial whisper, one poll worker said, "I agree with you." Then another chimed in: "You should call Brad Nelson," Pima County's elections director.

I said, "Believe me, I've called him before."

Maybe it was time to call again. Granted, I usually vote in high-minority districts, so maybe I should expect to be treated like a criminal at the polls (considering how our institutions treat such communities in general), but that doesn't make it right. The only time I was not challenged at the polls in recent elections was at a very pale and relatively high-income precinct near Campbell Avenue and Grant Road.

The woman who picked up the phone at the Elections Department insisted that the poll workers had been correct. After the usual back and forth, she transferred me up the chain to a woman who finally agreed that I was correct, apologized sincerely for the "misunderstanding" and offered to transfer me to someone who trains poll workers.

When I told the trainer what the poll workers had said, he became defensive and hostile: "They're lying through their teeth." Incredulous, I asked him if he really thought that a half-dozen civic-minded grannies would collectively lie to me about such a thing.

Then he recanted that accusation and implied that their advanced age had reduced their capacity to absorb or remember their training. When I balked at this, too, he tacked sideways: "Maybe they're remembering previous training." Somewhere in the middle of me asking, "When has it ever been legally required to show photo ID at the polls?" he hung up on me.

All of this would be laughable, and perhaps easily dismissed, if it hadn't occurred in a national context of millions of people finding a hassle at the polls, many of whom are effectively prevented from voting in an ongoing pattern that consistently correlates to race and income status.

In Arizona, the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of Latino voting-rights groups sent letters raising such concerns to Secretary of State Ken Bennett.

I crunched some numbers on our local election results and discovered a significantly higher incidence of provisional ballots (which tend to go uncounted at a higher rate) in high-minority districts, which is consistent with national trends.

I understand that Mr. Nelson must be very busy overseeing his biennial electoral disaster (and denying that there's a significant problem), but when the dust settles, he should very carefully examine his system to determine the nature of this problem and a way to fix it.

Beyond that, the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division should examine every one of these cases around the country and bring whatever actions are necessary to ensure that voting is a truly democratic institution, rather than a means of social control.

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