By Hannah Brandt
By November, the Valley’s scorching summer heat had finally given way to autumn’s leafy breezes. Wrapped in scarves and gloves, fortified with coffee, donuts and sandwiches from headquarters, my mother and I trekked around Fresno in her SUV. GPS at the ready, I ask, “What’s the next one?” She grabs her list. “4863 Tulare,” she says.
We were not engaged in some kind of hair-brained trial run for optimized Black Friday shopping but participating in a nonpartisan effort to ensure voting rights were protected in Fresno County for the Nov. 4 midterm election. Before participating, I sat down with the organizer, Aida Macedo, a lawyer and social justice advocate in Fresno.
Q: What is the Election Protection Project and why is it necessary in the Central Valley?
A: Election Protection is a national, nonpartisan coalition of pro bono lawyers and grassroots volunteers aimed at educating folks about their voting rights and ensuring that those rights are protected when people come to the polls on Election Day. The Fresno chapter was started from scratch by hard working local lawyers and other volunteers unlike in larger cities where it’s already set up.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., provides the local office materials and legal trainings and coordinates the national hotline where voters from around the nation can call in any issues. The hotline is manned by coalition partners.
Because we don’t have enough volunteers here in Fresno County, the San Francisco office answers calls about Central Valley. They then pass off urgent matters to the Fresno office. There were about a hundred calls from the Fresno area into Election Protection on Election Day in 2014. They were all resolved.
Macedo notes that “poll observers and electioneers are different. Electioneers aim to sway people’s opinion on issues. We’re poll observers not trying to persuade anyone on any issue on the ballots. We just initiate actions to ensure voters’ rights and that voters know those rights.”
Q: There have been widely reported concerns about voters’ rights being suppressed in the South and Southwest, but why would we need this here in California?
A: Although California laws do not require people to show a photo ID, voter ID laws in other states like Arizona and Texas affect voter turnout here. Especially people in the Spanish-speaking community often assume IDs are required here, too. People who are poor, disabled, elderly, or young often don’t have a photo ID and have a hard time getting one.
In 2012, Macedo said Election Protection saw some voter intimidation in the Fresno area. A poll worker told a Hmong voter, “You know who to vote for, right?” The organization reported it to the registrar of voters. That poll worker was removed.
In unincorporated Orange Cove we had a lot of issues. There were a lot of calls from Orange Cove into Election Protection’s hotline about concerns that police would be there. Some voters were being challenged to prove their identity. When people in the community hear about these incidents, even when the individual issue is resolved and the situation does not escalate, people in the community then feel intimidated to vote.
Some poll workers in 2012 were sitting too close to voters and sat with an intimidating posture. When district lines were redrawn in 2012, some ballots were printed incorrectly for a school district race. The error was corrected and new ballots were sent out, but many people had already mailed in their ballots.
Macedo stressed that even though some people don’t see these individual voting difficulties as civil rights issues, they do directly affect turnout.
Another problem is the overuse of provisional ballots. Those don’t count for local races, though they will still count for state races. Because local races tend to be closer, with lower numbers of overall votes, each vote is even more significant and they more directly affect voters. In 2012, Election Protection had some calls about provisional ballots and a general lack of education about policies. “There is a lot of misinformation in the community, which threatens to suppress voting. When it feels too complicated and people don’t know where to go for help, they won’t vote.”
Q: Describe your testimony surrounding voting rights.
A: In 2012, Macedo testified in front of the National Lawyer Rights Commission in San Francisco put on by lawyers’ committees and the state and national voting rights commission. They took testimonies about voting issues from all over the United States for a report presented to President Barack Obama. Fresno County was part of that report.
Section V of the 1965 Voting Rights Act states that any jurisdiction with a history of voter suppression has to get preclearance from the national voting rights commission before making any changes to state laws regarding voting. When the Supreme Court struck down that requirement in 2013, many state laws were immediately passed that voting and civil rights organizations decry as discriminatory. This voting rights commission report was a collective effort to show how vital the voting rights law is to protect voters from having their rights suppressed at the polls.
Q: What are your concerns and priorities for 2016? How can the public get involved?
A: Macedo wants to get more awareness of the voting rights commission report to local registrars. There isn’t a network of nonprofits in the Central Valley to use to get out the message about voter rights. She realizes the project needs to do a lot more work before the election rather than focus only on observing polls on Election Day.
The 2014 turnout was low, but a lot of issues could have been addressed ahead of time to make sure voters got to the polls and that their vote was counted. Macedo believes Election Protection needs more media exposure, forums and meetings with training materials. In 2012, she publicized it on the radio and did a press release. Macedo would like to build up the project with more volunteers to promote it. With more at stake in 2016, there are concerns about greater efforts to prevent certain groups from voting and getting to the polls.
In 2010, the Department of Justice was called in to investigate Fresno County for concerns of voter suppression due to complaints of lack of polling places. Fresno County, which has some of the lowest voter turnout in the state, was already under watch for this issue.
The diverse voters my mother and I encountered in 2014 were treated with respect and guided courteously. In addition to establishing more trust with poll workers, Election Protection is trying to work more with registrars of voters to prevent issues.
Macedo is also working to build a pro bono culture here. In bigger cities, there is more collaboration, but not yet in the Central Valley. Election Protection tries to be a bridge between community volunteers and the pro bono community. The project pairs an attorney with a non-attorney. Macedo and her team hope to expand that partnership in Fresno County beyond only voting rights to all civic rights. I know I speak for my mom when I say we are happy to have a small part in that.
For more information about Election Protection, visit www.866ourvote.org.
To read the National Commission on Voting Rights Report, visit votingrightstoday.org/ncvr/resources/California.
Hannah Brandt is a freelance journalist in Fresno. Contact her via Twitter @HannahBP2.