While Democrats and Republicans are pining for the minority vote, securing that vote may be less about winning favor and more about whether minorities can get fair access to the polls in the first place.
In San Diego, minority voters face a multitude of challenges, from a lack of multi-lingual voting materials to state-controlled ballot restrictions, which, according to two ballot watchdog groups, are only the top layer of a much deeper national issue involving clandestine initiatives to suppress votes.
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Sept. 21 to write a letter to California's secretary of state recommending that voters be required to prove their citizenship at the polls. Several states already have a similar requirement in place. Arizona may soon join that group-on Nov. 2, voters there will decide whether proof of citizenship should be required to vote.
In San Diego, the voter-ID initiative received an audible "are you kidding me?" from voter-protection and civil-rights groups, who claim the rule would discourage minorities and low-income citizens from going to the polls. Whether the supervisors' proposal would make it past the state Legislature is questionable-legislators rejected a similar proposal in August.
San Diego already faces problems when it comes to voter access. In June, the San Diego County Registrar of Voters settled an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, after the DOJ charged that the county violated the federal Voting Rights Act by failing to provide adequate voting materials and translators for non-English-speaking citizens on Election Day. As part of the agreement, the Justice Department will be monitoring San Diego County polling stations on Nov. 2, according to a Justice Department press release.
Mike Workman, spokesperson for the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, said the county has responded to the Justice Department's demands by meeting with community groups, such as the Chicano Federation of San Diego County and the Council of the Philippine-American Organizations of San Diego, to recruit translators for Election Day.
So far, the county has met 92 percent of the new standards, Workman said, after increasing the number of precincts with translators from 500 to 693. Precincts with Vietnamese translators jumped from zero to 87, with a total of 111 translators. Responding to the charge that the county doesn't supply enough minority-language materials, Workman said the only case he could think of was one precinct where county workers decided they didn't need to put up Spanish-language posters.
The difference between intentional vote suppression and unintentional oversight is not always clear. According to the D.C.-based ballot-watch group Election Protection, the U.S. has had a history of vote suppression and voter intimidation since the Civil War, when poll taxes prevented low-income and black Americans from voting.
In September, the group-a coalition of the NAACP, People for the American Way, Mother Jones magazine and other civil rights groups-released a report chronicling voter suppression since Reconstruction, the period when the United States began healing physically and politically from the Civil War.
The report, titled "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today," claims government officials and private interest groups, largely Republican, have used a myriad of tactics to suppress votes, from directing voters to vacant or inaccurate polling stations to warning minority groups through mailers that police officers will be present to nab delinquent offenders. "This election is not worth going to jail," one mailer read, according to the report.
The report also mentions "ballot security" measures, such as the push for voter identification, as encroaching on voter rights. But whether these measures are intentionally meant to suppress votes remains arguable.
Supervisor Bill Horn, who's leading the initiative to require proof of citizenship at the polls, says that claims of racism are "hogwash."
"Voter IDs are especially important in California, given that so many people are not citizens," Horn said, "and there have been so many reports of voter fraud. It's time to once and for all settle this."
Erica Teasley Linnick, western regional council for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (legally a separate entity from the NAACP), refrained from calling voter-ID initiatives racist, but said they create more barriers to the voting booth for people, like Native Americans, who may not carry identification as part of their daily lives.
"There are a lot of voters, whether elderly, young, low-income or minority, who may not drive and don't have licenses," she said. "In California, IDs also cost money-they are expensive. What we are concerned about is the placement of any obstacles to voters. There are already laws to affirm you are who you say you are. Any block is similar to [the poll taxes]."
There have been no significant voter-fraud cases in San Diego that Horn can remember, but requiring voters to show ID, he said, will not only prevent fraud but will also expose would-be cons and, therefore, prove that voter fraud is a problem in San Diego County.
"I don't know if it is a problem or not," he said, "but what if the speed limit wasn't posted? How would you know if anyone was going over [it]?"
How voter-ID laws would be enforced or what constitutes proof of citizenship is uncertain. Horn said IDs are easy to acquire and include anything from a driver's license or transit card to a bank card or naturalization papers. But in responding to questions about whether fraudulent attempts should be dealt with on-site, Horn said only that fraudulent voters should be prosecuted.
For Horn it's simple: "You need to produce ID to rent a video," he said, "and you should also be required to show an ID for the most important right you have as an American, which is the right to vote."
Teasley Linnick said existing voter-suppression tactics are also an ad hoc practice at the precinct level, where poll worker incompetence and personal prejudice influence voters.
Workman said volunteers are not trained every year, but that their supervisors are trained and pass the knowledge down. "A lot of these volunteers do it over and over and over," he said. "It's not necessary to train them if they've been doing it for 15 years."
But Teasley Linnick doubts this claim holds true nationwide. Election Protection will have volunteers at polling stations across the country to keep an eye on poll workers, electronic voting machines and surreptitious vote suppressors.
"The bottom line," she said, "is voters should not take "no' for an answer."To become an Election Protection volunteer, visit www.electionprotection.org or call 866-OUR-VOTE. To volunteer as a poll worker or a translator for Election Day, visit www.sdvote.com or call 858-565-5800.