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Take Back the Vote Campaign: Excerpts from Miami Workers Center's Report

By: 
Miami Workers Center
Date Published: 
February 01, 2005
    The faith of Miami-Dade County voters in the electoral system – especially within black communities ­­– has been shaken by a history of disenfranchisement.

While not the only means of civic engagement, voting is the most wide-scale and popular method of political participation. A critical piece of ensuring the broadest participation of voters is securing the public's confidence that every citizen can vote and that each vote is counted. Yet, almost 4 decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the silencing of votes continues.

The 2000 elections were overtly criminal. One out of three Florida black votes (26,000 votes) were thrown out. Florida's Secretary of State paid a private company $4 million to remove primarily black voters from the voting rolls. In Miami-Dade County, African Americans represent over 20% of the population and made up over 65% of those voters purged from the list. Miami Workers Center (MWC) identified the 2004 Elections as a historic opportunity to take a stand against the disenfranchisement of 2000 and the centuries of on-going harassment, intimidation and violence on basic democratic rights.

Furthermore, the stakes of the 2004 Elections were high. With war, the social safety net, and the economy hanging in the balance, the Center chose to make an impact in the elections as a concrete act of resistance and international solidarity.

The Take Back the Vote Campaign began in September 2004, calling for organizations and individuals in poor and disenfranchised communities to actively monitor and defend the right to vote through grassroots training, participation and action.

International observers

The campaign began with MWC engaging it's allies, MDERC (Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition) and the NAACP to pressure the Miami-Dade County Commissioners to introduce a resolution instructing the Elections Department to grant independent observers access to the polls for the Nov 2nd elections. As part of this process, we conducted research on the legal statutes concerning independent and international observers and determined that there were no legal roadblocks. On October 5th, the MWC, MDERC and NAACP submitted a report and testified before the Miami-Dade County Sub-Committee on Elections. The hearing effectively resulted in the Committee's adoption of a resolution for election observers.

MWC contacted independent observer organizations and urged them to submit letters requesting access to the County Commissioners and the Elections Department. Fair Elections of Global Exchange and Pax Christi submitted by mid-October. On October 19th the resolution on observers was introduced and debated by the Miami-Dade Board of Commissioners.

The Cuban Commissioners argued, "this is not a third world country, we don't need observers" and claimed that the proposed observer organizations "were the same ones who approved the referendum elections for Chavez in Venezuela." A traditionally Liberal Commissioner opposed the resolution, claiming "too many demands are being placed on the Elections Department, so that the solutions themselves are becoming problems."

The resolution on observers was defeated in a 6-6 tie split between the Latino and African American Commissioners, with the traditionally Liberal White Commissioner (and appointee to the Canvassing Board) voting against it. The following week, early voting began with reports of voter intimidation in Haitian precincts and discrepancies in resource allocation in low-income neighborhoods resulting in extremely long lines, deterring voters.

Leaders from the Haitian and African American Community spoke against the targeted intimidation and disenfranchisement of Haitians and African Americans during early voting. Members of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition exposed the history of the racist practice of "challenges." Fair Elections and Pax Christi Observers from Mexico, Haiti and Nicaragua testified to the US's lack of adherence to international standards and the need for a non-partisan presence inside the polls. Every major local news outlet and several ethnic media outlets covered the press conference including: BBC, New York Times, AP, Japanese, German and Argentinian media, KPFK, The Guardian (UK), Miami Herald, Sun Sentinel, El Nuevo Herald, Univision and Telemundo.

Moved by the success of the press conference, an impromptu delegation, including members of the press conference, paid a visit to the Mayor's office to demand access for the observers. The group seized a commitment from the head of the Elections Department that observer groups would be given select access. On Election Day, the Department tried to take back their word.

Election defense

MWC immediately staged a "press action" cornering the head of the Elections Department and securing a second commitment in front of the international press core. Finally, Fair Elections and Pax Christi were granted access to observe a select number of precincts in the county. Their efforts were coordinated in conjunction with Election Protection and MWC's own Election Defense teams.

The MWC decided to expose the racist acts of voter intimidation through "challenges" on the eve of the elections. Therefore, the MWC organized a press conference at the footsteps of County government to expose the abuses at early voting sites and to highlight the need for a non-partisan presence inside the polls.

From September 20th to October 4th MWC conducted door to door voter registration in Liberty City. We mobilized area churches with the local NAACP for a final voter registration drive the weekend before the voter registration deadline.

From October 4th to October 15th LIFFT outreached in Liberty City to recruit community members to the Election Defense Trainings. Our outreach efforts included phone banking for participation in the Take Back the Vote campaign, Election Defense Trainings, and reminders to vote, ncluding information on rides and legal hotlines for Election Day.

From October 21st to October 29th MWC prepared trainings for LIFFT leaders, ROCITS and members to conduct street outreach and theatre. The trainings focused on chanting, speechmaking and skit on the history of disenfranchisement.

From Monday, October 25th to Election Day the Election Defense Caravan canvassed the neighborhood and polls sites with music, theater, chanting and songs reaching thousands with the message "Don't just vote, ORGANIZE!"

The Election defense program began with the development of a training focusing on the history of disenfranchisement in the US with respect to class, race and gender; the current methods of disenfranchisement; and the basics in knowing and defending voting rights. We conducted two full day trainings with Low Income Families Fighting Together (LIFFT) and community members.

We researched, developed and distributed Know Your Rights materials in the trainings, in the neighborhoods and at the polls.

The materials informed voters of what was required to make their vote count as well as information on how to combat illegal disenfranchisement. During the trainings, we used role-plays to recreate the disenfranchisement practices of the 2000 elections and practiced defensive strategies. The MWC anticipated continuing the education campaign through November 1st and visiting voting polls on November 2nd. However after the first week of early voting, reports of Republican "challengers" intimidating and obstructing Haitian voters poured in.

Election Defense

Word spread about a potential Republican orchestrated strategy to "challenge" voters, in order to create backlogs, turn away voters and effectively suppress votes. As a result, MWC decided to implement a direct action and interventionist strategy on Election Day.

The MWC held briefings for our volunteer core and selected 70 precincts in African American and Haitian neighborhoods to monitor. Our grassroots Election Defense program coordinated with monitors and lawyers documenting election activity through the Election Protection program (People for the American Way and the NAACP).

On Election Day we assigned 8 teams to 10-12 precincts to monitor and intervene when necessary. Our Election Defense teams identified and reported any incidents at the polls to our communications center. Our communications center gave teams instructions on what course of action to pursue and communicated with our allies – Election Protection and Election Reform Coalition (MDERC) – to pressure the Elections Department to resolve the issue and to document the incidents for future legal action.

Our "Election Defense Warriors" were able to assist voters in challenging poll workers who were demanding multiple forms of ID; demanding curbside voting for the elderly and others; issues with change of address; and removal from the registration list because of felony convictions and citizenship status. In the case of poll-workers demanding multiple forms of ID, we were able to pressure the Elections Department to stop the practice immediately.

Through the Take Back the Vote Campaign we achieved many results. The following are the results of the Election Defense program:

    Prevented abuses and assisted voters by acting as Election Defense Warriors in 70 precincts

    Documented incidents of disenfranchisement or attempted disenfranchisement

    Observed 6 poll closings and reported observers to MDERC

    Identified and intervened to stop illegal practice of requiring multiple ID's at precincts

    Identified and intervened to get curbside voting for elderly and sick voters

    Built relationships with Election Protection, Count Every Vote, NAACP, Haitian community

    Trainings elevated consciousness of LIFFT and community members

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From the Take Back the Vote Campaign Report, by the Miami Workers Center. The MWC is a strategy and organizing center for low-income communities and low-wage workers in Miami-Dade County. The Center's mission is to work to end poverty and oppression.

For more information see www.miamiworkerscenter.org or contact [email protected].