Schumer's Identity Politics

Civil Rights Advocates Fight Compromise on Election Reform

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

The bill sailed through the House, offering $3.5 billion in federal grants and matching funds for states to buy new voting equipment, adopt new standards, train poll workers, pay them more, and centralize registration rolls.

All that was now at stake. Hopes of employing any of the bill's provisions for the 2002 election were scant, if not impossible. For the Democratic co-authors, the atmosphere was getting desperate. They called a meeting with national civil rights groups to discuss dropping Schumer's amendment and moving forward before it was too late.

Schumer in the headlights: pedal to the meddle in signature amendment feud
Schumer in the headlights: pedal to the meddle in signature amendment feud

Disappointed, the advocacy groups refused to grant their blessing. "The bill was supposed to enfranchise citizens, not disenfranchise them," says Adam Lioz, who represented USPIRG at the meeting. "It was too divisive. All of a sudden, everything was totally off track."

Later that night, Schumer made his decision. The bill, in its entirety, was "more important than any specific provision."

He withdrew his amendment.

Then, to satiate the civil rights crowd, he came up with his compromise amendment under which provisional, or affidavit, voting would cover those who don't have ID. But that solution, activists say, will only create more problems.

"Paper—inherently—is bad," says Rosenstein. "For voters unfamiliar with the process, provisional ballots can be difficult to fill out. They also create discrepancies of voter intent. A poll worker might be asked to decipher, 'Is that a circle or a check?' " Inevitably, he adds, a paper trail will lead to longer vote counts, which open the process to more tampering.

Should Schumer have withdrawn his amendment in the first place? Politically, some activists admit, he had little choice. Others say he should have spent more time on his bicycle.

"Incumbents, in general, hesitate toward making election reforms," says Rosenstein, and politicians of both parties don't fiddle too much with the rules they were elected under. But now in the Senate, he says, they have a last-minute chance to reconsider.

"Would you rather have an open system where voting fraud remains a possibility," he asks, "or an established practice that will discourage countless numbers of new voters?"

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