Robert Magee, Staff Writer, RMagee@albanylaw.edu
It was fitting that Corey Ellis, the often-described-as-“up and coming” representative of Albany’s third ward, was the one to open the Election 2008 Symposium. Mr. Ellis is a bit of everything symposium organizers were looking for in speakers. Born in the Arbor Hill neighborhood of Albany, the Corey left the city after earning his associates degree at Hudson Valley Community College to attend Fordham University where he earned his political science degree.
In an election in which both Republican and Democrats are attempting to don the mantel of change, Ellis bears the undeniable air of an insurgent. In winning his seat on city council in November of 2005, Ellis unseated a 12-year Democratic incumbent while running on the Working Families Party line. A committed community organizer, Corey has been instrumental in bringing the people of Albany’s Third Ward into city government, spearheading the local Obama campaign, and working closely with D.A. David Soares to bring Albany out of decades’ old political malaise. He continues to work with Soares on the Community Accountability Board at the District Attorney’s office and is the commissioner of the Arbor Hill Little League.
Ellis was enlisted to discuss changing voting patterns and how they are going to effect the outcome of the election this coming Tuesday.1 Ellis insisted that if you are to address the issue at its core, you have to look at voter registration, turn out and suppression. In this election we have seen a marked increase in the number of people registering to vote2 and significant efforts to suppress their actual voting.3 In many cases we are seeing the same conditions we saw in 2000, when Al Gore and Bush maintained zealous voter registration drives in 2000 and this was accompanied by greater than normal suppression.4 This would seem to indicate, Ellis suggested, that the impetus to vote among voters and the impetus to suppress it are directly related.
If they are related, however, it would be the sort of relationship a shadow bears towards its object, continually stalking it, ignored and undaunted. The Voting Rights Act of 19655 was passed to address it and put it to bed, but its passage when examined against the current instances of voter suppression evidences the ingrained propensity to suppress the right vote in the system as it stands. As Ellis points out, the Fifteen Amendment ratified in 1870 states explicitly that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”6 Further, Voting Rights Act advocates continue to fight for its place on the books.7 Why, Ellis asked, do we have to fight to get these things passed? The implied answer was that local party bosses will always use election processes to gain an edge in an election and that insodoing they would act directly against the right of people to vote.
One of the lessons of the new election cycle, Ellis stressed, was the extent to which the country is repeating the 2000 cycle. Again we have a uniquely important election, again we’ll be voting on dubious machines8, suppression, record registration. Without people stepping forward, both voters and officials alike, the nation runs the risk of another Bush v. Gore9 situation.
However, Ellis went one, a long term solution to the problem of voter suppression must address its ultimate source and its ultimate source doesn’t lie in national campaigns, but in local election boards.10 States, after all, have the right to choose how people vote and what the system is.11 If we’re to really prevent voter suppression, Corey argues, we need the federal government to take over local elections because no matter which side is control that side will look for an edge.12
The quelling of a suppression effort in Albany County should prove instructive, for those seeking to ensure that the right to vote is protected in the current election. Ellis recounted the story of young man who was running for Albany County Legislature against the Democratic incumbent. Albany County being firmly under the thumb of the Democratic Party, the Albany County Board of Elections found that SUNY Albany college students, who could have tipped the election in his favor, couldn’t register to vote in Albany County because they had PO Box numbers. This prevented them, claimed the Board, from being able to get the information on how and where to vote. The young man and his campaign made a fuss the board reversed its decision, claiming that it reason for doing so was an assurance from SUNY Albany authorities that such information would get to student. and cldnt get information to students.13 Though the candidate in this case didn’t go on to win the election, it was an important was an important victory for voters rights, and a hopeful tale for those seeking to assert them in future.
It was perplexing, Ellis said, that in all his work in elections, community organization and general activism, the hardest thing to do hasn’t been organizing drives, creating coalitions, or educating the public. The hardest thing he’s had to do in public life is to ensure that voters are able to exercise their right to vote on Election Day. From initial battles against the misperception some people have that they are not allowed to vote because of their criminal history to Election Day purges14 and voting booth mishaps, protecting peoples’ right to vote, Ellis asserted, requires vigilance, tenacity, courage and hard work. In short, Ellis concluded: we have a long way to go before the right to vote is truly respected as an inalienable, but until we can convince local parties to forgo seeking an edge in a given election or invoke substantive federal regulation, we need to continue vote, raise suppression issues, and register voters. In other words, we need to keep fighting as we have and hope for a paradigm shift.
1 See John Harwood, Obama Breaking Voting Patterns, McCain has Weak Showing, CNBC, Feb. 13, 2008.
3 Editorial, Sorry I Can’t Find Your Name, N.Y. TIMES, Oct. 22, 2008, at A36.
4 See John Copeland Nagle, Voter’s Intent and it’s Discontents, 19 Const. Comment. 483 (2003) reviewing, Abner Green, Understanding the 2000 Election: A Guide to the Legal Battles that Decided the Presidency (2001).
5 Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-110, 79 Stat. 437 (current version 42 U.S.C. §§ 1971, 1973-1973gg-8).
6 U.S. Const, amend XV. It should also be noted, in defense of the Voting Rights Act’s propriety, that the rest of the amendment reads: “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
7 Carl Hulse, Rebellion Stalls Extension of the Voting Rights Act, N.Y. Times, June 22, 2006, at A23.
8 Geoff Ripps, Counted Out?, Texas Observer, Oct. 3, 2008, at 3.
9 531 U.S. 98 (2000).
10 Gregory C. Schaecher, Pennsylvania’s Nonvoting Purge Law and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965: Oritz v. City of Philadelphia Office of the City Commissioners Voter Registration Division, 28 Creighton L. Rev. 1337, 1340 (1995) (discussing a suit in which purged voters challenged local purging practices in Philadelphia).
11 See ie. U.S. Const. art. III, § 1.
12 Note, Toward a Greater State Role in Election Administration, 118 Harv. L. Rev. 2314, 2323-26 (2005) (discussing the effects of the interplay between state administration, and federal regulation of elections); Roderick M. Hills, Jr., is Federalism Good for Localism? The Localist Case for Federal Regimes, 21 J. L. & Pol. 187 (2005) (finding that reduction in majority control to be a potential benefit of federal control of state electoral processes).
13 See Dan Fitzsimmons, Editorial, Showboat or Die, Albany Student Press, Nov. 6, 2007.
14 Ellis lamented here that New York lacks a uniform voter purging statute. Instead, voter purges are made at the discretion of a local election Board, which may forever reason deem a class of voters to have registered improperly. For a general discussion of voter purges, see Myrna Pérez, The Brennan Center, Voter Purges (2008).