Monday, April 18, 2011

The lady doth protest too much

“They're going to bring in the Justice Department? I'm a housewife, for Pete's sake, who said there needs to be a certain standard, a threshold.

Voting is a privilege.”

That's how Christen Varley responded (as reported in the Worcester Telegram & Gazaette) when informed that the Town of Southbridge Town Manager had requested the assistance of the U.S. Justice Department in addressing what was seen as quite possibly a campaign of deliberate voter intimidation and suppression undertaken by her organization, Empower Massachusetts. Now there's maybe a couple of base assumptions built into Ms. Varley's comment that I'm going to have to argue with, the idea of voting as "privilege" for example, but first I've just got to challenge the lady on her supposed humility.

When I hear "I'm a housewife for Pete's sake" I'm just a little reminded of back in the day, watching Senator Sam Ervin tell everybody on the Watergate Committee that he chaired that he was "just an old country lawyer" —that in his slowly drawn, quaint and jowly North Carolina twang. The mock humility was endearing at first, but after a while it just wore thin as an affectation. Likewise with Ms. Varley's self effacing sense of her stature —as if "a housewife" shouldn't warrant the attention of the United States Justice Department —even if one of her hobbies was demographically targeted tactical voter suppression.

Christen is altogether too humble about her resumé. Last I heard around town here in Holliston, though I will admit I am not on their mailing list, she currently serves as the Chair of Holliston Republican Town Committee. She also serves as Treasurer and Executive Director of Empower Massachusetts —one of the groups behind the Southbridge controversy; she is also President of the Greater Boston Tea Party and Northeast Massachusetts Field Director of The Coalition for Marriage and Family. She's busy. I don't condemn Ms. Varley for being an activist. Not at all, I applaud it —even where I disagree with her pretty vehemently on certain issues. It's pretending she isn't one —that's where it gets to be too much.

If the U.S. Justice Department tries to investigate how Christen Varley handles her responsibilities as a housewife, I will join her in protesting the intrusion and intimidation. That is my solemn pledge. Meanwhile back in Southbridge, I do have a problem when people simply say there should be a standard demanding voter identification and set about pretending —because they say so— that it is so. Tea Party folks usually profess to be fans of the Constitution. That friendship apparently turns a bit fickle when it becomes expedient to regard the voting rights of certain rival demographics as —let's say— a privilege.

Take a look at the billboard advertisement Ms. Varley's group had placed in a poor Latino neighborhood in Southbridge just prior to a special primary election for the 6th Worcester District House seat. When challenged on the placement and the message and the motive of this little media buy, Ms. Varley responded (also reported in WT&G):

“I called the largest billboard company in America and asked for a billboard in Southbridge and they said they had one available, so I took it,” Ms. Varley said, adding that the allegation of intimidation was silly. “We're asking for the state of Massachusetts to consider an act in legislation that requires everybody who casts a ballot to produce an ID to show that they're in the right place at the right time and eligible. It has nothing to do with any ethnic background whatsoever.”

But take another look at the billboard. [I've posted a photo above] How do you read it? Is this a clearly stated message asking you to "consider an act in legislation" to put in place an ID requirement? Or is it a cryptic image vaguely intimating that the requirement already exists? Is it an honest appeal to activist citizens to lobby their legislators to enact a change to election law? Is there actually any advice offered to voters on how to ascertain "the right time and place" to vote? Or is the "message" on display deliberately vague disinformation aimed to confuse and to undermine get out the vote efforts in one targeted low income community —one that just happens to have an election going on?

The billboard is but one aspect of what the Southbridge Town Manager Christopher Clark has asked for Justice Department assistance in addressing. These "empowering" activists Ms. Varley hobbies with, supposedly bent on saving the state from the scourge of voter fraud, also chose the special election primary as a place to focus their voter monitoring efforts. This is their right of course, to monitor elections, to ascertain that election officials are observing every proper practice in assuring voters are properly registered and eligible. It is not the right of anyone, however, to harass voters based upon their ethnicity, their apparent socio-economic standing or their physical or intellectual abilities.

Southbridge Town Clerk Madaline Daoust told reporters after the primary had concluded that she had witnessed “unnecessary challenges” geared toward mentally challenged people and Hispanics. “Some people left saying, ‘I'll never vote again,' ” she complained. Retired Worcester Juvenile Court Judge Luis G. Perez also commented that he saw challengers especially targeting Latinos and spoke of citizens coming away from their voting experience shaken and in tears. When Varley was asked if this sort of reaction wasn't an intended result, or at least something of a bonus, she said of course not, though she did allow as how she found it "disturbing" to see people who she believed couldn't speak english showing up to vote at the polls and developmentally-challenged people “being dragged in" to vote.

In 1965 Congress passed and the President signed into law the Voting Rights Act. To my knowledge it is still the law of the land. Note, by the way, that it refers to "voting rights" not privileges. Among the rights put in place by that particular legislation was the right to ballot access for non-english speakers. As for the developmentally-challenged, in Massachusetts, citizens under legal guardianship retain their rights to register and to vote unless the guardianship under which they are placed expressly and specifically revokes such rights. I guess one could perceive such a person voting with another's assistance as "being dragged" there, while another might see them as simply being helped. I suppose it becomes a matter of interpretation.

Just like the message Ms. Varley and her cohorts intend for poor and Latino voters in Southbridge.

She will tell you that they have no intentions at all, that the only goal is to protect the integrity of each vote. Methinks that's where she doth protest too much. With all their efforts at the polls on primary day, what with nearly two dozen voters challenged and not a single one actually turned away as not eligible to vote, it's hard to see how their Southbridge campaign is supposed to be about nothing more than a problem they came away with no evidence of existing there in the first place. Still Ms. Varley promises she and her friends will be back "in force" on the day of the special election. She says they won't be intimidated.

Go figure.

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