Voting Rights 'Cradle' Rocks Again

In 1965, civil rights leaders marched on this Southern town to protest discrimination against black voters.

Thirty-seven years later, the "cradle of the voting rights movement" is being rocked by accusations from white voters who have been forced to testify before a legal panel of Democratic Party officials.

The hearings were launched by LaTosha Brown, who lost her bid for Alabama's District 67 State House of Representatives seat by 138 votes in a Democratic primary runoff against Yusuf Salaam.

Brown, who is African-American, held on to her base of liberal, black voters. But Salaam, who is both black and Muslim, attracted a large number of moderate to conservative white voters in the runoff.

"We won this race on hard work," said Salaam, who led a door-to-door campaign stressing racial and religious unity in the district.

Although Salaam is a Democrat, many of the district's Republican voters prefer his moderate views to what they consider Brown's "racially divisive" rhetoric.

But Brown claims the election was unfair.

"I certainly feel that there is an effort led in the white community to sabotage the campaign," she said.

Brown and her attorneys claim as many as 600 residents who voted Republican in the June 4th Democratic primary illegally "crossed over" to the Democratic ballot in the June 25th runoff.

While Alabama's GOP allows crossover voting, Democrats do not. And state law gives the parties authority to launch legal proceedings into voting impropriety.

A panel consisting of five members from Alabama's Democratic Executive Committee has been formed with full subpoena power.

Dozens of residents from predominantly white voting precincts have already been called to testify and were reportedly threatened with jail time if they failed to show up.

"There were elderly people there that were scared to death," said Selma resident Linda Harris. "'I won't ever vote again,' is what they were saying. And I told them, 'That's exactly what they want you to do.'"

Ann Chandler, another Selma resident, claims one of Brown's attorneys threatened to have her arrested after she told the panel she hadn't voted in the runoff.

"They told me I had voted," Chandler said. "I thought there for a minute they were going to send me to jail."

According to Chandler, the panel eventually discovered she had been mistaken for a voter with a similar name on Democratic records.

A local minister claims someone tried to serve him a subpoena during church.

The scope of the inquiry has been a public relations nightmare for Alabama's Democratic Party. But Brown insists she just wants justice.

"The law was broken and it made a difference in the outcome of this race," Brown said. "There is no question in my mind that, in fact, we won the election."

Many voters have admitted to crossing parties during the runoff, but insist they had no idea it was illegal.

Crossover voter Carl Boline said, "If they were so concerned about it, why not put up a poster that says, 'These are the rules of the Democratic Party. If you break these rules, you're subject to prosecution by a quasi-judicial body that will come and get you in the middle of the night like the Gestapo.'"

Brown and her attorneys say ignorance of the law is no excuse.

But Mark Story, the Republican nominee for the District 67 race, finds the situation ironic.

"Some of the same people that are [leading the investigation] fought hard for the right to vote in an unrestricted election, where they shouldn't feel intimidated to come to vote," Story said.

Nearly four decades after the march on Selma, race and politics remain intertwined. Only now, the struggle is not over the right to vote, but who can vote for whom.