My last column dealt with voter suppression in the form of state action – laws restricting voter registration, hours of voting, ID requirements and the like – which are strikingly similar to the kinds of laws that used to shrink the electorate in the late 19th and early 20th century. That was a period of time which Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar characterised as one of four main periods of shifting dominant attitudes in his book published in 2000, The Right To Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in America.
Twelve years later, Keyssar sees clear signs that we’re moving away from the fourth period in his book, the period in which voting rights were dramatically expanded by the Civil Rights Movement and its impact on society. There’s now a broad consensus that groups of citizens should not be prevented from voting, with rare exceptions, such as ex-felons.
While few (outside the Tea Party) will speak outright against that consensus, Keyssar noted, it’s becoming increasingly common to undermine those rights more subtly by procedural means, much as was done throughout the North during that earlier era.
“The distinction between voter suppression and voter disfranchisement is that disfranchisement is what you do when you can actually pass laws that will keep a particular group from voting,” Keyssar told me.
“Voter suppression is what you do when you really would like to do that, but politically, you can’t disfranchise, but you can put obstacles in the way, and thus reduce the participation of particular groups.”
But state action is only one way that voter-suppression is accomplished. Theoretically, it’s easily the most effective, since millions of people can lose their rights at the stroke of a pen. However, when you have to be careful about people seeing what you’re up to, other means become attractive as well.
Approach to voter suppression
That’s why today’s GOP and conservatives aligned with it have adopted a three-pronged approach to voter suppression, and the exact mixture of these three approaches varies significantly from state to state, depending on state-level political realities.
In addition to state action, the two other prongs are a mix of old and new. The old prong is official and quasi-official Republican Party activism, the new prong comes out of the Tea Party, spearheaded by the Houston-based group, True The Vote.
With its intensive focus on minority voters, it’s yet another facet of how unacknowledged racism infuses the Tea Party movement. But that racial focus has been central to GOP voter suppression, too, dating back to the late 1950s. Let’s consider each of these two prongs in turn.
GOP activism has often been a mix of high-profile accusations and dirty tricks below the radar. This has been a matter of necessity: accusations of voter fraud rouse public anger, but have no substance, so the actual activities away from press conferences, generally involve intimidating voters, or otherwise blocking them from voting – not exactly what you want to be known for.
The template for this came out of Arizona in late 1950s and early 60s, when future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was part of an operation to intimidate Hispanic voters at the polls. As Joe Conason recalled, writing for Salon in 2004, Former Assistant US Attorney James Brosnahan testified against Rehnquist’s elevation to chief justice in 1986.
“The complaints we received alleged in various forms that the Republican challengers were aggressively challenging many voters without having a basis for that challenge,” Brosnahan said.
“Based on my interviews with others, polling officials, and my fellow assistant US attorneys, it was my opinion in 1962 that the challenging effort was designed to reduce the number of black and Hispanic voters by confrontation and intimidation.”
He also had direct, personal contact with Rehnquist in a polling place, as he went on to describe:
“When we arrived, the situation was tense. At that precinct I saw William Rehnquist, who was serving as the only Republican challenger. The FBI agent and I both showed our identifications to those concerned, including Mr Rehnquist… The complaints did involve Mr Rehnquist’s conduct. Our arrival and the showing of our identifications had a quieting effect on the situation and after interviewing several witnesses, we left. Criminal prosecution was declined as a matter of prosecutorial discretion.”
Rehnquist denied Brosnahan’s accusations, but former Nixon White House lawyer John Dean concluded that Rehnquist was probably lying in his 2001 book, The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court.
More importantly, while specific details might be debatable, what’s undeniable is that the programme existed, it targeted minorities, and Rehnquist was part of it. Moreover, when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater ran for President two years later, the programme went national, under the rubric, “Operation Eagle Eye”. Similar activities, with varying degrees of intensity, have continued ever since.
Registering the forgotten Americans
The most long-standing method these activities have relied on what is called “caging”, the process of generating suspect list by sending non-forwardable mail to registered voters. Naturally, the number of suspects due to inexact address matches and other glitches vastly overwhelms everything else. But it provides cover for all sorts of intimidating mischief and false allegations.
This history is documented in studies such as “Caging Democracy: A 50-Year History of Partisan Challenges to Minority Voters” a report authored by Teresa James, JD, for Project Vote in 2007, and “Vote Caging as a Republican Ballot Security Technique“, by Chandler Davidson, Tanya Dunlap, Gale Kenny, and Benjamin Wise, published in the William Mitchell Law Review in 2008.
In her report, James notes, “[S]tate Republican party entities defend caging operations as necessary ballot security measures. At least one federal court disagrees. The RNC is bound by a US District Court consent decree ordering it to obtain court approval before it engages in any type of ballot security program. Yet, Republican-led caging operations continue unabated.”
More precisely, because the RNC is formally prohibited, state parties, outside contractors and the Republican National Lawyers Association have taken up the slack.
Since at least 2004, another major wrinkle has been added by another Arizona Republican, former state party chair Nathan Sproul, whose frequently renamed consulting firm has repeatedly been reported for voter registration violations, both rejecting and secretly destroying Democratic registrations, or simply entering false information, such as changing addresses, so that voters are no longer registered in their home precincts, and don’t know if they’re registered at all.
“Rather than sending direct mail, True The Vote seeks lists from whatever source it can find to check against voter rolls, and has its own buggy software seemingly designed specifically to generate as many false positives as possible.”
I wrote about Sproul’s activities in multiple states at the time, drawing on local media reports, such as this one from a Las Vegas TV station. The activity reported on was clearly illegal – and was reported to the FBI – yet once again, prosecution was declined… and the illegal voter suppression continued as a result.
A recent wave of stories this year has been virtual carbon copies of the local stories I tracked in 2004, yet top Republicans acted “Shocked! Shocked!” in the words of Rick from Casablanca, to discover voter suppression going on in their midst.
RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer probably did it best. He was quoted in an NBC video report saying, “We, at this point, have an allegation. That mere allegation has caused us to act – act swiftly and boldly – and sever our ties with this firm because we have a zero tolerance [policy] when it comes to this. The other side clearly engaged for a long time in inappropriate behaviour.”
This was bald-faced attempt to turn the tables on Democrats had it exactly backwards, as progressive writer and radio host David Waldman tweeted, “Nathan Sproul actually is everything Republicans swore ACORN was”. And he’s 100 per cent correct.
Sproul ran a GOP-funded dirty tricks operation, intended to interfere with the electoral process, by preventing Democrats from registering to vote. ACORN was an independent organisation which had scattered incidents of contract workers trying to scam them with phony registrations – none of which had any impact on anyone voting.
But it’s also the case that ACORN was everything that True The Vote imagines itself to be. ACORN’s work in registering the forgotten Americans, including everyone in the democratic process is precisely what a patriotic, election-protecting organisation ought to be doing to ensure that America’s democratic promise is fulfilled. But that’s the last thing True The Vote is interested in.
True The Vote and voter fraud
Like the larger Tea Party movement it sprang from, True The Vote sees itself representing “real Americans” presumably against not-so-real Americans and downright anti-Americans. And it knows just where to find them, starting with the heavily black and Hispanic precincts of Houston, Texas, where True The Vote, founded by Catherine Engelbrecht, was born out of a 2009 “ballot integrity” action that outraged the communities it was directed at, and delighted the almost all-white Tea Party base.
The next year, it was back again for the 2010 mid-terms, already working with other Tea Party groups in other states.
An October 5 story by Rachel Slajda at Talking Points Memo captured the salient details, starting with its headline, “In Texas’ Biggest County, A Minority Registration Drive Is Crippled By Fraud Allegations“. True the Vote alleged massive registration fraud:
“Vacant lots had several voters registered on them. An eight-bed halfway house had more than 40 voters registered at its address,” Engelbrecht said.
In the end, she claimed, she found thousands of fraudulent registrations, all of them stemming from a low-income civic participation group called Houston Votes.
The county’s Republican voter registrar, Leo Vasquez, jumped on the allegations, holding a press conference on August 24 and accusing Houston Votes of conducting “an organised and systemic attack” on the county’s voter rolls.
But it wasn’t true.
The vacant lots, for example, had not been vacant in 2008 and 2009, when voters were registered there, well before Houston Votes was formed. True The Vote didn’t stop any voter fraud in Houston, because there wasn’t any demonstrable fraud to find.
But it did prevent thousands of legitimate voters from being registered, as Slajda reported in the last line of her story: “Houston Votes is still operating – but now registering just 200 people a day, instead of some 1,000 before any allegations were made.”
| Inside Story: US 2012 – Will new voter ID laws
affect US 2012 result?
Preventing thousands of Americans from voting. How patriotic can you get?
What True The Vote has been doing is like caging on steroids. Rather than sending direct mail, it seeks lists from whatever source it can find to check against voter rolls, and has its own buggy software seemingly designed specifically to generate as many false positives as possible.
It doesn’t recognise slight variants in spelling – doesn’t even accept “St” for “Street” – and, as Jane Mayer wrote in the New Yorker, “The software… is used to flag certain households, including those with six or more registered voters. This approach inevitably pinpoints many lower-income residents, students, and extended families.”
Taken all together, it’s a mish-mash of sloppy methods custom made for generating baseless outrage – helped along by wild-eyed accusations, and doctored photos.
As Slajda reports, Engelbrecht has falsely identified Houston Votes with the New Black Panthers, and the website of King Street Patriots, the Tea Party group she heads that launched True The Vote, once boasted a photoshopped video of a black woman holding a sign saying, “I Only Got to Vote Once”. As detailed here, the actual sign – from a 2000 Gore rally, read “Don’t Mess With Our Vote”.
What’s so striking is not just the pervasive dishonesty behind this, but the sheer stupidity. Who honestly believes that anyone, black or white, would make such a sign in the first place? Only someone with bottomless contempt for those they are attacking.
Counter-message to fight the racist myth
So it’s not the least bit surprising that a speaker at a True The Vote state summit in Colorado Springs told the crowd, “Your opposition are cartoon characters. They are. They are fun to beat up. They are fun to humiliate”.
Yet, these vile antics – and massive funding from wealthy right-wingers – have only helped speed True The Vote’s growth, as affiliate organisations have sprung up in states all over the place, often working with Republican legislators and election officials.
Their goal for this cycle is to recruit million-person army of polling station volunteers to purportedly monitor election fraud. “We may surpass a million volunteers or fall short, it will be hard to know,” said Engelbrecht. “But we’re very excited about the level of enthusiasm.”
But everywhere they go, they keep making the same sort of mess. The pattern has been so pervasive that on October 5, Rep Elijah E Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, announced an investigation into the group’s “horrendous record” of filing inaccurate voter registration challenges across the country, including a letter with a document request for Engelbrecht.
“Multiple reviews by state and local government officials have documented voter registration challenges submitted by your volunteers based on insufficient evidence, outdated or inaccurate data, and faulty software and database capabilities,” Cummings wrote.
“Across multiple states, government officials of both political parties have criticised your methods and work product for their lack of accuracy and reliability. Your tactics have been so problematic that even Ohio Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has condemned them as potentially illegal, stating: ‘When you cry wolf, and there’s no wolf, you undermine your credibility, and you have unjustly inconvenienced a legally registered voter, and that can border on voter intimidation’.”
The irony is, Husted was originally supposed to be a featured speaker at True The Vote’s Ohio State Summit in August. He only pulled out at the last moment, due to sudden negative publicity.
More recently, it was announced that voter suppression billboards in Ohio were coming down – though it’s still unknown who paid for them. What this shows is that fighting back against voter suppression works. But it’s hard work, on multiple fronts and the US media can’t be counted on to get any of the facts right.
What’s needed is a unified counter-message to fight the racist myth of minority voter fraud. And it needs to echo in every corner of every state in America. Even on King Street. Especially on King Street.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.