Democratic activist Donna Brazile, a Jackson worker and Albert Gore’s campaign manager in 2000, said “There were all sorts of groups out there doing voter registration. Some time after the ’86 election, massive purging started taking place. It was a wicked practice that took place all over the country, especially in the deep South. Democrats retook the Senate in 1986, and [Republican] groups went on a rampage on the premise they were cleaning up the rolls. The campaign then was targeted toward African-Americans.” As in the past, Republicans justified the purges in the name of preventing the unregistered from voting. But Democrats charged vote suppression.
The Republicans’ perceived problems arising from too heavy a reliance on volunteers began to be addressed with a different strategy in the mid-1980s. From Operation Eagle Eye onward, the major Republican ballot security programs had borne the imprimatur of the party high command, overseen by the RNC and implemented at the grassroots by local organizations and commercial political operatives. In the mid-1980s, the situation began to change. GOP ballot-security skulduggery in the city of Newark and environs had led to a consent decree in 1982 presided over by a federal judge in New Jersey, according to which the RNC promised to forego minority vote suppression.19 In 1985, several months before the RNC was hauled back before the same judge as a result of illegal purging efforts in a 1986 Louisiana senatorial campaign and agreed to submit all future ballot security programs it oversaw to the court for its inspection, a new organization was created—the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA).
A group of lawyers who had worked on the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1984 were behind its founding, and it was designed “to be a sort of Rotary Club for GOP stalwarts,” according to a contemporary article in Legal Times magazine. The RNC helped the association get off the ground with a $5,000 loan, although today the RNC claims no official connection with it. By 1987 the RNLA had active chapters in several states and the District of Columbia, and planned to hold its first annual convention early the following year. A lure for attendees, the planners hoped, would be continuing legal education credits and a possible appearance by Attorney General Edwin Meese III and President Reagan.20
The RNLA turned out to be much more than a Rotary Club for GOP lawyers, however; it became the predominant Republican organization coordinating ballot security. By its own account, in early 2004 it had grown to “a 1,900-member organization of lawyers and law students in all 50 states.”21 Its officers were experienced lawyers who knew their way around Washington as a result of having served in Republican administrations at the national and state levels and in major K Street firms. Michael Thielen, its current executive director, who earlier worked for the RNC, describes the organization as follows: Since 1985 the RNLA has nurtured and advanced lawyer involvement in public affairs generally and the Republican Party in particular. It is accurately described as a combination of a professional bar association, politically involved law firm and educational institute. . . . With members now in government, party general counsel positions, law firm management and on law school faculties, the RNLA has for many years been the principal national organization through which lawyers serve the Republican Party and its candidates.22
Its prestige in Republican party circles undoubtedly got a boost from its involvement in the Florida ballot recount battles of November-December 2000, when, according to one of its members, Eric Buermann, the RNLA was “extremely helpful . . . by sending lawyers to Florida to work on the recount, providing expertise as needed, and coordinating volunteer lawyer response.” It was this helpfulness which apparently led Buermann, the state’s Republican Party general counsel, to coordinate a collaboration between the RNLA and Florida legal response teams in 2002, so that, in the words of anRNLA newsletter that year, “there will be a permanent structure in place to keep the lawyers active and organized during off-election years.”23
Actually, the collaboration was even broader, involving the National Republican Campaign Committee and the RNC as well.24 The Democrats, on the other hand, also were developing a large network of lawyers that year—10,000, by one estimate—to counter vote suppression efforts. The nationwide deployment of thousands of lawyers in both parties led one journalist to predict “a new era in US politics after the Florida debacle two years ago—the age of the lawyers.”25
Executive Director Thielen gives this account of the organization’s involvement in the 2000 recount: “After election day, RNLA members were dispatched by party organizations and campaigns to multiple locations within several states. When it became clear that the final result in Florida would determine the outcome of the presidential election, members were concentrated there.” Thielen adds, “had it not been for the preeminent litigators retained by the campaign entities and the volunteer attorneys who spent weeks defending the intent of voters before canvassing boards, the will of thenation’s voters would surely have been thwarted.”26
Underlining the organization’s enhanced status among Republicans, White House counsel Albert Gonzales told the group, “You know, I must confess I groaned when I was first asked whether I would be willing to address another group of lawyers. However, when I found out this group included many lawyers that helped secure the election for George W. Bush, I quickly reconsidered.”27
The RNLA’s pride in its Florida efforts is expressed by trophies it presents to honorees at special receptions, consisting of lucite blocks that, as described on the organization’s Web site, “contain a commemorative message in honor of the Florida recount team, and contain actual ‘Chads’ from Florida dispersed throughout the Lucite. They [sic] were only a few hundred created and are not for sale but rather only presented to distinguished members and guests of the RNLA.” Not surprisingly, an RNLA lawyer, Hayden Dempsey, formerly a lawyer for Governor Jeb Bush, is heading Lawyers for Bush, the president’s legal defense team in Florida in 2004.
With the rise to prominence of the RNLA, the Republican Party’s nationally directed ballot security programs appear to have been transformed. While Operation Eagle Eye was directed from the command posts of the RNC by professionals, the people on the ground—poll-watchers and challengers—were often amateurs, which is to say Election Day volunteers who may have had only cursory training. The RNLA, born in the Reagan era, has gradually assumed the role of the party’s overarching anti-fraud enforcement agency. In the process, the organization has professionalized ballot security (its spokespersons seem to prefer the term “ballot integrity”) with a cadre of highly trained, aggressive, and mobile lawyers who can go anywhere in the nation on short notice. Indeed, they don’t even need to be mobile, in many cases. As one of the organization’s newsletters put it: “Ironically, when the Democratic National Committee bragged of sending in a thousand lawyers each to Missouri, Florida, and Texas for election day operations, the [RNLA] Field Operations Committee already had chapters organized in those states and did not need to send out of state lawyers to assist with the elections.”
The U.S. attorney firings scandal has laid bare the administration's -- and particularly Karl Rove's -- preoccupation with prosecuting voter fraud. But there's a flip side to this coin. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has virtually abandoned its traditional role, undertaken since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, of actively protecting African American voters from discrimination.
There's no greater demonstration of that fact than this simple fact: During the first five years of the Bush administration, the Justice Department's voting section only filed a single case alleging voting discrimination on behalf of African American voters. That's despite the fact that the section, part of the Civil Rights Division, was created mainly to protect African American voters from discrimination.
But during that same time period, the section managed to file the first ever "reverse" discrimination case under the Voting Rights Act.
That case, United States v. Ike Brown and Noxubee County, alleges that Brown, the chairman of Noxubee County's Democratic Executive Committee in Mississippi, has been trying to limit whites' participation in local elections. The case, filed in 2005, is currently being tried, and is likely to reach its conclusion later this month.
Joseph Rich, the chief of the voting section until he resigned in 2005, signed the complaint against Brown and told me that he thought that the case did have merit. But he said that it was "really a question of priority" for a section with limited resources. The political appointees in the section aggressively promoted the case, he said: "clearly they were very interested in this particular matter when it came up." Rich, who worked for the department enforcing civil rights laws for more than 35 years, has very publicly criticized the section he left.