Monday, April 28, 2008
Validating Voter Suppression
Following up on D-Day's post below about the Supreme Court's decision on voter ID in Indiana, and particularly his point that Obama is greatly expanding the pool of first time voters who might be affected by this ruling, I would just remind everyone of a couple of things.
First of all, let's not forget that this may be the biggest political land mine the Bush administration has set for Democrats. "Voter fraud" was, you'll remember, at the bottom of the US Attorney scandals and one of their main tools for suppressing the Democratic vote. This is the realization of a very long term plan to chip away at the Voting Rights Act. Republicans, like all aristocrats, know that if enough average people vote, they will lose. Period.
I have been writing about this since before I started this blog. It's at the heart of the Florida debacle in 2000, where they illegitimately purged voter rolls and relied on arcane interpretations of the rules to deny people the fundamental right to have their votes counted. It goes all the way back to the reconstruction period and has continued right up to Ohio in 2004.
The Supreme Court has just legitimized the notion that "voter fraud" is a problem when, in fact, every study shows that it simply does not exist in any systematic way and that the voter disenfranchisement that results from such laws is a far more serious problem.
Here's Rick Perlstein on the vote suppression effort in 1964, called "Operation Eagle Eye" in which Chief justice John Roberts' predecessor, William Rehnquist, participated as a young man:
The "vote fraud" fantasies are tinged by deeply right-wing racial and anti-urban panics. I've talked to many conservative who seem to consider the idea of mass non-white participation in the duties of citizenship is inherently suspicious. It's an idea all decent Americans should consider abhorrent. It is also, however, a very old conservative obsession--one that goes back to the beginnings of the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party itself.
Let me show you. Read this report from 1964, running down all the ways how Barry Goldwater's Republican Party was working overtime to keep minorities from voting. The document can be found in the LBJ Library, where I researched my book Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus
John M Baley, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, charged today that "under the guise of setting up an apparatus to protect the sanctity of the ballot, the Republicans are actually creating the machinery for a carefully organized campaign to intimidate voters and to frighten members of minority groups from casing their ballots on November 3rd.
"'Let's get this straight,' Bailey added, 'the Democratic Party is just as much opposed to vote frauds as is the Republican party. We will settle for giving all legally registered voters an opportunity to make their choice on November 3rd. We have enough faith in our Party to be confident that the outcome will be a vote of confience in President Johnson and a mandate for the President and his running mate, Hubert Humphrey, to continue the programs of the Johnson-Kennedy Administration.
"'But we have evidence that the Republican program is not really what it purports to be. it is an organized effort to prevent the foreign born, to prevent Negroes, to prevent members of ethnic minorities from casting their votes by frightening and intimidating them at the polling place.
"'We intend to see to it that the rights of these people are protected. We will have our people at the polling places--not to frighten or threaten anyone--but to protect the right of any eligible voter to cast a secret ballot without threats or intimidation.'
It didn't stop there. As a result of the massive voter registration efforts of Jesse Jackson during the 1984 and 1988 campaigns, the republicans institutionalized their vote suppression efforts and created the Voting Integrity Project and the Republican National Lawyers Association to create bogus claims of voter fraud. I've written reams about this, but this post from last year highlights an important study that directly pertains to the voter registration drives that D-Day mentions:
With the news from Steve Benen coming out of Wisconsin and from Christy about Minnesota, regarding a couple more of those "Good Bushies" in the Justice Department, I thought it might be a good time to bring up a little something I found the other day on the blog Wot Is It Good 4. A commenter there pointed to this very interesting paper (pdf) presented to the Center For Voting Rights just before the 2004 election on the issue of voter suppression.Now, I realize that Obama is concentrating mostly on registering college students who are first time voters, so it's a little bit different. But there are plenty of hurdles there too, with arcane residency requirements and the very serious possibility that some college students won't have local "government issued" ID. I assume there will be tons of outreach using the new social networking tools to educate these voters about what's required, but there's always the danger that at least a few will just not bother --- and say they did. That's certainly happened in the past.
I was surprised to see that the Republican National Lawyers Association (where Rove delivered his speech last spring in which, among other things, he mentioned as "problems" those states from which the targeted US Attorneys hail) was pretty much formed for the express and exclusive purpose of training and deploying lawyers on matters of purported voter fraud (aka minority vote suppression.) Neither did I know before that they played a pivotal role in the Florida Recount.
The report gives the history of minority voter suppression in America (a very ugly story) and brings it right up to the 1980's, particularly the huge voter registration effort in the black community by the Jesse Jackson campaign which apparently scared the bejeezuz out of the Republicans:
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.”
What an odd thing to say. The "nation's" voters clearly preferred Al Gore. It was only through that regrettable anachronism of the electoral college (and cheating in Florida) that had Bush within stealing distance.
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.”
This is a terribly pernicious ruling that legitimizes the view that "voter fraud" is a bigger threat than disenfranchisement. That is the opposite of what this country needs right now, with rampant cynicism about the franchise already infecting the body politic. This ruling gives fodder to every wingnut lawyer in the country to say that if there were no voter fraud in this country, there wouldn't be any need for a Supreme Court ruling that allows states to protect against it.
It's important to remember that the thrust of many of these latest laws are to suppress the Latino vote, many of whom are reluctant to show up at polling places only to be treated like second class citizens and viewed with suspicion. Life is short. The same, of course, holds true for African Americans, even today. Simply slowing the lines with demands for proof of ID is enough to suppress the votes in urban precincts with too few voting machines. And then there are the handicapped and elderly who often just don't have the same type of ID as the rest of us. But then that's the point. These people must be made to jump through hoops in order to exercise their right to vote.
Oh wait. That's not quite right, is it? After all it was none other than the majority in Bush vs Gore who made it a point to reaffirm that "the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States."
Perhaps we ought to change that.
Other posts on this topic here.
Update: I'm informed in the comments that the concentration of Obama's voter registration efforts goes far beyond college aged voters. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. IMO, it's fair to assume that his excellent use of the new technology may work very well to entice young voters to register, but I shouldn't have made the apparently incorrect assumption that this is where he's concentrating his efforts.
digby 4/28/2008 02:30:00 PM