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GOP Plans and Denials to Challenge Foreclosed Voters Examined

The ex-head of the Justice Department's Voting Section parses the GOP's recent threats to target voters who have lost homes to foreclosure.
 
 
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The "lose your house, lose your vote" stories out of two battleground states, Michigan and Ohio continue to occupy space in the media and various blogs. The story just won’t go away.

A federal lawsuit over the plan is pending in Michigan and the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the matter. As I reviewed the stories about this issue and have started to gather additional information about some questionable mailings to voters in other states, I was reminded of my days at the Justice Department when we would investigate claims of voter intimidation and voter suppression. Investigations of vote caging and vote suppression schemes usually started out with an admission of some specific practice, followed by a denial of any such plan, followed by a decision to retain legal counsel.

In both Michigan and Ohio, where the issue of challenging the right to vote of those who have received foreclosure notices has arisen, GOP officials did not initially deny there might be such a strategy. They either admitted it, or acknowledged that it might be part of a larger strategy aimed at preventing people from voting who may be ineligible. In other words, they didn’t rule it out. Once the story came out, and public uproar ensued, the GOP officials issued vehement denials.

Let’s look at some of how this story has developed -- it’s easy to see why the story is now in its third week. It’s also easy to see why those who mount legal challenges to plans to challenge voters must be prepared to engage in aggressive discovery if they are going to obtain the true facts.

To begin with, let’s examine the context in which these two stories arose. As I detailed earlier in my primer on the history of vote caging, the GOP has a long history of engaging in voter suppression efforts. The Party has persisted with the practice because it has proven effective. The GOP schemes have also led to injunctions being imposed by the courts barring specific voter suppression efforts. If the claims of possible vote challenges to those who have received foreclosure notices were against a clean historical slate, then such claims might be a little hard to believe. But they aren’t. They arise against a stain of GOP vote suppression extending over a number of decades. To be sure, claims have been made against Democratic Party operatives as well: allegations of paying voters (“walking around money”), voter impersonation, and non-citizen voting. The point of this piece is not to go through the accuracies or inaccuracies of these claims. Instead, this piece is about alleged efforts to suppress the rights of voters who have lost or are losing their homes in Michigan and Ohio, and the history of vote suppression by the GOP which is relevant to this story.

Michigan:

In Michigan, the original story by Eartha Melzer of the Michigan Messenger contained this passage:

"The chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, Michigan, a key swing county in a key swing state, is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of the state GOP’s effort to challenge some voters on Election Day.

"We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren’t voting from those addresses,’ party chairman James Carabelli told Michigan Messenger in a telephone interview earlier this week."

Following the release of the story, Mr. Carabelli "denied making the comment and called the report 'a non-story.'"

Note that he didn’t deny talking with Ms. Melzer about the issue and instead tried to downplay the issue: "We were just having a conversation," said Carabelli. Mr. Carabelli then went even further, making the dubious claim that "[w]e have no plans to do anything[.]"

Carabelli’s claim that the Michigan GOP had "no plans" to challenge voters at the polls was contradicted by a subsequent story in the Michigan Messenger: "Eric Doster, former counsel for the Michigan Republican Party and a lawyer who plans to represent GOP election challengers on Election Day" said that while he is "unfamiliar with plans to use foreclosure lists to challenge voters, he does expect party volunteers to challenge voters in other ways."

"When asked whether Michigan Republicans plan to create a challenge list based on returned direct mail, a practice known as "vote caging," Doster replied, 'I think so. I know this has been done in years past … both parties may be doing this.'"

One has to wonder why the Michigan GOP would retain its former counsel for the State Party to "represent GOP election challengers" if truly there were "no plans to do anything," as Mr. Carabelli had claimed.

The Michigan Messenger stood by Ms. Melzer’s account that the Michigan GOP did indeed talk with her about using a foreclosure list to challenge voters, although the online publication did issue a clarification to a different part of the original story (re: Ohio). [1]

I was interviewed by Ms. Melzer for the initial story and I found her to be better informed than most reporters who call me seeking comment. She was very well versed in the subject of vote caging and when she asked me about the comments made by the Michigan GOP official, she seemed to be reading me her interview notes from her conversation with him. She asked for my reaction to the statements she read to me.

I readily admit that I was not a party to her original conversation with the Michigan GOP official. But given my interview with her and what appears to be some inconsistent statements from GOP officials (along with the history of vote caging and vote suppression by the GOP), I would be surprised, to say the least, if the plan of GOP officials in Michigan to challenge foreclosed voters was entirely fictitious. This is especially true as I investigate questionable mailings and tactics by the GOP in several other states (e.g., lifelong Democratic voters, Democratic precinct chairs, and newly registered voters are being sent "Do Not Forward" letters from the RNC in which it is incorrectly claimed the voter is either a Republican or has no party affiliation). Such letters suggest that a massive, possibly nationwide vote caging effort is underway.

Ohio:

As for Ohio, the initial story there suggested that an Ohio GOP official would not rule out the possibility that the party would challenge voters at the polls stating. Quoting the Franklin County GOP chairman, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Priesse "didn't rule out challenges before Nov. 4."

The latest story this week on possible efforts to challenge foreclosed voters came from the NY Times, and contained this passage: "Asked whether his party planned to use foreclosure information to compile challenge lists, Robert Bennett, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, said the party did not discuss its election strategies in public." While this is not an admission that a plan exists to use foreclosure lists to challenge voters, it sure isn’t a denial either.

Then, after the NY Times story was published, Mr. Bennett, like Mr. Carabelli in Michigan, issued a flat denial of any plan to challenge foreclosed voters: "Mr. Bennett sent an e-mail message adding that the Ohio Republican Party condemns 'any effort to challenge the eligibility of voters based on home foreclosures.'" Of course he did. The RNC, which as I noted above has used similar efforts to suppress voting rights in the past, wants to try and distance itself from any such despicable plan to challenge voters who either have lost their homes or may be on the verge of doing so.

If Mr. Bennett, during his initial contact with the NY Times, felt that any plan to compile a list of people whose homes had been foreclosed and then to challenge their right to vote was a practice to be condemned, why wouldn’t he say so then? One explanation, of course, is that at that time he gave his interview, he didn’t condemn the practice.

I’ve been wondering this: why would any political campaign or political party gather a list of names of those who have received a foreclosure notice. I can see gathering statistics on home foreclosure so that a candidate or political party can talk about the current housing and economic woes. But gathering the names and addresses of those who received a foreclosure notice? That can have but one purpose when done in the heat of a campaign: to challenge their right to vote.

One final thought on all this. Note Mr. Bennett’s denial says that he condemns "any effort to challenge the eligibility of voters based on home foreclosures" (emphasis added). So if the Ohio GOP gathers the names of those who have received foreclosure notices and then sends each person on that list a 'Do Not Forward' piece of mail, and then challenges the right to vote of each person whose mail is returned as undeliverable, will Mr. Bennett still claim that he is not challenging the right to vote "based on home foreclosures"? Or will he claim that they are being challenged based on some other reason, such as an address change (rather than based on their name on a foreclosure list)?

The reason this story won’t go away is that it is downright heartless and un-American for any political party to target people’s right to vote because they have lost or are about to lose their home. I hope that the GOP had no such plans. I am not about to accept denials at face value, especially given the long and extensive history of the RNC’s vote suppression efforts. I think we need to wait and see before we reach any final conclusions just yet.

[1] The Messenger put the clarification this way: Citing an article in the Columbus Dispatch, Melzer had reported in her story "Lose your house, lose your vote" that [Douglas] Priesse [chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party in Columbus, Ohio] had said he had not ruled out voter challenges due to "foreclosure related address issues." In his letter, Priesse said that he had not stated or implied any such thing.

While the ongoing dispute in Franklin County does concern voter challenges that are based, in part, on the eligibility of foreclosed homeowners, Priesse’s comments to the Dispatch did not specifically address the issue of foreclosed homeowners.

We have revised the article accordingly.