Human Rights

Democrats Fail in Election Oversight

Maybe the House Judiciary Committee needs a refresher course in treacherous Jim Crow election tactics.
On Tuesday at a long-awaited hearing on the recent purge of federal prosecutors, Monica Goodling, the former top-ranking Justice Department official at the center of the scandal, said in her opening statement that Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general, was not fully candid with the committee when he discussed "allegations" that Tim Griffin, the Karl Rove protégé and new U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Arkansas, was involved in "caging" when Griffin worked for George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.

Caging is an old voter suppression tactic whose roots go back to the Reconstruction era when Southerners targeted African-Americans voters. The modern version is associated with Republicans, which were barred by federal court in the 1980s from using the tactic to suppress minority voters. Modern caging involves sending registered letters to an opponent's supporters. If the mail is returned or is not accepted, then those sending the letter -- such as Republican partisans in 2004 -- will challenge the intended recipient's right to vote at their polling place.

On Election Day, a Republican poll challenger will wait for the voter to arrive and then challenge their right to vote by saying they don't live at the address on their registration. The voter has to prove otherwise. People are caged or kept from voting this way. The tactic, like the rash of states that in 2006 imposed voting I.D. card requirements, are intended to keep minority voters from casting ballots.

Federal prosecutors like Tim Griffin are supposed to defend voting rights, not suppress them -- which is what made Goodling's statement so startling. But this week the Judiciary Committee was more concerned about the firing of federal prosecutors and didn't pursue the "caging" reference until Rep. Linda Sanchez, the committee's first Latina member, asked Godling to "explain" it.

REP. SANCHEZ: Can you explain what caging is? I'm not familiar with that term.

MS. GOODLING: You know, my understanding -- and I don't actually know a lot about it -- is that it's a direct-mail term that people who do direct mail -- when they separate addresses that may be good versus addresses that may be bad -- that's the best information that I have, that it just -- that it's a direct-mail term that's used by vendors in that circumstance." (transcript)

The Democratic congresswoman's question period soon ended, and no one else followed up. It's hard to know what is more upsetting, the failure of the Judiciary Committee to open a high-profile door into GOP election fraud in 2004, or Goodling's apparently successful attempt to whitewash caging as a "direct-mail" technique.

If only Rep. Sanchez recalled the January 2005 report issued by the Democratic staff of the committee she sits on, "Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio," which detailed numerous ways Ohio's Democratic voters saw their votes suppressed and rejected in 2004 -- including caging. Perhaps then the Judiciary Committee -- and the press and public -- would see that the Bush administrations ethos of winning at all costs extends not just to picking partisan prosecutors but doing whatever it takes to win presidential elections. (Read the Judiciary Committee report here.)

As the 2005 Judiciary Committee report notes, Republicans in Ohio used many tactics to discourage likely Democratic voters from voting and having those votes count. More than 35,000 caging letters were sent out by the GOP. Thousands of GOP poll challengers were recruited. At the last minute, however, a federal court stuck down the Republican caging efforts in Ohio in 2004. As the Committee report stated, "Although the 'caging' tactics targeting 35,000 new voters by the Ohio Republican Party were eventually struck down, it is likely they had a negative impact on the inclination of minorities to vote."

The caging tactics were discriminatory and illegal, but they were not unique among the tools and tactics employed by Republicans to reelect the president. The scandal caused by the recent firing of U.S. attorneys -- apparently because they would not pursue voter fraud cases, according to recently discovered secret White House emails -- is but the tip of the GOP election iceberg. Summed up, the GOP's strategy was to shift the focus to problems with individual voters -- with charges of voter fraud -- while diverting attention from the party's systematic attempt to tilt the administration of the 2004 election. Individual voter fraud pales in comparison to systematic election fraud.

Again, the Judiciary Committee's 2005 Democratic staff report describes the GOP's systematic efforts to tilt Ohio's electoral playing field. Those efforts included changing voter registration and provisional ballot rules at the last minute, which caused thousands of ballots to be rejected. On Election Day, the state's Democratic strongholds saw voting machine shortages and the biggest voting machine malfunctions. While everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong in Democratic districts, Ohio's GOP districts had a notable absence of comparable problems.

The firing of federal prosecutors has revealed much about the tactics and mindset of the president's top operatives and a compliant Justice Department. While the White House emails show top-ranking Republicans wanted federal prosecutors to file voter fraud cases against Democrats, the Judiciary Committee report found much more extensive voter fraud was perpetrated on behalf of Republicans, such as in rural Perry County, where "there appears to be an extraordinarily high level of 91 percent voter registration, yet a substantial number of these voters have never voted and have no signature on file." Of these, 3,100 voters registered on Nov. 8, 1977, a year with no major election. That is what systematic election fraud looks like.

Goodling's reference to U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin's role with "caging" on the 2004 Bush reelection campaign might yet shine a light into the dark practice of tilting elections that the GOP seems to have mastered -- and not just in Ohio. But the return of the Jim Crow tactic was not the topic that the Judiciary Committee Democrats wanted to hear about this week. Instead, the oversight hearing overlooked one of the day's biggest bombshells.
Steven Rosenfeld, is co-author, with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, of "What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election" (The New Press, 2006).
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