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McCain Camp Says It Will Scale Back GOP Voter Suppression Tactics

But Obama’s top campaign lawyer is skeptical the GOP can break with its past.
 
 
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John McCain's election strategists plan to tone down the Republicans' traditionally aggressive and public campaign against potential voter fraud, several Republicans familiar with the situation say.

The strategists and consultants all would speak only on the condition that their names and affiliations not be used because they were not permitted to divulge the information, they did not want to disclose internal deliberations, and because the issue is still being discussed within the party.

Sources with direct knowledge of the coordinated Republican effort this year say that high-ranking Republicans, including some within McCain's campaign, are convinced that GOP efforts in 2004 were damaging.

"Spreading 10,000 lawyers around the country and announcing a challenge to 40,000 new registrants in Ohio was counterproductive," a Republican familiar with the situation said. The Republican said that many within the party believed that then-Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's efforts to tighten provisional ballot rules ahead of the 2004 may have increased Democratic turnout because it convinced Democrats that Republicans were trying to disenfranchise voters.

Because the RNC is prohibited by court order from directly participating in these types of efforts, the charge is generally taken up by groups with fewer political sensitivities. Democrats tend to oppose stricter voter identification provisions and Republicans support them; Republicans think that Democrats want to encourage non-voters to vote; Democrats think that Republicans want to intimidate black, Hispanic and poorer voters into not voting.

The emerging McCain-Republican view today is that with provisional ballots in wide use, the traditional Republican legal position can change to careful monitoring, rather than aggressive challenging. If there's evidence that the provisional ballots were somehow illegally cast, then those ballots can be challenged post-election.

"We would, of course, welcome an end to traditional Republican vote suppression activity, but we will believe it when we see it," said Robert Bauer, the Obama campaign's general counsel. "We will have a strong, comprehensive program to promote and protect the vote and need really no more from the McCain campaign and their allies than actions fully consistent with true respect for the voter and the voting process."

Another reason for the shift, Republicans say, is that McCain has not generally identified himself with the issue, and they say that McCain's campaign counsel, Trevor Potter, has expressed the view that previous Republican efforts have created a backlash.

Other high-ranking Republicans believe that is politically precarious to be so aggressive in the context of a presidential race against an African American.

"The Democrats will unfortunately try to bring race into play when this discussion happens, as they do every cycle," another top Republican who is advising the McCain campaign said. "It's unfortunate because illegally cast votes disenfranchise real voters by potentially canceling out their votes, and it's in everyone's best interest to have elections conducted fairly with no suspicion of foul play hanging over the winners."

But perception will force Republicans to modify their footprint. They imagine the hullabaloo if Republicans in 2008 were caught caging -- using the controversial method of matching names to addresses from the voter lists in preparation to challenge illegal voting (or to suppress legitimate voters) on Election Day.

Someone who attended last week's National Association of Attorneys General meeting in Providence, Rhode Island said that Potter suggested to state solicitors general that Republicans and Democrats work together to identify and avoid Election Day problems. Potter, according to the attendee, endorsed election law expert Ned Foley's suggestion that bipartisan vehicles be used for conflict.

Bauer joined Potter on a panel and seemed skeptical of whether common ground could be reached, according to one attendee. Potter noted that the two might work together on poll closing extensions; Potter implied that Republicans would readily agree to extend poll closing times under certain conditions, to which Bauer responded, according to an attendee: "Well, that's an example of the limits of bipartisan cooperation." Figuring out whether individual voters were legitimately in line when polls closed, he said, is practically impossible. Mr. Potter declined to comment on the meeting and Bauer referred a reporter to a draft of his prepared remarks. Democrats will be skeptical of Potter's proffer, and with reason: Republicans tend to make the offer every cycle and agreements are never reached.

The Obama campaign plans to register millions of new voters by the fall, and turnout could overwhelm poll watchers and election officials, just as it did during the primary. For those Republicans who believe that voter fraud is a real problem, the 2008 election will be ripe with opportunities to prove it.

On the other side of the ledger, Democrats worry that an increase in turnout, especially among African Americans, will mean that any clandestine Republican efforts to intimidate voters in inner cities will be fortified. (The DNC, the Obama campaign, and liberal/reformist interest groups plan major "election protection" drives.)

Doug Chapin, director of Pew's Electionline.org, allows that Republican fears of being labeled as racist may be one reason that voter fraud efforts will be quieter -- "You could see the assessment of pain versus gain might be different," he says -- but he notes that the regulatory environment has shifted profoundly since new election reforms were fully implemented. States are much more comfortable being assertive on their own, as are secretaries of state like Todd Rokita, whose implementation of photo ID requirement for voters was upheld by the Supreme Court.

An RNC spokesperson, Danny Diaz, pointed to this website, www.gop.com/ycmtu.htm, as evidence that the party "will be prepared to ensure that every legal vote counts and that no legitimate votes are canceled out by fraud."

Republicans close to the McCain campaign worry that outside groups will defy their wishes and mount independent efforts.

Marc Ambinder is blogging about the 2008 presidential election from the road for TheAtlantic.com.

 
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