Human Rights

Project Vote Report Accuses GOP of Decades of Voter Suppression

The Republican Party plans to continue a legal tactic that targets the right to vote of likely Democrats -- often minorities.
In 2004, Republicans used a Jim Crow-era tactic to target the voter registrations of a half-million likely Democratic voters -- often minorities -- for Election Day challenges in nine states, a national voting rights group has charged in a new report.

"The intended effect of voter caging operations is to suppress minority votes," Project Vote said in its report, "Caging: A Fifty-Year History of Partisan Challenges to Minority Voters. "Several court decisions and occasional public comment by Republican officials lend support to this conclusion."

But Republicans say Project Vote's report is biased because it excludes Democratic examples of filing fraudulent voter registrations to pad voter rolls and because it ignores Democratic efforts to "knock" opponents off the ballot, such as Ralph Nader in 2004, after identifying fraudulent signatures on his nominating petitions.

"When you send out a letter to people who have registered recently and the letter comes back as an address of an empty lot or is undeliverable, you tell me is that fraud or not?" said Heather Heidelbaugh, Republican National Lawyers Association vice president for Election Education. "When people say to me there is no such thing as evidence to commit voter fraud, it is false. I've seen it. I've witnessed it. I've lived through it."

Project Vote's report is likely to draw more congressional scrutiny of tactics that may continue in the upcoming presidential election. Since 2004, three battleground states -- Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania -- have "made it easier for private individuals to challenge a voter's eligibility," the report said, while two states, Washington and Minnesota, have passed laws "making it harder."

While the report -- like many Democrats -- says the GOP is relying on voter suppression methods developed in once-segregated South, Republicans like Heidelbaugh say mass registration drives intended to bring in new Democratic voters often are rife with errors that can be used to pad vote totals. She defended the GOP's use of mailings to identify voters to be challenged on Election Day as a legitimate tool to ensure fair elections.

"Both sides should recognize that voter fraud exists and both sides should want to minimize it without prohibiting anybody's right to vote," Heidelbaugh said. "The integrity of elections has to be maintained for the credibility of the system."

Project Vote organizes voter registration drives among low-income voters and in 2004 worked with ACORN, another low-income advocacy group, to register 2.3 million people across the country. In several states, ACORN workers filed a handful of registrations that were shown to be false and some of its workers were subsequently tried and convicted. That relationship undermines the credibility of the Project Vote report, said Heidelbaugh, who was Election Counsel in Pennsylvania for the Bush/Cheney '04 Campaign.

"It is telling me what I have seen for 23 years doesn't exist," she said. "It is a waste of my time to hear ACORN, which has been indicted for voter fraud, say that voter fraud doesn't exist."

Project Vote Deputy Director Michael Slater said GOP criticism of his group's ties to ACORN was fair, but he said Project Group, which is non-partisan, did not find any evidence that Democrats had used the same "caging" tactic to try to repress likely Republican supporters from voting.

"We didn't target the Republicans in our research," Slater said. "We did a broad review, using multiple sets of tools and didn't find incidents of Democratic voter caging. If we missed something, we'd like to know about it. We think vote caging is a problem. If Democrats did it we'd want it stopped as well."

The Republican National Committee did not return phone calls to comment. However other RNLA members, who often oversee their party's Election Day legal activities at the state level, said the voter challenges could reappear in 2008.

"I wish there was no need for any of this stuff," said Michael Theilen, RNLA executive director. "But I don't think we are there yet."

"I think we are going to have big problems in many urban areas -- Philadelphia, St. Louis, Madison, Los Angeles, Miami, Jax (Jacksonville), Washington, D.C.," Thomas Spencer, RNLA vice chair, a Florida lawyer, said in an e-mail this summer. "I think that it is a huge and solvable problem."

Republican Ballot Security

The Project Vote report details a half-century of Republican "ballot-security" efforts, culminating in a multi-state effort in 2004 to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters through a tactic called "caging." That effort begins with a mailing Republicans send to newly registered voters. If those letters are returned, the GOP assumes the recipient's address on their voter registration form is incorrect and the registration is fraudulent.

Republicans identified 500,000 individuals whose registrations were to be challenged on Election Day in 2004, Project Vote reported. The GOP, usually at the state party level, recruited thousands of volunteers to monitor who signs in to vote at local precincts with the goal of contesting the registrations of the people who did not receive its mailing. This practice is legal and allowed in most states.

Project Vote noted that relying on undelivered mail was weak standard to disqualify voters, because postal delivery rates tend to fall off in lower-income neighborhoods. In 2004, journalist Greg Palast reported soldiers serving in Iraq were among those who did not receive mailings and were put on GOP lists in Florida to be challenged.

Federal courts have found "caging" can violate the Voting Rights Act, which bars race-based discrimination in elections. Comparing the demographics of zip codes where the mailings are sent and the challenges are conducted is one tool used by federal courts to make that determination.

A 1982 federal court decree barred the Republican National Committee from caging after the RNC targeted African-American and Hispanic voters in New Jersey. That decision was reaffirmed in 1986 in a separate case involving African-American voters in Louisiana. Since then, state Republican Parties have contended in recent litigation that these rulings only apply to the RNC, as state parties are different political entities.

According to Project Vote, Republican Parties in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin targeted hundreds of thousands of voters in 2004. Individuals who described themselves as partisan Republicans did the same thing on a smaller scale in Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky, the report found. These efforts were mostly unsuccessful due to a mix of factors: ensuing litigation that stopped or delayed the challenges; and protests by local election officials and in some cases by African-American Republicans who were angered they had been targeted by their political party.

"The party went too far for some of its members," the report said.

Republicans say the measures are necessary to prevent "voter fraud," a widespread belief among some Republicans that large numbers of Democratic voters are voting more than once, stuffing ballot boxes and doing other illegal actions to win elections. Independent studies -- including a recent U.S. Election Assistance Commission report that was initially censored -- have found rare instances of this kind of abuse on both sides of the aisle, although it is usually insignificant in terms of swaying election outcomes.

The RNLA's Heidelbaugh, who ran the GOP's legal efforts in Pennsylvania in 2004, said there was a "national concerted effort by Democrats to try to convince the American public that voter fraud doesn't occur."

However, in 2004 in the Oakland area of Pittsburgh where several universities are located, she said she witnessed hundreds of students being bussed in from New York who demanded to vote after local precincts had run out of provisional ballots. Heidelbaugh said local election judges allowed the students -- who she said were John Kerry supporters -- to vote, creating a stir that did not end until sheriffs impounded the voting machines. She said the media did not cover the incident and no charges were brought after the election.

"Bush won. Where are the kids?" she said. "Who am I going to bring charges against?"

Jim Crow Roots

Caging and other ballot security measures have their roots in the South after the Civil War when "former Confederate states reacted to strong political participation" by African-Americans, the report said. "The Southern system had five salient features: burdensome residency requirements, periodic registration, imposition of poll taxes, literacy or understanding requirements and stringent disqualification provisions."

Today's push by Republicans for new voter identification laws, aggressive voter roll purges, and more elaborate voter registration requirements are seen as continuing this political legacy, according to the report's authors.

"Many of the state challenges laws have their roots in the post-Reconstruction Era and are relics of Jim Crow laws intended to deprive African-Americans of their franchise," it said. "The origin of Florida's voter challenge statute, for example, illuminates the racial bias behind its passage ... In 1887, federal law pre-empted Florida law and extended the right to vote to African-American men. The newly re-enfranchised African-American voters responded by voting in large numbers. In response, one year later, the Florida legislature enacted a challenge voters statute that extended the power to challenge to private poll watchers.

"The current Florida statute on voter challenges permits poll watchers to challenge a voter merely by signing an oath that states they have "reason to believe" that the voter is ineligible to vote and stating the reasons for the challenge."

There is little question that "caging" and other "ballot security" issues are alive in 2008.

Last week, a coalition of civil rights groups sued Florida alleging that new technology used to create statewide voter databases was disenfranchising thousands of minority voters because of mistakes in the state records used to validate the registrations. And this week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a suit on whether Indiana's new voter I.D. requirements unfairly keep poor people and minority groups from voting.

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at and co-author of What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election, with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).