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The Wolf Who Cried Wolf

[Update: The story corrected a transcribing error of statistics, Oct. 29, 2012]

The GOP’s Underground Election Strategy
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor, Graphic by Mathew Highland

For years now, Republicans have been working themselves up into a frenzy over the prospect of systematic electoral fraud.

The claim has always been sharply at odds with the recorded rarity of voter fraud cases, even under the eager eyes of the Bush administration. But now there’s an even bigger, more blatant problem with the accusation. In late September, news began spreading that a Republican consulting firm—working in dozens of states—was itself responsible for a widespread pattern of illegal activities, including surreptitiously destroying Democratic voter registration forms.

The consulting firm—originally known as Sproul and Associates, founded by former Arizona Republican Party state chairman, Nathan Sproul—has a long history of both barely legal and clearly illegal shenanigans, including similar past incidents of destroying voter registration forms. These date back as far as the 2004 elections, when Random Lengths first reported on their activities. Yet, when the news broke, Republican officials made a big show of shocked surprise, and quickly fired the firm—both at the state and national levels—only to have them rehired by unnamed entities to get out the vote.

But this is only one of two different organizational forms taken by conservatives which may effectively prevent tens of thousands of votes from being cast. The other is a self-styled grassroots “voter protection” offshoot of the Tea Party movement, known as “True The Vote” and its various different state-level affiliates. The Tea Party, we are constantly reminded, is not racist. But True The Vote was formed out of large-scale poll-watching effort in 2009, concentrated in black and Latino districts. As shocking and outrageous as these activities may be—as well as sometimes being illegal—the number of voters they prevent from voting pales in comparison to those who may be prevented by a new wave of laws passed since the 2010 midterms.

The 2008  Cooperative Congressional Election Study found that as many as 3 million people who actively tried to vote in 2008 were denied, while another 4 million were discouraged from voting by administrative barriers.  Yet, a surprisingly large number of Republicans—a majority of them, 52 percent, in a November 2009 poll—believe the exact opposite: that instead of legitimate voters being denied the right to vote, the election was really won by John McCain, but was stolen by ACORN, meaning that nearly 10 million fraudulent votes were cast.

There are two major problems for people who believe in this conspiracy theory: First, there is no evidence whatsoever of any sort of organized, much less massive, voter fraud, either in 2008 or any other recent American election.  Second, Republicans controlled the White House and the Justice Department in 2008.  Enforcing election law is their responsibility. If the conspiracy theorists are right, then the Republicans themselves were in on the conspiracy—at least on the cover up side.

Despite the patent absurdity of such claims, a tidal wave of state laws have been proposed to counter this non-existent problem, ever since the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans won the largest number of state legislative seats they’ve ever held since 1928.

Accord to the Brennan Center for Justice, since the mid-term elections:

  • 41 states introduced 180 restrictive laws;
  • 34 states introduced photo ID laws;
  • 17 states introduced proof of citizenship requirements;
  • 16 states introduced bills to limit registration;
  • 9 states introduced bills to reduce early voting periods. 

Many of these attempted restrictions failed, of course. But many did not. To make sense of such sweeping political activity that flies in the face of all evidence, we need to consider the history of voting rights in America. We need to understand how rights have been expanded and restricted in the past, and how those changes have been justified, often with little regard for any supporting facts.

Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar is the man who wrote the book on the subject, The Right To Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in America, first published in 2000. It described how attitudes toward voting changed over time, with four broad historical eras—a general expansion of the franchise in the early 19th century, as property requirements for white males were increasingly rolled back, followed by a period of procedure-based contraction up until about the 1920s, then a period of relative stasis until the Civil Rights era lead a vigorous expansion.

Prior to the 2004 election, Random Lengths interviewed Keyssar about the growing problem of voter suppression emerging at the time.

“I can’t say it’s unprecedented,” said Keyssar at the time, since no one openly advocates rolling back rights. “It is something that is new, and it is semi-organized. It may be fully organized… (Still,) what we’re seeing is characteristic of this fourth period.”

However, he now sees it differently, as the pattern of throwing up procedural hurdles to certain groups of voters has intensified dramatically, recalling the pattern of the second historical period, particularly in the North, where urban, largely immigrant working class voters were prevented from voting in droves through the use of specially-tailored registration requirements.

“I think we quite likely are in a different period, where an issue that seemed to be settled by 1970 is unsettled again,” Keyssar said. “I don’t think anyone is going to propose that we impose a property restriction, or impose racial restrictions. But I think there is certainly conflict over any measures that would try to guarantee, or procedures that would guarantee, that the law be made a reality.”

Indeed, Keyssar referred to the 1993 National Voter Registration Act—commonly known as “Motor Voter,” which called for widespread, routine use of public service agencies to register people to vote.  In one sense, conservative efforts to restrict voting were a response to the act’s expansion of the electorate, he said. But even the original expansion was fiercely resisted, particularly the provision that registration forms be made available in agencies serving low-income Americans.

In a 2008, 15-year progress report, the non-profit voter registration group, Project Vote, observed, “many problems the NVRA sought to address remain uncured, and its full promise remains unfulfilled.”  In particular, “Section 7 [requiring registration forms at public assistance and disability service agencies] has been largely neglected (and in some cases almost wholly ignored) by many state agencies.”

Oversight failures “have contributed to the pervasive failure of Section 7, to the disadvantage of millions of eligible low-income and minority Americans.”

This represents a base level of built-in voter suppression even before the current organized backlash began.

“The last 18 months saw the biggest  wave of new voting restrictions in the United States in many decades,” said Lawrence Norden, the Brennan Center’s deputy director of the Democracy Program. “Nineteen state legislatures and governors across the country passed new laws making it harder to register to vote, cutting back on early and weekend voting, and requiring government-issued photo ID, which many Americans do not have, in order to cast a ballot that will be counted.”

However, there was significant pushback.

“In all, 11 courts in eight states blocked or seriously weakened the new restrictions,” Norden noted.  “In two states, voters got these new restrictions repealed through the referendum process.  And in 5 more states, governors vetoed new restrictions passed by their state legislatures… The result is that while there will be new restrictions on voting this November, they won’t be nearly as severe or widespread as we feared just a few months ago,” he concluded.

Still, if Republicans manage to keep the race close, there remains a very real chance that voter suppression could tip the election outcome. States where such laws remain in place cast 203 electoral votes, or 75 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.

These include the swing states Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Iowa. Last minute appeals from Ohio (which tried to roll back early voting in heavily Democratic counties only) were just turned down by the Supreme Court on October 16, while Pennsylvania saw its photo identification requirement postponed, but contradictory information is still being spread to the public.

Thus, even with formal restrictions rolled back, or in some cases delayed, the chaos, confusion and uncertainty already created may help prevent some voters from casting a vote—even above and beyond the 7 million who were kept from voting in 2008.

This brings us back to the potentially crucial impacts of Nathan Sproul and True the Vote. Sproul and Associates was involved in questionable, even illegal activities in several states in 2004, along with a second organization, an apparent Sproul shell corporation, Voters Outreach of America.

As Random Lengths reported in the October 29, 2004 issue:

Former employees in several states have said they were instructed not to register Democrats, or people planning to vote for Kerry. When screening failed, registration forms were destroyed—a felony in most states. Sproul/VOA also misrepresented itself as non-partisan, even claiming to be another non-partisan organization, America Votes, as part of its strategy to occupy public spaces such as libraries where partisan groups are forbidden.

We went on to cite specific violations reported in Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Despite this well-documented history—local news outlets reported on all the above incidents—top Republican officials still pretended to be “Shocked! Shocked!” in the words of Rick from Casablanca, when it was recently revealed that Nathan Sproul’s latest reincarnation was up to its old tricks, with revelations of selective voter registration and destroying forms for Democrats in numerous counties in Florida, and several other states.

For example, RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer, who was quoted in an NBC video report saying, “We, at this point, have an allegation. That mere allegation has caused us to act — act swiftly and boldly — and sever our ties with this firm because we have a zero tolerance [policy] when it comes to this. The other side clearly engaged for a long time in inappropriate behavior.”

Thus, an apology for widespread illegal activities was transformed into yet another attempt to muddy the waters by equating individual, money-motivated misdeeds actually uncovered by ACORN, with systemic misdeeds practiced by Republican operators for the purpose of suppressing votes.  But that wasn’t  the end of it. Despite making  a big deal out  of swiftly firing Sproul’s firm when things got too hot, the Los Angeles Times reported last weekend that Sproul was actually still working to get out the vote for Republicans in 30 states—though no one will say who’s paying him.

Sproul is a sophisticated operator in the Karl Rove mold. But True the Vote hews more to Glenn Beck’s wild-eyed paranoid style, turning from one overblown false accusation to another.  On Oct. 5, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, announced an investigation into the group’s “horrendous record” of filing inaccurate voter registration challenges across the country, including a letter with a document request for True the Voter’s founder, Catherine Engelbrecht.

“Multiple reviews by state and local government officials have documented voter registration challenges submitted by your volunteers based on insufficient evidence, outdated or inaccurate data, and faulty software and database capabilities,” Cummings wrote.

“Across multiple states, government officials of both political parties have criticized your methods and work product for their lack of accuracy and reliability. Your tactics have been so problematic that even Ohio Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has condemned them as potentially illegal, stating:

When you cry wolf, and there’s no wolf, you undermine your credibility, and you have unjustly inconvenienced a legally registered voter, and that can border on voter intimidation.”

“Looking past 2012, there will certainly be continued battles over voting rights,” said Norden. “Most importantly, the Voting Rights Act, one of the cornerstones of voting rights in the United States, is likely to be challenged in court.”

But he also held out the hope of genuine reforms that “should make it easier for all Americans to vote in a free, fair and accessible system.”

But if that’s going to happen, a lot more people are going to have to mobilized to once again fight for the right to vote.

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