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« Congratulations, Sylvia and Bernard! | Main | Most Americans Agree: We Need Universal Health Care »

Voter Caging: Reprehensible, Unethical, Unlawful

By Nora Thomason
December 29, 2007

How safe is your right to vote? Alarming evidence continues to surface that our votes may be in danger of continued attempts at manipulation and outright suppression. When these sorts of underhanded tactics center on efforts to disqualify voters based on age, race and ethnicity, these so-called dirty tricks are not only reprehensible and unethical - but also unlawful and dangerous.

Recently, Ally Klimkoski gave us a fantastic summary of the newly discovered efforts in her state to "cage" voters. Evidently, Kris Kobach, the chairman of her state's Republican Party sent out an email boasting that his party has "identified and caged more voters in the last 11 months than the previous two years." This is not about party politics. This is about the rule of law. If guilty, Kris Kobach deserves to be bestowed with loud, raucous and sustained opprobrium.

You're about to hear an important story. It's a story that involves both your right to vote, and your right to have your vote counted.

What is voter caging?

Used in past elections by the Republican Party to disenfranchise poorer citizens, minorities, college students away at school, or servicemen and women away at war, "voter caging" entails sending mass mailings to certain (unwanted or Democratic) voters and then using the undelivered letters as evidence to take them off the official voter rolls or to compile lists of voters for eligibility challenges.

Vote caging is an effective method of voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement.

Voter suppression, of course, is a form of electoral fraud and refers to the use of governmental power, political campaign strategy, and private resources aimed at suppressing (i.e. reducing) the total vote of opposition candidacies instead of attempting to change likely voting behavior by changing the opinions of potential voters.

"Vote caging" is an illegal trick to suppress minority voters (who tend to vote Democrat) by getting them knocked off the voter rolls if they fail to answer registered mail sent to homes they aren't living at (because they are, say, at college or at war). (Dahlia Lithwick, Slate, May 31, 2007)

Is there a similar plan for the upcoming elections?

To support Ally's enlightening post, I'm adding to it by offering here most of the transcript of the NOW program that aired this past July on PBS television. In this recent broadcast, Brancaccio interviews both Greg Palast and David Iglesias.

David Brancaccio examines documents and evidence that points to a Republican Party plan designed to keep Democrats from voting, allegedly by targeting people based on their race and ethnicity.

Evidence has emerged that in the last American presidential election the Republican Party organized efforts to suppress the votes of active duty military, low-income, and minority voters by challenging their registrations. One technique used to do that is something called voter caging... and now Congress is investigating whether "voter caging" was part of a broader effort to suppress the votes of groups likely to support Democrats. (David Brancaccio, NOW, Public Broadcasting Channel, July 27, 2007)

David Iglesias is one of the fired U.S. Attorneys who allegedly was fired by the Bush administration for not prosecuting Democrats for election fraud. Greg Palast is the author of Armed Madhouse and one of the first writers to surface the evidence about voter caging and vote suppression in the 2004 election.

BRANCACCIO: We recently caught up with Palast at his New York office.

PALAST: This is a big problem in America. We're still asking today, nearly half a century after Martin Luther King was killed, do black people have the right to vote?

BRANCACCIO: Evidence has emerged that in 2004, the Republican Party, at both the state and national level, had a plan to challenge 100's of thousands of voters. Supporters of the Democratic Party conducted a massive voter registration drive, signing up millions of likely democratic voters that year. So the republicans set up a program to have many of those registrations thrown out.

Here's how it worked. The Republican Party sent these newly registered voters a friendly welcome letter. It began, "congratulations!" But what the republicans really wanted to see was whether that letter could be delivered. If a letter could not be delivered, the name was added to a list of people the republicans planned to stop as they tried to vote. What seemed like an innocuous piece of junk mail was really a test.

PALAST: You don't lose your civil rights because you weren't around to collect a piece of junk mail, or even first class mail. It's not proof of anything when a letter comes back.

BRANCACCIO: When a person walks in who's on the list, you can say, "Hey, are you supposed to be voting?" Is that the idea?

PALAST: Yeah. The idea is you don't want illegal voters but that's not what is going on here. These aren't illegal voters, these are "gotcha" voters.

BRANCACCIO: Many of those letters were sent to people who might have had a legitimate reason for not getting them, like students away at school or members of our military serving overseas. And to lower the chances the letters would reach them, the republicans stamped the envelopes "Do Not Forward."

Greg Palast has obtained documents he says show how the grand old party did this in the state of Florida. He gave us a look.

PALAST: This is the Republican Party's secret program for Election Day, 2004.

It says, "Pre-election day operations." Okay. They are going to send first class mail to all new registrants. And when the mail comes back, they said, be prepared to challenge anyone on this list attempting to vote.

BRANCACCIO: This scheme of preparing lists of names from returned mail is called "caging." In and of itself, "caging," is not a crime. But what is a crime, says Palast, is targeting groups based on race.

What pattern started to emerge as you started to probe into what are these addresses?

PALAST: Well, a few things. One, they're obviously voters. And two, they were obviously voters of a certain persuasion. They were black people which is pretty stinky stuff, because you cannot mass challenge people, voters in America. Under the Voting Rights Act, it's illegal if race is a factor. You just can't do it.

BRANCACCIO: You are aggressively anti-Bush Administration. Are you viewing these documents and these lists thru a partisan lens?

PALAST: I'm anti every administration. I've had complaints from every party: Democrat, Republicans, even the Greens. If they weren't complaining, I would think I'm not doing my job.

BRANCACCIO: Keep in mind, the republicans don't deny they were assembling "caging" lists. They just say it wasn't illegal. So we decided to see for ourselves where the republicans sent some of their letters. One place was Jacksonville, the city with the highest percentage of African Americans in Florida.

Edward Waters College is in Jacksonville. It's one of the oldest black colleges in America. Each year, the school conducts a voter registration drive among the students. So in 2004, the republicans sent those students letters--over the summer.

Melvin Alston runs the school's counseling center.

ALSTON: The chances of a letter finding a student here in August is none. We don't have a whole lot of students that would be on campus in August.

BRANCACCIO: A bunch of those letters got bounced back, so the republicans added those students to their caging list. April Walker was put on the list. So was Larry Coleman, and, angelica ford. In all, 31 students were listed as potentially ineligible voters.

ALSTON: We encourage our students to vote. We encourage them to be part of the political process. And when someone is tampering with that process, that is criminal.

BRANCACCIO: You see lots of addresses on the same street)

ALSTON: That's right.

BRANCACCIO: A lot of them close together. What does that tell you?

ALSTON: Well, when you go through it, you're gonna see poor people in crowded apartment buildings, as opposed to suburban areas. You're gonna basically see a map of black Jacksonville.

BRANCACCIO: Even men and women serving in the United States military got caught up in the republican sweep. Another batch of letters got sent to newly registered voters at the Jacksonville naval air station. Some of those couldn't be delivered--presumably because the recipients were overseas for military duty.

PALAST: You send a letter to a serviceman that's overseas and you say, "That's a fraudulent voter. Don't let them vote." Excuse me, is that the America that these guys are fighting for?

BRANCACCIO: In 2004, Florida wasn't the only state where republicans set out to challenge likely democratic voters. In Ohio, the republicans also launched a huge effort to disqualify voters.

Prior to the election, a lawyer for the republicans held a news conference praising the job they were doing to ferret out fraudulent voters in Ohio.

WEAVER: We sent out thousands of pieces of mail as did the board of elections, and they continue to come back 'deceased,' 'return to sender', 'no such person here'...

BRANCACCIO: Behind the scenes, republican officials were delighted. "NOW" was able to obtain some of their e-mail. In one, an official calls the returned letters, "a goldmine." In another, officials discuss doing the same thing in other battleground states, including, Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico.

In Ohio, the republicans eventually put together a list of 35,000 people to stop on Election Day.

Eddie Hailes is a senior attorney for the civil rights organization "Advancement Project." Hailes points out the republicans got caught doing this before, back in 1980. Back then, they even signed a legal agreement promising never to do it again. Still, Hailes had to file suit to stop them in Ohio.

HAILES: The Republican State Committee, working in concert with the Republican National Committee had failed to get these mailings pre-cleared by a judge who had jurisdiction over a consent decree from 1981 that required the Republican National Committee to pre-clear any mailing that was targeted to voters in communities of color.

BRANCACCIO: A judge found the republicans were in violation of their agreement and ordered their plan to confront voters on Election Day shut down. But they did carry out another plan. Before the election, they had local officials pull thousands of citizens into special hearings to defend their right to vote.

Not everyone targeted by the republicans was African American. Lance Schwartz and his wife Mindy live near Marion, Ohio. Schwartz is a 30 year old music teacher and a registered democrat. Republicans made Schwartz come in for one of those hearings.

SCHWARTZ: They were saying it was based on return mail. They didn't have the returned mail to show me, there was no proof of that returned mail, they just said there was return mail.

BRANCACCIO: Where Schwartz lived, county officials thought the challenges were so weak, they threw them all out.

There's another big national story connected to these efforts to challenge voters. Key insiders say there is also evidence that, in 2004, there was a plan to use the colossal legal power of the United States department of justice to challenge voters. That too, could have been illegal.

David Iglesias is at the center of the scandal now engulfing the bush administration. He's one of the nine U.S. attorneys who were fired. Iglesias is the former us attorney for the state of New Mexico. Over the years Iglesias says his bosses back in Washington repeatedly asked him to investigate voters. My now colleague, Bryan Myers, spoke with Iglesias.

IGLESIAS: This was a priority every two years during the election cycle with the Bush Administration.

MYERS: Was there any explanation ever given as to why there was this interest?

IGLESIAS: No. There was no explanation. I had assumed that was the historic practice of the justice department. But I subsequently learned that this administration made it a priority.

BRANCACCIO: In 2004, Iglesias also began getting frequent calls from prominent state republicans. Iglesias says republicans wanted him to investigate one group in particular--an organization called "Acorn." "Acorn" is a liberal advocacy group that was working to register new democratic voters. As you might imagine, Iglesias already had his hands full investigating things like terrorism and drug smuggling.

IGLESIAS: You have to understand, there are approximately 4,000 federal criminal laws. And we're tasked to enforce them all. Do the math. It's impossible to enforce every possible law.

BRANCACCIO: Nonetheless, Iglesias set up a task force to look into the republican allegations.

IGLESIAS: We're getting referrals from people who are concerned that this election may be dirty...

BRANCACCIO: Iglesias says his task force could not find a single case of voter fraud worth prosecuting. State republicans officials were so angry, they complained to senior white house aide Karl Rove. A short time later, Iglesias got the boot.

IGLESIAS: What really scarred the party was the election of 2000, in which the President lost the popular vote, but won the Presidency through litigation and I believe there was an attempt to not ever let this happen again. And win by any means, legal or otherwise.It's reprehensible, it's unethical, it's unlawful. It very well may be criminal.

BRANCACCIO: Iglesias describes himself as a loyal republican, but he believes the plan to challenge voters was directed by the White House. He also believes that's why key White House officials like rove have refused to testify before congress or turn over important documents.

IGLESIAS: I believe there to be incriminating, possibly criminally incriminating evidence contained in those e-mails and other memoranda. That's why the White House doesn't want to produce it to the Congress.

BRANCACCIO: Iglesias says for further proof of white house involvement, just look at who was hired to replace one of the fired us attorneys--it was none other than the aide to Karl Rove who helped direct the voter caging plan nationwide.

We reached out to that aide, and several other Republican Party officials at the national and state level. They refused to comment. But as a result of the allegations by Iglesias and others, congress is now investigating whether the White House has been working to illegally suppress the minority vote.

There are already indications that the republicans are setting out to challenge voters in the 2008 election. In a speech in April of 2006, Karl Rove claimed that elections have become so tainted by liberal fraud that America is, quote, "beginning to have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are...colonels in mirrored sunglasses."

Democrat John Conyers, the chairman of house judiciary committee, is leading the investigation into the firing of the U.S. attorneys. Just this week, his committee cited two white house aides for contempt of congress, for refusing to testify about the case. Conyers says that secrecy is another sign republican tricks may be in store for the 2008 election.

CONYERS: They're becoming more sophisticated. Some of the people doing them are getting cleverer, and doing it better than they used to.

BRANCACCIO: And as for reporter Greg Palast, he too plans to keep working on this story, hoping to get to the bottom of it--even if those reports sometimes do seem to make a bigger splash in Britain than they do here in America.

PALAST: You have to understand, the rest of the world is fascinated by America's democracy and any failure thereof. In Britain, they have a huge contingent of troops in Iraq on America's claim that they're there to fight for democracy, and yet they are finding out that in America, democracy is a pretty tenuous thing.

As one commenter noted recently:

This isn't an example of business as usual politics - this is just plain dirty politics.

It weakens democracy, disenfranchises innocent citizens and furthers the cynicism against government by the general public.

The Kansas Republican Party, however, is not only allegedly engaging in voter registration tampering and criminally dirty politics, they evidently made the mistake of assuming (or acting as if they truly believe) that caged voters are a trophy to be proud of and brag about.

Insomuch as this proves true, they have sullied the entire state, not just their party.

The bragging may even be more reprehensible than the crime itself.

If you've made it this far down this post, you are probably wondering how we can combat this effort. No matter what party you belong to - I do hope that the whole idea of vote caging is offensive to you - and that you want to do something to combat it.

How can we keep authentic voters from being caged and prevented from voting?

Quite simply, we can get out and register voters.

Regardless of your party affiliation, you should make sure that your registration is up-to-date.

We can all take action by encouraging "already registered" voters to register again, whether they need to re-register or not. There is no harm whatsoever in having people register more than once, it only verifies their registration. If anybody has moved since the last time they voted, they need to re-register anyway. If they've changed their name, they need to re-register. If they've not voted in a few elections, they should re-register just to make sure they haven't been caged or kicked off the rolls.

There is no harm in re-registering. Everybody should get everybody else to register to vote!

Other documents and links about vote caging:

Comments (2)

Alicescheshirecat Author Profile Page:

Thanks for your awesome reporting on this. As you might have been able to tell I was in a rush to post something and you did so much more for the information!!

Ally, thanks. I didn't think your post looked like you were in a hurry at all! I thought it was very awesome and very thorough and you cited many sources. When I read your post, I became more knowledgeable and then I wondered if others needed even more knowledge. Plus, I wanted to keep your excellent post in the limelight by writing about it! You are awesome. Nora T.

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