`Election fraud' cry useful tool for GOP

March 18, 2007|By Paul Rogat Loeb

They just wanted to protect the sanctity of the vote.

That's the Bush administration's pious explanation for firing eight U.S. attorneys who were Republican enough for President Bush to have appointed them in the first place.

"The president recalls hearing complaints about election fraud not being vigorously prosecuted and believes he may have informally mentioned it to the attorney general," explained White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

How could you question such a laudable goal?

Of course, the justifications keep shifting, as with the Iraqi war. First it was the general performance of the prosecutors. Then it was a preference for specific replacements. Now it's concern for the democratic process.

But the administration and its allies have a long history of using the specter of election fraud to justify reprehensible actions. In 2000, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush claimed to be fighting potential fraud when he purged more than 55,000 voters from the rolls for felony convictions that never applied under state law - or never existed.

Staffers of the data collection firm that handled this effort acknowledged that the purges disproportionately targeted low-income Democrats, particularly African-Americans. A follow-up by BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast found that 90 percent of those scrubbed were legitimate voters, enough to have made Al Gore the winner. And the Supreme Court that decided Bush v. Gore was led by William H. Rehnquist, who got his start harassing black and Hispanic voters in Phoenix as part of a Republican effort called Operation Eagle Eye.

Election fraud was also the watchword in 2004. Ohio Secretary of State (and Bush state campaign chair) J. Kenneth Blackwell claimed he was just protecting the legitimacy of the vote when he knocked 300,000 voters off the rolls in key Democratic cities such as Cleveland, far exceeding Mr. Bush's margin of victory. Mr. Blackwell also tried to reject new Democratic registrations because an arcane law said they were supposed to be on 80-pound paper stock (presumably more secure), then had to back off when his official forms failed the same criterion. And he went to court to ensure that provisional ballots would be considered only if cast in the right precinct - defeating their key purpose - even as he sowed voter confusion by pulling machines and closing polling stations in long-standing Democratic neighborhoods.

But maybe voting integrity really is the issue in the U.S. attorney firings. In the same 2004 election, according to Mr. Palast in another BBC report, Karl Rove aide Timothy Griffin, just named the U.S. attorney for eastern Arkansas, originated a strategy to send 70,000 letters challenging the addresses of voters, most black and Hispanic, in places such as Florida's Jacksonville Naval Air Station, a local homeless shelter and the historically black Edward Waters College. Mr. Palast writes that Republicans sent out the letters with do-not-forward instructions. When they came back undeliverable, as when soldiers were deployed overseas, Florida then struck the voters from the rolls so that even absentee ballots no longer counted. Maybe that's what White House spokeswoman Perino meant by showing concern for the sanctity of the vote.

If election fraud were a serious problem, such abuses might have a shred of legitimacy. Yet the documented cases of deliberate illegal voting are minuscule. For its 2003 report "Securing the Vote," the think tank Demos conducted a national study seeking documented evidence of fraud. It ran comprehensive searches of newspapers and court records and contacted secretaries of state and state attorneys general. Except for cases involving a handful of isolated individuals, the rumors of illegitimate voting turned out to be baseless. The image of armies of unregistered, illegal and dead people swarming the polls was and is a Republican myth.

In Maryland, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, warned about voter fraud in opposing early voting. Meanwhile, his 2006 campaign and that of Republican Senate candidate and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele bused in homeless men from Philadelphia to hand out misleading fliers in black neighborhoods featuring photographs of former Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson with the words "Ehrlich-Steele Democrats" - though Mr. Mfume and Mr. Johnson had unequivocally endorsed the Democratic opponents of Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steele.

As for the fired U.S. attorneys - in the end, what was their sin? It seems they weren't sufficiently enthusiastic about joining compatriots who investigated or indicted local Democrats by a nearly 5-1 ratio over Republicans, often with election eve headlines that melted away, along with their cases, as soon as the polls were closed. Some may have refused to go after Democratic groups that were trying to register voters.

Perhaps those in this solidly Republican group believed their job was to serve all of America's citizens, instead of playing the role of political attack dogs.

It's too bad that couldn't be the standard for the administration that terminated them.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear." His Web site is www.paulloeb.org.

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