Here Come the Dirty Tricks

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, October 19, 2004)


A truism of recent American elections is that high turnout favors Democrats. Hence Democrats are worried about Republican attempts to suppress the vote by way of “dirty tricks” and voter disenfranchisement.

In an election constantly dubbed “the most important” in years, get-out-the-vote efforts have signed up record numbers of new voters in various states. On the other hand, there would be even more new voters registered if not for the ironically named Voters Outreach for America.

A former employee told a television station that VOA, which was paid to collect signatures by the Republican National Committee, intentionally destroyed hundreds of registration forms in Nevada, trashing only those filled out by Democrats. VOA, which is run by former Arizona GOP chair Nathan Sproul, has also registered voters in Oregon, where the attorney general’s office is now investigating whether similar selective-ballot-destruction efforts took place there. As the New York Times editorialized:

“Destroying voter registration forms is not merely an ugly political trick; it can be a felony. The Department of Justice, and the states of Nevada and Oregon, should quickly and thoroughly investigate these allegations, and look into any registration work being done by Voters Outreach and Mr. Sproul in other states. The charges should be pursued wherever they lead. Since the Republican Party was paying the bills, questions should be asked about what instructions it gave for its registration drives, and what it knew about the alleged malfeasance.”

In another swing state, New Hampshire, the regional chair of George Bush’s re-election campaign has had to step down because of his alleged role in a 2002 phone-jamming operation that prevented six Democratic get-out-the-vote offices from making outreach calls. In an election where now-GOP Sen. John Sununu narrowly defeated former Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen, there’s no telling how much of an impact those dirty tricks had. And as the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald explains, James Tobin’s resignation still leaves some questions unanswered:

“The Democrats didn’t get to question GOP operatives under oath on Thursday because the Justice Department stepped in, declaring the testimony in the civil case might damage its ongoing criminal investigation. The Democrats cried foul, charging the Justice Department with protecting the Republican operatives, but clearly there was enough heat around the issue to force Tobin’s resignation.

“Tobin adamantly denies any wrongdoing. ‘These allegations date back two years and have absolutely nothing to do with the present campaign,’ Tobin told The Associated Press. ‘But to avoid any harm to the campaign from (the Democrats’) underhanded tactics, I elected earlier this week to step down.’ Tobin’s comments are curious because his political affiliates, not the Democrats, pleaded guilty to “underhanded tactics,” and he himself acknowledges that the only reason he is stepping down is to avoid damaging the Bush campaign, now deadlocked with U.S. Sen. John Kerry in the Granite State.”

Then there’s Pennsylvania, where Republicans are trying to relocate 63 Philadelphia polling places, 59 in largely minority neighborhoods. Republicans claim those polling places are not adequate for voters, but didn’t file their complaint until Friday. Since voters who go to the wrong polling place will not be able to vote, the last-minute nature of the complaint (which is expected to fail) sure makes it look like an attempt to suppress minority voting:

“I’ve never witnessed a more wanton example of an effort to discourage minority voters from participating in an election,” Kerry campaign spokesman Mark Nevins told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s despicable.”

Swing states aren’t the only ones where such tricks are being deployed. In some California counties, pollworkers are reportedly being trained not to offer voters the option of a paper ballot (and with it, a paper trail) even though the state makes that option available. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

“Ed Cherlin, a pollworker being trained in Santa Clara County, said he was very disturbed to learn that he was not supposed to mention the paper option. ‘I object to the government telling me that I can’t tell people about their rights,’ he said. Representatives of the voting commissions in Orange County and Riverside confirm that they also will not be informing voters about the paper option at the polls. There are ten counties in California using paperless e-voting machines known as DREs. It is not clear at this time whether all ten are adopting similar policies.”

Beyond these tricks, there are concerns about the rules governing provisional ballots in Ohio and Florida, the possible intimidation of minority voters on Election Day, and the possibility of a new tactic from the brain of Karl Rove.

The aforementioned examples have made headlines with two weeks still to go before the election. As the vote draws nearer, voters must confirm their registration and keep an eye out for more dirty tricks. In an election like this, irregularities at just a few polling places could decide the winner.

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