Running, With Scissors

The Republican drive to cut off voters is the sleeper issue of 2008

BY Hans Johnson

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When Senators soon take up the nomination of Michael Mukasey to be attorney general, they have a special obligation to probe him on abuses of power in the Voting Section of the Department of Justice. Hearings for the would-be boss at DOJ must not pass without a proper accounting of how a Bush-appointed gang of dirty-tricksters, acting under a badge of federal authority and alleging voter fraud, has pressured states to spurn their own policies and erase voters from the rolls. Imagine an election board stacked with Nixon’s Plumbers.

Senators should keep the questions coming. The nominee’s response, better than any White House ballyhoo, will speak to his integrity and independence. And how reporters treat the problems plaguing the unit–as merely another partisan dispute in Washington or as the bending of an oversight body into a tool of selective disenfranchisement that might cost Americans their vote–may determine if the wrongdoing on the public dime will end. Media coverage could also decide if anyone gets held accountable.

How do we know the Voting Section has been misusing its authority? A federal judge, after reviewing the facts of its marquee anti-fraud case, said so. In April, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey in Missouri ruled that the Voting Section “has sued the wrong parties” in its drive to force the state’s secretary of state to purge voters and reach some number of total registrants that the Feds might deem acceptable. The section conveniently overlooked the fact that cities and counties maintain the lists, not the state. Nor did it plan to deal with people wrongly cut off. Whatever the section’s arguments of phony voters, the judge wrote that it failed to show “that any voter fraud has occurred.”

How did the section stray so far from its mandate? For more than two years under chief John Tanner, it has adopted a definition of fraud that rests heavily on estimates and wishful thinking. The section sued four states and threatened 10 others with legal action due to voter rolls in at least one of every 10 jurisdictions it says contain more names than they should, based on census projections of adult citizens. Observers liken such demands to gathering phone directories then ordering local carriers to shut off phone service to any number not listed in the book.

What other clues indicate that the Voting Section is doing damage, and may fear detection? In July, Tanner refused to testify before a panel of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The need to call him as a witness became clear after news reports and Senate hearings revealed that two close colleagues, Brad Schlozman and Hans von Spakovsky, were cherry-picking evidence and pressing dubious cases to discredit Democrats and benefit GOP candidates in tight races.

Both men are central to the unfolding scandal over U.S. attorney firings. Von Spakovsky faces criticism for a number of actions to gut voting rights. Yet he is now a member of the Federal Election Commission. Schlozman, who replaced a terminated prosecutor in Kansas City, has now quit the DOJ. Earlier this month, he admitted to selecting staff there based on ideology, in violation of federal law.

Despite the fact that cities and counties keep Missouri’s voter records, the trio made the state a focus of their drive to cut off registered voters. A couple factors might explain why. First, it is a historic battleground whose election result most reliably indicates the outcome of presidential contests nationwide. Being a highly coveted prize makes the state a highly inviting target.

Second, the Bush Administration is in a long-running feud with the family of the state’s chief elections officer, Robin Carnahan. In 2000, just three weeks after his tragic death in a plane crash, her father Mel, then governor, defeated Senate incumbent John Ashcroft to win a Senate seat. (Robin’s mother, Jean, ultimately took that seat in her husband’s name.) Narrowly defeated amid unprecedented turnout from communities of color and low-income voters, Ashcroft stayed in Washington as Bush’s new attorney general. Both men exulted at the ouster of Jean Carnahan in late 2002. In 2004, Robin’s election as secretary of state, simultaneous with her brother’s ascendance as Dick Gephardt’s successor in Congress, marked the resurgence of the family’s brand of plain-spoken, progressive leadership.

Since 2005, Tanner and the partisans who took over the Voting Section from moderate predecessor Joe Rich don’t appear ready to bury the hatchet. Instead, they have brandished it, and not just toward targets in Missouri.

Democratic election administrators across the nation have felt the impact of the section’s bid to force purges of voter lists. The effect of such purges, similar to the botched purge of Florida rolls by ChoicePoint in 2000, would be to strip thousands of poor, elderly, student, disabled, and infrequent but still registered voters of their voting rights.

Earlier this month, AlterNet published the results of its investigation of state voter registration rolls and the roster of states targeted by Voting Section lawsuits and threatening letters aimed at cutting off voters from local registration rolls. A discernible pattern appears in the actions of the Voting Office: targeting chief state elections officers who are Democrats and excusing those who are Republicans.

For instance, of the four states (Indiana, Maine, New Jersey and Missouri) that the section has sued since 2005 in order to cut off voters from their rolls, three (all but New Jersey) have election chiefs with party affiliations. Two of the three (Maine and Missouri) are Democrats.

And of the 10 states (Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Vermont) to which the section sent threatening letters seeking to cut off registered voters, nine (all but North Carolina) have election chiefs with party affiliation. Five of them (Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Vermont) are Democrats.

Of all these states, two (Missouri and Iowa) are presidential swing states likely to be extremely hard-fought in 2008, when every vote will matter. Both have election chiefs who happen to be Democrats and are in the Voting Section’s crosshairs.

AlterNet also found that voter rolls in four other states appeared to meet the criteria for triggering a threatening letter from the Voting Section to demand a purge of registrants. Of these states (Alaska, Colorado, Illinois and Michigan), three (all but Illinois) have election chiefs with party affiliations, and all three of them are Republicans. Yet, for some reason, they avoided Voting Section scrutiny and pressure to cut off voters. Two of them, Michigan and Colorado, are also ‘08 presidential swing states.

It is not as if even high-ranking Republicans are immune from the perils of voter purging. In August 2004, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), intending to vote for himself on primary day, found his own name knocked off the registration rolls as he went to cast his ballot in the town of Mexico. His wife, still listed, had to vouch for him before he could have his say in his own reelection. This snafu suggests the larger chaos and frustration that ensues at polling places when massive amounts of cutoffs occur in the midst of a high-turnout election.

The miscarriage in the mission of the Voting Section and its big-footing into local election administration is emblematic of the rot throughout the Bush Administration. Not since the death of J. Edgar Hoover 35 years ago has control of information and federal authority been so tightly concentrated and secretive as in the vast executive branch of George Bush. Yet despite their own embrace of Big Brother, Republicans on the campaign trail have grown skilled at projecting this stigma onto Democrats by invoking state coercion and intrusion. Remember the rifle butts in the rescue of Elian Gonzales, or the scare tactics used to block health-care reform in ‘94?

Democrats in Congress can begin to fix the mess of the Voting Section by getting on-the-record answers and reasserting its purpose: more people properly registered and voting, not fewer. Whether Democrats on the campaign trail succeed in making its partisan manipulations backfire and blow up in the faces of their ‘08 rivals will show how much they have learned from the lost opportunities of the last 20 years.

As for Mukasey, he counts himself a fan of George Orwell, the foe of authoritarianism who coined the name Big Brother. A photo of the author, who conjured a regime where protection meant suppression and agencies did the opposite of their titles, even graces his office wall. If he does become the last attorney general of the Bush era, he will need to muster every ounce of Orwellian insight to navigate the administration he joins.

Hans Johnson, a contributing editor of In These Times, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a columnist and commentator on labor, religion and trends in state and national politics.

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