In June, The Atlantic magazine’s Marc Ambinder reported that some people inside Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign were hoping to soften the GOP’s traditionally aggressive campaign against “voter fraud,” partly because they thought previous efforts had created a backlash in public opinion. But the next day, the campaign’s top lawyer fired back, writing to Ambinder that “any impression that we’re not committed to stopping voter fraud is 100 percent false.”
Of course, federal officials have never found evidence of widespread voter fraud. But that hasn’t stopped Republican operatives from exploiting fears of ballot security to build a nationwide campaign of laws, policies and flimsy challenges that ostensibly prevent fraud while actually limiting voting access for the nation’s most marginalized citizens.
To be fair, many of the barriers Americans face at the polls could stem less from partisan interference than from the enduring holes in the nation’s election administration infrastructure. In two recent House subcommittee hearings, election officials from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia cautioned that a lack of resources and trained poll workers would lead to delays and confusion at high-traffic polling sites.
Tova Wang, vice president for research at the nonprofit citizens’ lobbying group Common Cause and co-author of a new report on voting access in 10 swing states, says “Virginia is troubling. Turnout in Virginia might be huge, and it hasn’t been a swing state before, so in some ways they haven’t had a practice run.”
But it won’t solely be infrastructure issues that cause problems. Nationwide, conservatives have started an active campaign of voter caging and intimidation to suppress turnout. “I think there are signs that challenges will occur,” says Wang. “The question is to what degree.”
This cycle’s most egregious example is taking place in Michigan, where James Carabelli, chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, told the independent, online daily Michigan Messenger in September that he will challenge the eligibility of voters who’ve been issued a home foreclosure notice.
Not only is the tactic illegal – receiving a foreclosure notice is not evidence that a person’s address has changed – but it could be racially charged because a disproportionate number of the state’s foreclosures affected African Americans and Latinos. More than 60 percent of all subprime loans in Michigan were made to black lendees.
In July, Doug Preisse, GOP chairman of Franklin County, Ohio, hinted he might do the same, claiming his party wants “clean, accurate voter lists.”
Florida’s GOP is sharpening its legislative attack, as well. State officials have resumed enforcement of a controversial “no match, no vote” policy, which denies registrants voting eligibility if the information they submit while registering does not match that in a government database. “This law means if there’s some small variation in the way you put your name,” says Wang, “you will not be registered.”
In December 2007, a judge from the U.S. District Court of Northern Florida issued a temporary injunction against the verification law, which the state legislature first approved in 2005. In June, a federal court deemed the law legal, but Republican Secretary of State Kurt Browning waited until early September – just three weeks before the end of voter registration – to reinstate the practice.
Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen (a McCain campaign co-chair) is trying to implement a similarly cumbersome law that would remove people from the voter rolls if the address on their registration forms does not match the one listed on their driver’s license. He’s also demanding that the state’s Government Accountability Board retroactively run a database match on every voter registered since January 2006, despite virtually no evidence of voter fraud in the state.
Some election officials may also be misleading left-leaning populations about their rights. The local registrar in Montgomery County, Va. – home to Virginia Tech University and the site of a sizeable Obama voter registration drive – issued two press releases incorrectly suggesting that students who register to vote at their college could lose scholarships, their dependency status or coverage under their parents’ car and health insurance.
Meanwhile, in Alabama, the state’s GOP has pressured the Prisons Commissioner to halt a voter registration drive directed at inmates who had been convicted of drug possession, even though a 2005 Alabama attorney general’s opinion deemed them eligible to vote.
While President Bush’s Department of Justice keeps its focus on voter fraud cases, the Obama campaign is fighting back. In September, the campaign filed suit in federal court to prevent the foreclosure gambit, calling it “a new and especially repellent version of caging.”
They’ve also rolled out the most comprehensive voter protection campaign ever, enlisting thousands of lawyers to ensure that registered voters make it on the rolls, ballots are available and polls stay open.
Shannon Gilson, a spokeswoman for the Obama campign, says, “We will have the resources to protect the right of every eligible voter to cast a ballot and have it counted.”