Make no mistake: At this point, it’s clear that the voter fraud chimera, and its potential to keep thousands or millions of Obama voters out of the final count, is becoming the central Republican strategy for winning this election. The party doubts it can win if every legitimate vote is counted, so they aim to make sure that some of them aren’t. False allegations of voter fraud, which can serve to both intimidate voters and challenge ballots, is their means to this end.
As David Corn wrote last week, the right’s “desperation is showing” as they scramble to reverse John McCain’s free-fall by smearing Barack Obama with every scary label they can find. (As David summarized it: “Obama is a Black Muslim, Anti-Christian Socialist Plotting with an Evil Jewish Billionaire.”) But in case this fails to frighten off enough voters to close Obama’s lead, vote suppression is the Republicans’ last-ditch tactic for snatching a tainted victory from the jaws of defeat.
This is a strategy that’s been developing for years within the Republican Party. But it’s really taken off during the Bush administration—maybe because W (or, more likely, Dick Cheney) remained conscious that he only got into the White House through vote suppression, and could only stay there through more vote suppression. The administration’s zeal to advance the myth of voter fraud was key to what has become one of its biggest scandals: the politically motivated firings of nine U.S. attorneys by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2006.
Clearest of all is the case of David Igelsias, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico. It has since been revealed—and confirmed by the Justice Department’s own Inspector General—that the primary reason for Iglesias’s dismissal was his failure to aggressively pursue alledged cases of voter fraud after the 2004 election–including a case involving the current GOP target, ACORN, which registered a couple of underaged boys. Iglesias (a Republican himself) found insufficient evidence in that case, and no grounds for any others, so he resisted the urging of Republican politicians and party activists in the state–and was fired.
An especially good—and concise—take on this case comes from an Albuquerque elections lawyer, John Boyd, via Brad Friedman (who blogs about “electile dysfunction” at BradBlog.com). Boyd describes what he calls the “three-pronged scandal” of the attorney firings and the “‘voter fraud’ fraud”:
First, there is the scandal of the “voter fraud” fraud which the Republicans have been trying to use to help promote restrictive, disenfranchising voter i.d. legislation. Second, there is the scandal of the Republicans attempting to enlist the US Atty’s office in their voter fraud fraud by getting him, at taxpayer expense and contrary to the most elemental ethics, to use his office to generate headlines about “voter fraud” when none was occurring, for the sole purpose of shaving Democratic party margins. Third, there is the scandal of firing Iglesias for refusing to go along with this fraudulent manipulation.
The Obama campaign is now seeking to highlight all of these connections, by urging the Justice Department to have the same special prosecutor who is handling the attorney firings, Nora Dannehy, investigate whether the F.B.I.’s current investigations of ACORN are politically motivated as well. It’s a shrewd move, and it positions the Democrats to fight the legal battles that are sure to follow the election if the vote count in swing states is close. But at this point, it won’t do much to fight abuses on election day. That will depend in large part on the perseverance of the voters.
It’s already clear just what they will up against. New reports document the obstacle course that many voters—especially first-time voters—will have to run simply to exercise their most basic democratic right. I got a first glimpse of their determination in New Mexico, which I traveled through on my cross-country trip with a Guardian Films team.
While there may have been few signs of voter fraud in David Iglesias’s former jurisdiction, there has been rampant evidence of vote suppression. In the 2004 election, the state became notorious for its sky-high rate of “undervotes”—ballots that have been cast but do not include a vote in a particular contest. Records show an astonishing 1 in 36 ballots in New Mexico missing a vote for president that year. The total undervotes came to over 21,000—more than five times the margin of victory in the state, which George W. Bush won by fewer than 4,000 votes. About 80 percent of those undervote ballots were cast on electronic voting machines with no verifiable paper trails. The machines have since been banned and paper ballots mandated (though now there are concerns about the machines that tally up those paper ballots). But once burned, New Mexicans are still worried about their votes being counted.
On Saturday we stopped at a rally in Santa Fe with state Democratic politicians, meant to draw locals to the in-person early voting that’s just begun in New Mexico. When we got there the place looked dead, and we decided it was a bust. But then we rounded the corner of a building, and there were the voters: not 10 or 20, but a good 75 or more, prepared to wait in the blazing sun for as long as two hours, with more people joining the line all the time.
Emerging from the voting booth in his wheelchair, Joe Parker, a state employee, told me that he had been turned away from voting at the primary and wasn’t going to have that happen again. “I want to be sure there are no problems,” he said with a tight smile. Ballots in New Mexico, he explained, had a way of “getting lost.”
Portions of this post originally appeared on the Guardian’s “On the Road to the White House” blog.