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New Project Vote Media Memo Assesses GOP's Record of Voter Caging and Other So-Called "Ballot Security" Measures Print E-mail

RNC is arguing they should be let out of consent decree prohibiting targeted “ballot security” efforts, but history argues differently.

May 1, 2009

On November 3, 2008, on the eve of an historic defeat for the GOP, the Republican National Committee (RNC) quietly filed a motion to dissolve an existing consent decree that prohibits them from engaging in so-called “ballot-security” measures, such as sending direct mail to voters for the purposes of compiling challenge lists—a practice known as “voter caging” that has historically been used to deter thousands of Americans (largely low-income and minority citizens) from voting. The RNC claims it is necessary to untie their hands so they can protect against “voter fraud,” but history has proven time and time again what the GOP really means by “ballot security”:

The GOP has been practicing voter caging since the civil rights era.

  • Some contemporary RNC and state republican officials have admitted, privately and publicly, that caging and similar so-called “ballot security campaigns” are intended to suppress the African-American vote. During a 2004 Detroit election campaign, for example, Michigan State representative John Pappageorge told a meeting of Oakland County Republican Party members that “if we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we’re going to have a tough time in this election.” (Detroit’s population is 83 percent African-American and overwhelmingly supports democratic candidates.)
  • In 1958, the Arizona Republican Party mailed campaign literature to 8,000 democrats marked “do not forward.” With no further attempt to verify recipients’ addresses or eligibility, the party used the returned mail caging list to launch blanket challenges, attempting to disqualify democratic voters and voters in heavily minority precincts.
  • After John f. Kennedy’s defeat of Richard Nixon in the 1962 presidential election, the RNC developed and implemented a nationwide caging campaign dubbed “Operation Eagle Eye.” buoyed by republican caging operations in several states. Operation Eagle Eye was made a formal part of the 1964 RNC Ballot Security Manual in an effort to organize and coordinate state caging programs. It was reported at the time that the GOP sent out 1.8 million letters in its caging operations nationwide.
  • In 1981 the RNC in 1981 mailed non-forwardable postcards to predominately Hispanic and African-American districts in New Jersey; the 45,000 cards that were returned were then used to create a list of voters for the GOP to challenge at the polls, on the grounds that the voters no longer lived at the addresses on their voter registration cards. The Democratic National Committee sued in DNC v. RNC, resulting in a consent decree in which the RNC agreed not to engage in these and similar practices “where the purpose or significant effect of such activities is to deter qualified voters from voting.” It is this decree the RNC now seeks to dissolve.
  • Despite the decree, the RNC did the same thing in Louisiana in 1986, attempting to get 31,000 voters removed from the rolls based solely upon the return of a mailed postcard. The 1982 case was reopened, and the decree amended to require the RNC to get prior court approval before engaging in any activities to combat voter fraud.

They coordinated state-based caging operations all over the country in 2004.

  • In 2004, the Ohio Republican Party mailed approximately 232,000 non-forwardable letters to all newly registered voters; those returned as undeliverable were used to challenge about 35,437 voters in predominantly minority metropolitan areas. Using a familiar justification, the RNC and Ohio Republican Party joined forces to launch a media campaign alleging that the effort was necessary to prevent “voter fraud.”
  • The 2004 Ohio operation was part of the most egregious and large-scale voter caging program to date, as state Republican parties staged caging operations that disproportionately targeted minorities in Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky. Between 2004 and 2006, partisans challenged more than 77,000 American voters in targeted communities.
  • E-mails between state party employees and the RNC suggested close cooperation between the national organization and state parties.

Threats of targeted caging efforts in 2008 show that the GOP hasn’t changed its strategy.

  • In Montana, the Republican Party filed challenges against 6,000 voters on the basis of residence in counties that were historically Democratic strongholds. To obtain its caging list, the party cross-referenced the new statewide voter database with the United States Postal Service’s National Change of Address database, even though Montana voters who have moved are allowed to vote in one election at their old precinct as long as they update their voter registration cards. Ultimately, Republican Secretary of State Brad Johnston instructed county boards of election to ignore the challenges and the Democratic Party filed suit to enjoin further challenges.
  • According to the Huffington Post, one of the challenged voters was First Lieutenant Army reservist and former state representative Kevin Furey, who was stationed in New Jersey in preparation for returning to Iraq. “It is ironic that at the same time I am about to return to Iraq to help build a democracy that my own right to vote is being challenged at home for partisan purposes,” said Furey. “These challenges are a blatant and offensive attempt to suppress the rights of voters.”
  • The Montana Republican Party withdrew the challenges in response to local elections officials’ complaints, intense stress on the voting system, and a huge public backlash. In an October 2008 op-ed in the Montana Standard, Lieutenant Governor John Bohlinger, a Republican, called the challenges "an utter disgrace," and said he was "appalled by the leadership of [his] political party."
  • In Michigan, the Obama campaign and three individuals filed suit against the state Republican Party to enjoin the use of foreclosure lists as the basis for mass challenges against voters. The suit was triggered by statements from the Macomb County Republican Party chair that the party intended to challenge any voter who attempted to vote from a foreclosed address. The Michigan Republican Party later denied the statement. The suit settled with an agreement not to use foreclosure lists as the basis of challenges. In a September 2008 letter to Attorney General Mukasey, the Obama campaign and others urged an investigation of threatened foreclosure voter caging.

Republican “ballot security” efforts go beyond caging, and beyond the RNC, to encompass a broad range of suppression efforts by the party’s candidates, officials, and law-enforcement office-holders.

  • In 2006, inquiries into the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys exposed the politicalization of the Bush Administration Justice Department, in which law enforcement’s traditional role of protecting citizen rights was perverted to serve a partisan agenda of voter suppression. The resulting investigation and scandal revealed how trumped-up charges of “voter fraud” were used in 2004 and 2006 to pursue a cynical strategy of intimidation by law enforcement that was designed to hamper voter registration efforts and suppress turnout at the polls. This was at the heart of the U.S. Attorneygate scandal that led Karl Rove, former attorney-general Alberto Gonzales, and other top Department of Justice officials to resign. David Iglesias, the former Republican U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, has said he was forced from his post when he refused Karl Rove’s and Alberto Gonzales pressure to bring trumped-up charges against the voter registration group ACORN.
  • On October 27 Project Vote initiated with the ACLU a class action lawsuit alleging that members of the New Mexico GOP illegally used private social security numbers to do background checks of legal voters and illegally disseminated their confidential voter information to the press. Nine of the ten voters were Latino, all identified as Democratic, and most were 18-19 years old. Several of these legal voters subsequently received intimidating visits from a private investigator who claimed to be working for the law firm of Pat Rogers, a is a GOP attorney conspicuously mentioned in the Attorneygate investigation as one of the key players in New Mexico who put pressure on U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to investigate alleged “voter fraud” cases. The DNC also subsequently filed a contempt motion, stating that “the hiring of private investigators by the RNC to investigate voters clearly does not constitute a ‘normal poll watch function’ within the meaning of the 1987 Consent Decree, but rather constitutes a ‘ballot security’ effort within the meaning of that Decree, which the RNC is prohibited from undertaking without a determination by this court that such program complies with the terms of the 1982 Consent Order.”
  • In the fall of 2008 the Republican Attorney General of Wisconsin, J.B. Van Hollen—who was also co-chair of that state’s McCain-Palin campaign—filed a lawsuit against the state's Government Accountability Board to force them to cross-check more than 240,000 voter registrations against driver's license records. The impact of the lawsuit would have been to force the voters to use provisional ballots, calling their votes into question and tying up the polls on Election Day. The court dismissed the Attorney General’s case in October and the appeal was subsequently dismissed.
  • In Colorado, Common Cause and other election advocates succeeded in obtaining a preliminary injunction order against Republican Secretary of State Mike Coffman. Plaintiffs claimed that state officials violated the NVRA by removing the names of voters from the statewide voter registration database within 90 days of the election for unauthorized reasons, including the return of an address confirmation postcard to reach new registrants.
  • In Wisconsin, the GOP issued a call to policemen, security personnel, and firefighters to serve as “volunteer poll watchers “in inner city precincts. According to the Washington Post “Jonathan Waclawski, the party's election day operations, wrote in a Sept. 8 e-mail that he needed contact information for people "who would potentially be willing to volunteer ... at inner city (more intimidating) polling places. Particularly, I am interested in names of Milwaukee area veterans, policemen, security personnel, firefighters etc. ... If you have any connections with such organizations, please pass that information on." The move was reminiscent of a disturbing history of attempts to intimidate voters in predominantly minority precincts.
  • In 2008 in Ohio, Greene County sheriff Gene Fischer announced that he was “seeking information” about hundreds of people who registered to vote and cast a ballot during Ohio’s five-day window of same day registration and voting. Despite rulings from four different federal and state courts upholding the lawfulness of Ohio’s five-day window, from September 30 to October 5, in which voters could register and cast an absentee ballot on the same day, the County announced they were attempting to “determine whether there was any voter fraud or not," according to a quote in an Associated Press story from Tom Miller, chief of the prosecutor’s civil liberty division. Fischer claimed to have been “flooded” with phone calls about alleged voter fraud; yet no actual evidence for an investigation was given. Following public outcry and media attention, the Greene County prosecutor’s office announced that that investigation had been cancelled.
  • Also in Ohio, county prosecutor Joe Deters—who was also the local chairman of the McCain campaign—initiated a grand jury investigation and issued subpoenas for unredacted personal information on 40% of the 671 new voters who cast ballots during Ohio’s five-day window of same-day registration and voting. Deters—citing unspecified allegations of “voter fraud”—launched the investigation and took it upon himself to conduct some attempt to match these voters to government databases and investigate those he determined had problems. Both the election board and the secretary of state’s office said they were unaware of any evidence of voter fraud. "I can't get past the feeling that this is just a partisan thing,'' Tim Burke, a member of the Hamilton County Board of Elections told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I just don't believe this is anything but partisan politics."
  • In a 2004 report to the Center for Voting Rights and Protection entitled “Republican Ballot Security Programs: Vote Protection or Minority Vote Suppression—Or Both?”, scholars from Rice University discussed the history of what they call “ballot security programs gone bad” which, in the name of protecting against vote fraud, are intended to have a chilling effect on voting in “almost exclusively target heavily black, Latino, or Indian voting precincts.”

Download this memo here.

For more information about voter caging, see Project Vote’s comprehensive report

Caging Democracy: A 50-Year History of Partisan Challenges to Minority Voters,

by Teresa James, September, 2007.


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