Voter caging is a term that drew public attention after Monica Goodling, former White House liaison to the Department of Justice, referred to the practice when she testified before a May 2007 House Judiciary Committee hearing on the firings of eight US Attorneys. Although public interest in voter caging is relatively recent, the practice is not new. The mass challenges to voters in the 2004 election were the end result of voter caging operations. Republicans have engaged in voter caging on the national and state level since the late 1950’s. According to many election observers, voter caging is a controversial political tactic that typically targets minority voters to deny their right to vote or suppress their vote by intimidation. Republican officials, on the other hand, maintain that voter caging is part of what they describe as “ballot security” measures necessary to combat voter fraud.
What is "Voter Caging"?
Voter caging is a practice of sending mass direct mailings to registered voters by non-forwardable mail, then compiling lists of voters, called “caging lists,” from the returned mail in order to formally challenge their right to vote on that basis alone. Other methods, such as database matching, have been used more recently to compile voter caging lists. The practice is used almost exclusively by officials or members of the Republican Party, local and national.
How can voters be challenged?
Voter caging is used in conjunction with state voter challenge laws, which permit private individuals to challenge the right of other citizens to vote. The process of issuing the challenges differs from state to state. Commonly, the process begins with a formal written challenge filed with local election boards by a certain date before the election. The challenger must have personal knowledge that the challenged voter is ineligible to vote in some jurisdictions, but that is unfortunately not the norm. Many more states permit challenges merely on the basis of the challenger’s “reasonable belief” that the voter is ineligible.
How Has Voter Caging Been Used?
After an initial voter caging operation in Arizona in 1958, a nationwide voter caging campaign dubbed “Operation Eagle Eye” was conducted in 1964 by the RNC and state Republican parties in major metropolitan areas nationwide. Voter caging and other voter challenge operations continued in isolated states during the 1980s and early 1990 and re-emerged on the political scene as nationwide campaign strategy in 2004. In 2004, political operatives targeted more than half a million voters in voter caging campaigns in nine states. At least 77,000 voters had their eligibility challenged between 2004 and 2006.
What’s Wrong with Caging and Voter Challenges?
Many of the state challenge laws have their roots in the post-Reconstruction Era and are descendants of the Jim Crow laws intended to deprive African Americans of their franchise. In the1890s, former Confederate states reacted to robust political participation by African American voters and candidates during Reconstruction by instituting what was known as the “Southern system.” The Southern system employed restrictive residency requirements, periodic registration, poll taxes, and literacy or “understanding” requirements, to suppress the African-American vote. Challenge laws were passed during this period to enable private poll watchers to issue challenges. The obvious flaw in permitting private citizens to challenge voters is that it opens the door to partisan interference in elections.
Read Project Vote's report Caging Democracy: A 50-Year History of Partisan Challenges to Minority Voters here.