If you relied on the usual sources to make sense out of the “U.S. Attorneygate” scandal, you’ll be forgiven for missing the heart of the matter. Lost in the barrage of coverage of the political byplay in the investigation into the firing of nine United States attorneys is the crucial back story: a protracted struggle over voting rights that grew out of the contested 2000 elections, the outcome of which will effect who is elected president and who controls Congress in 2008.
The story began with a Republican-directed vendetta against voter registration, orchestrated from the White House against those, like the grass-roots anti-poverty group ACORN, working to register poor and minority voters. And it leads to the firing of New Mexico’s U.S. attorney David C. Iglesias, who infuriated state GOP operatives for failing to go after voter-fraud allegations with sufficient zeal.
The furor that followed the firing of the U.S. attorneys in December 2006 took the Bush administration by surprise. But perhaps the biggest bombshell was the April 2007 congressional testimony of Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who stated that he “had received a complaint” from Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove about the work of U.S. attorneys, including Iglesias, for not aggressively pursuing voter-fraud cases.
Writing about Sampson’s testimony in Newsweek, Michael Isikoff reported that before Iglesias was fired, prominent New Mexico Republicans complained repeatedly to Rove about Iglesias’ decision not to indict Democrats for voter fraud. Sampson drew up a list of prosecutors to be fired, with input from the White House. And McClatchy News reported that Allen Weh, chairman of New Mexico’s Republican Party, twice sought Rove’s help-the first time via an intermediary, the second time in person-in getting Iglesias fired. “He’s gone,” Rove said.
The Disenfranchised Poor Are Always with Us
Registering poor people and minorities has long been on the agenda of civil-rights and progressive groups. More than one out of four voting-age citizens-more than 50 million Americans-are unregistered. In 2002, 80 percent of families with incomes above $75,000 voted regularly, compared with 25 percent of families with incomes below $10,000, according to the Census Bureau. Most poor Americans don’t vote because they see politicians as unresponsive to their needs or perspectives. Moreover, minority voters have long faced obstacles-literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation, threats, and violence.
Poor people, and blacks and Hispanics in particular, tend to vote for candidates who favor redistributionist policies, such as high taxes on the rich, raising the minimum wage, government-supported job training, and universal health-care. And they typically don’t vote Republican. So schemes to suppress voting by minorities are standard equipment in the Republican tool box.
After the 2000 election, Karl Rove surveyed the political landscape and saw a divided electorate. He needed a plan to energize the GOP base and ensure that Republicans got the 1- to 3-percent edge they needed to win. Rove kept a close eye on voter-registration data, seeking to slow the rate of Democratic-leaning registration. And it wasn’t long before Bush’s lawyers, Republican activists, conservative publications, and right-wing bloggers would all join in the hunt for alleged voter fraud.
John Ashcroft, George W. Bush’s first attorney general, was a natural to lead the hunt. In the 2000 U.S. Senate race in Missouri, then-Senator Ashcroft lost to Democrat Mel Carnahan, despite the fact that Carnahan had died in a plane crash a few weeks earlier. In St. Louis, a city dominated by African-American Democrats, the polls had stayed open past the official closing time, infuriating Republicans like U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, who charged, “The Democrats in this city are trying to steal this election. If they [succeed], some people ought to go to prison.” Bond later spearheaded calls for an investigation into alleged voter fraud.
In late 2001, according to McClatchy News, Ashcroft hired three political operatives to work in a secretive new unit in the federal Civil Rights Division’s Voting Rights Section. One member of the unit was Hans A. von Spakovsky, a former Georgia election official and Republican activist. He eventually took de-facto control of the Voting Rights Section and used his position to advocate for tough voter ID laws. According to McClatchy, Ashcroft repeatedly cited allegations of rampant voter fraud to justify such measures.
On virtually every major voting decision since 2002, the Voting Rights Section came down on the side of Republicans in states where recent elections had been decided by narrow margins, notably in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Washington. In 2002, Ashcroft announced a plan that required “all components of the [Justice] Department” to “place a high priority on the investigation and prosecution of election fraud.”
As the 2004 election approached, Ashcroft launched an initiative in key presidential battlegrounds, including Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and New Mexico, targeting bogus registrations and other election crimes. The Justice Department asked U.S. attorneys across the country to meet with local election officials and launch publicity campaigns aimed at getting citizens to report irregularities.
Voter-fraud accusations against ACORN surfaced in 2004 in Florida, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Wisconsin. None of these allegations panned out; most involved incomplete or duplicate applications, and even bad handwriting. Yet most journalists covered the fights over voter registration and participation as a kind of he-said, she-said story, suspending judgment on the relative accuracy of Democrats accusing Republicans of voter repression and Republicans accusing Democrats of voter fraud. Perhaps striving for evenhandedness, mainstream media, including public radio, treated the subject as if voter access by minorities and voter fraud were like siblings who complain that the other gets too much attention: The Democrats yell and scream about access; Republicans about fraud.
The controversy might have continued to generate more heat than light, but for an incident in New Mexico involving a low-paid Hispanic ACORN employee named Christine Gonzales.
Who’s Defrauding Whom in the Land of Enchantment?
In the swing state of New Mexico, which Al Gore won by 366 votes in 2000, Republicans and Democrats waged a bitter battle over requiring voters to show a photo ID. In 2003, when ACORN began its voter-registration drives there, Republicans were sure the result would be fraudulent voting by illegal aliens and others. By the fall of 2004, the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry had tightened, and by all accounts, ACORN was signing up new voters statewide. By August 2004, ACORN and its allies registered 65,000 people-about a 10-percent increase over 2000-in Bernalillo County, home to Albuquerque. The Republicans’ vendetta against ACORN in New Mexico was about to begin.
It started in early August when a group of Republicans led by County Sheriff Darren White marched into the Bernalillo County clerk’s office and asked if there were any “problem” registrations. County Clerk Mary Herrera said yes: some 3,000 incomplete or error-ridden forms were missing Social Security numbers, post office box addresses, or signatures.
That was enough for White, one of the state’s highest-profile Republicans and chair of the county Bush-Cheney campaign. “When they brought me on, it was plain and simple: They said, ‘We need to win Bernalillo County,’ “ White told the Albuquerque Journal.
On August 5, he dashed off a letter to New Mexico’s U.S. attorney, David C. Iglesias, asking him to investigate voter-registration cards that might be fraudulent. A series of “suspect” forms had been submitted in recent weeks, he said in his letter.
Herrera told reporters that she was getting incomplete forms. “When a clerk’s employee calls the voter to fill in the blanks, the person sometimes says he or she never filled out the form,” Herrera said.
Although most glitches were typical errors by registrants or the people registering them, Republican officials held a press conference, claiming that grass-roots groups were producing fraudulent registrations. One of the groups they named was ACORN.
A few days later, Glen Stout, an Albuquerque policeman, was surprised to receive a voter-registration card in the mail for his 13-year-old son, Kevin. He reached out to Republican leaders, including Rep. Joe Thompson, an Albuquerque Republican and lawyer. Thompson was about to file a lawsuit against the New Mexico Secretary of State charging voter-registration irregularities. Stout agreed to join as a plaintiff.
Kevin Stout denied filling out the application, and it looked as if his signature and birth date had been forged. ACORN had submitted the application in his name, and local authorities quickly traced the problem to Christine Gonzales, a young ACORN canvasser.
Thompson filed suit in state district court on August 20, seeking a judgment that New Mexico’s voter-identification statute, which applied only to first-time voters who registered by mail, should be broadened to include those signed up by groups like ACORN. The law required first-time voters who registered by mail to present identification such as a utility bill or government-issued photo ID.
On August 24, Stout and Thompson stood outside ACORN’s Albuquerque offices and blamed the group for faulty voter-registration cards. “We have proof,” Thompson declared and produced young Stout’s voter-registration form, turned in by Gonzales.
Matthew Henderson, ACORN’s head organizer, knew his group’s voter-registration process had flaws. A few workers weren’t sufficiently careful about whom they signed up. Gonzales’s name was indeed on the registration card. But Henderson also knew that she was not the person who assisted the boy in filling out his registration form, because he had fired Gonzales in May for altering forms to get credit for other people’s work.
On September 2, a hearing on the case was to take place before State District Judge Robert L. Thompson. If the judge ruled in the Republicans’ favor, the result would be changes in election rules two months before the election, confusion among voters, and the likely disenfranchisement of hundreds of the people ACORN had registered.
Henderson testified that ACORN had no way to contact registrants to let them know they might have to show identification at the polls. People could be turned away and become discouraged from voting if they have to show identification, Henderson said. He cited examples of voters whose identification doesn’t match their address on the voter roll because they’ve moved, or because they aren’t carrying acceptable ID.
“What’s going on now is no different from what was going on in the civil-rights movement of the ’60s,” Henderson said to the press. “This is about a set of people trying to stop another set of people from voting.”
The Republicans produced a few examples of what they alleged to be clearly fraudulent applications. But their case began to unravel when several women whose registration cards were attached to the lawsuit testified that they registered twice by mistake and that no fraud was involved. One woman had told an ACORN canvasser that she might already be registered. She testified that the canvasser replied, “If you’re not sure, register, and if there were duplicates only one would be recorded.” It turned out that she had in fact registered previously. No fraud was intended. Another instance involved a couple who had registered but had not received their cards. Worried that their applications had been lost, the husband returned to a street-corner registration table and filled out two new forms and, with his wife’s permission, signed her name.
On Sept. 7, Judge Thompson rejected the Republican-led efforts to require county clerks to demand identification from voters who don’t register in person with the county. Far from being cowed by their loss, state GOP leaders responded by demanding a criminal investigation into voter fraud. At a press conference the same day, Iglesias promised a thorough inquiry. “It appears that mischief is afoot,” he said, “and questions are lurking in the shadows.”
Iglesias announced the establishment of a voter-fraud task force to investigate complaints about election fairness. It would include lawyers or other staff from his office, the U.S. Department of Justice criminal division, the FBI, the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, and the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office. “There’s a lot of information that’s of a questionable nature,” Iglesias said. “We’re getting lots of referrals from people across the spectrum that this election may be dirty…. The task force is ready to investigate all legitimate referrals.” He said that his team was already investigating one allegation, but declined to give details. He also said the much-publicized case of a 13-year-old boy who was registered by ACORN merited investigation, alluding to Kevin Stout.
One important Republican was not satisfied with Iglesias’ task force. Mickey D. Barnett, a lawyer who represented the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign in New Mexico, shot off an e-mail message to Iglesias urging him to bring charges against the canvasser who forged signatures. The Albuquerque Journal reported that Barnett chastised Iglesias for “appointing a task force to investigate voter fraud instead of bringing charges against suspects.”
Nevertheless, Iglesias’ investigation continued. In addition to the allegations against Gonzales, Iglesias’ task force took a close look at more than 300 matters. By January 2005, he concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to bring a case.
Iglesias’ decision was so frustrating to Republicans that they began a campaign to get rid of him that reached all the way to the White House. He became the target of fierce criticism by state GOP lawmakers and political operatives, more so than any of the other seven prosecutors whose dismissals set off a furor in Washington, according to a March 17 New York Times article based on extensive interviews and a review of Justice Department documents.
Weh, the New Mexico Republican Party chairman, was quoted in the Times saying, “If I saw a felony take place and reported it to police, I would be mad if they didn’t do anything.” Weh said to Iglesias, “There were well-known instances of voter fraud and people expect them to be prosecuted.” Then he got on the phone and called an aide to Karl Rove. He asked that Iglesias be removed from office. “The next time I saw that [Rove] staffer, I said, ‘Man, you guys need to get a new U.S. attorney. This guy is hopeless,’ “ Weh said.
ACORN and voter registration were already on Rove’s mind by the time Weh sought his help. In 2004, on the Fox News program “Hannity & Colmes,” Rove referred to “a bunch of workers from ACORN” who were seen carrying absentee ballots. “In the state of Pennsylvania,” Rove said, “you cannot give your absentee ballot to someone else to deliver for you. You have to put it in the mail yourself, and here were a bunch of workers for a very highly partisan group carrying a bunch of prisoner ballots out of the prison illegally and attempting to vote them.”
On April 7, 2006, Rove gave a speech to the Republican National Lawyers Association. Asked about election fraud, Rove answered, “… We’ve got a few more things to do before the political silly season gets going, really hot and heavy. But yes, this is a real problem. I mean Bernalillo County, New Mexico, will have a problem after the next election, just like it has had after the last two elections. I mean, I remember election night 2000, when they said, ‘Oops, we just made a little mistake; we failed to count 55,000 ballots in Bernalillo; we’ll be back to you tomorrow.’ “
When Weh saw Rove at a White House function in late 2006 and asked him about Iglesias, Rove replied that Iglesias was “gone,” according to Weh. On Dec. 7, Iglesias was asked to resign. The spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office said that he “has had discussions with officials in Washington, D.C. Based on those discussions, he has decided to move on.”
Rove’s WMD and the 2008 Outlook
As the 2008 election approaches, the intense media attention to Attorneygate hasn’t curbed the GOP penchant to play the politics of voter fraud. To hold on to the White House and regain control of Congress, Rove and the Republicans may think they can’t afford to quit using the Justice Department, including U.S. attorneys, to harass advocacy groups such as ACORN for signing up new voters.
Even if Republican activists persist in their voter-suppression campaign, it will have little impact on ACORN’s voter-registration efforts. The organization plans to continue its efforts, using tighter quality controls to prevent irregularities. Leaders and staff are exploring ballot campaigns around health care and mandatory sick leave for the 2008 campaign.
As a result of the Attorneygate scandal, the mainstream media began to investigate the Republican allegations of voter fraud and found that they were baseless. According to an April 12 New York Times article, 120 people have been charged with the crime in the past five years, leading to 86 convictions. Most of the acts of wrongdoing were committed by voters who filled out more than one registration form and by immigrants and felons “seemingly unaware that they were barred from voting.” That same day, a Times editorial noted, “In partisan Republican circles, the pursuit of voter fraud is code for suppressing the votes of minorities and poor people.”
If the press continues to dig in to the story, it will be harder for the Bush administration to pursue investigations into voter-registration drives in poor and minority communities and to ignore harassment and discrimination at the polls. The question is whether ACORN and its allies can now help to re-frame the debate and change the public perspective on voter registration by demonstrating why a progressive political agenda that includes ending poverty depends on increasing voter turnout of poor minorities. The evidence is on ACORN’s side, but much will turn on whether the press sustains its new focus on the truth about the Republican voter-fraud vendetta, the WMD of Bush’s political strategy.