The “What If” Scenario

At the third and final presidential debate, when John McCain proclaimed that, Acorn, the darling target of conservative advocacy groups like FOXNews, could have committed voter registration fraud, he said the group “may be perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.

Heady stuff, particularly when the memory of the 2000 contested presidential election and the 2004 presidential election (which could have been contested in Ohio amid documented irregularities in voting there) is fresh in the minds of so many Americans. But, despite President Bush’s claim following his successful re-election bid in 2004 that he had gained political capital (“and I intend to use it”), those elections were (here’s a little scoop you’ll only find here) close. Those elections were too close for anyone’s comfort, and because we know concentrated efforts to sway the vote — on the most micro level — can impact the outcome of elections on the most macro level, nobody should scoff when the the words “The 2000 presidential election was stolen” are uttered. That said, with a campaign that has focuses heavily on non-issues and bluster, McCain’s signaling that what appears to be voter registration fraud could actually be voter fraud is just that: bluster.

Now, Acorn’s got other major problems, most notably the news out of The New York Times that cites an Acorn lawyer’s internal memos describing potential impropriety. Most notably “[I]mproper use of charitable dollars for political purposes; money transfers among [Acorn] affiliates; and potential conflicts created by employees working for multiple affiliates, among other things.”

But Acorn, according to the story, has called charges against it related to voter registration fraud “overblown and politically motivated,” suggesting that the McCain camp is trying to scare people. If Acorn is guilty of anything there, it’s exercising naivety in paying people to go out and get fake names and invalid registrations. Mickey Mouse and Tony Romo are not showing up to vote in Chicago. That said, left-leaning voters have the tendency to freak out about about the stop-at-nothing tactics of the RNC — and they’re probably right to react that way. Contesting the outcome of an election, no matter how ugly, is far more civil than the scare tactics of elections — and generations — past that used to keep people away from the polls.

But keeping history from repeating itself should fire up the voters — Republican, Democrat, or other — in making sure that everyone has the right to cast a vote with no obstacles other than presenting identification. This is why when Roger Simon of Politico talks about good fortune being commensurate with a Democrat’s gloom, it’s as much troubling as it is funny:

The McCain campaign cannot possibly be as hapless as it looks, party leaders feel. It is lulling the Democrats into complacency. The Republicans have to have an October surprise, because the Republicans always have an October surprise.

Even Mr. Hope himself Barack Obama last week at a fund-raiser acknowledged the Democratic Party’s history of letting one get away:

Don’t underestimate the capacity of Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Don’t underestimate our ability to screw it up.

He was being half-facetious, I’m sure, but aside from Democrats self-destructing as a political party, it’s hard to know just what exactly could occur in and around the voting booth that could, if the election is close enough, alter or influence the outcome.

  • Could the election be stolen?

First, it’s got to be close to challenge anything, of course. But even then, will secretaries of state in battlegrounds states be willing accept a vote challenge? As of this writing, battleground states include North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada, Missouri, Florida, Ohio, and Colorado, according to Real Clear Politics. But with the U.S. Supreme Court already casting a decision stifling a GOP-led effort in Ohio to challenge as many as 200,000 of more than 600,000 new registrations submitted, who knows where new challenges might come from? Well, here’s a possible bite. The Associated Press reports that that a Republican lawyer in New Mexico — a state that just barely went for Bush in 2004 and just barely went for Gore in 2000 — is pushing for the case against voter fraud. That lawyer, it so happens, is Pat Rogers, the man who pressured former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to bring forward voter-fraud cases. Iglesias’ misgivings in that instance ultimately led to his firing in 2006.

A recurring nightmare is that, while everyone says your vote counts, what if your vote doesn’t count? Rather, what if your vote is not counted?

  • How prepared are states for this election?

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU released a report asking this very question. The reports notes that:

Voting systems will fail somewhere in the United States in one or more jurisdictions in the country. Unfortunately, we don’t know where. For this reason, it is imperative that every state prepare for system failures. We urge each state to take steps necessary to insure that inevitable voting machine problems do not undermine either the individual right to vote, or our ability to accurately count each vote cast.

The report goes on to say that, among the battlegrounds, Colorado and Virginia are two states that are least prepared when it comes to, among other factors: polling place contingency plans related to repair and other X factors, having a verified paper trail, and a post-election audit of a voter verifiable paper trail. That said, battleground states Minnesota, Missouri, and North Carolina were listed as among the country’s best prepared states.

  • The Narrow Victory Scenario

Chief McCain strategist Steve Schmidt raised some eyebrows last week when he told The New York Times that the path to a McCain victory in November could be by way of a “narrow victory scenario.” On the surface, Schmidt’s assertion was that the McCain campaign would cease trying to dig into traditional blue states, but work on holding on to historically red states, while scratching out a battleground state or two.

How to scratch out those battlegrounds? Well, keep voter turnout low, of course. How? By using limited funds to highly publicize shock at groups, like Acorn — potentially keeping people away. Let’s not forget that some Justice Department officials leaked a possible investigation into Acorn:

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow got into it a bit last week:

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

These are the What Ifs we can mull over in the event of a “narrow victory scenario.” What If it’s not close?

Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.

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