Urban Suppres-sion Or Urban Legend?

Are Republicans Trying To Steal The Election (again) Or Are Democrats Jumping At Shadows?

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Here we go again. On September 10, the left-leaning online news site MichiganMessenger.com posted a story titled "Lose your house, lose your vote." The article - by Eartha Jane Melzer, a documentarian whose work has appeared on right-leaning Fox News - quoted the GOP boss of Macomb County, Michigan, as saying: "We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren't voting from those addresses." The story went on to imply that the chairman of the Republican Party in Franklin County, Ohio, was instructing his foot soldiers to do likewise.

It's a post foreclosure-crisis twist on an old Republican election trick known as "caging." Here's how it works: First, identify stereotypically Democratic districts, like low-income areas in which residents work long hours, are more likely to be enlisted in the military and are leery of signing for official-looking documents. Gather addresses from these communities, and mail registered letters to them. After the mail is returned as undeliverable (because the resident was at work, was stationed overseas or because they thought they might be put on some government watch list), take that information to the local Board of Elections and challenge those citizens' right to vote as a resident of that precinct on election day. For that (likely Democratic) vote to count, the voter must then prove that he or she resides in that jurisdiction. But how many working people have that kind of time on a weekday?

Officially, the Republican National Committee agreed to stop the practice of caging in 1986, after it was caught profiling black voters in Louisiana. Unofficially, it continued. In 2000, Florida Republicans used flawed lists of felons to successfully challenge the voting rights of thousands, including many non-felons. In 2004, Republican campaign managers in Florida accidentally e-mailed what appeared to be a caging list to a satirical Bush website with a domain name similar to the campaign's.

Ohio will play an important role in this year's presidential election. Cuyahoga County is home to the largest population of registered Democrats in the state, and Cleveland is the epicenter of the foreclosure mess, so any attempts at caging based on foreclosures could have detrimental effects on Barack Obama's chances of winning Ohio and the White House. So what the hell is really going on? Are we seeing the beginnings of a Rovian conspiracy to steal the election? Is this some sort of sly manipulation by the Democrats to motivate voters through fear? Or could it be that one reporter got it wrong and this is just a bunch of hullabaloo over nothing?

TheMichiganMessenger.com story isn't necessarily solid. Still, Democrats are taking every real and perceived suppression threat seriously. On September 16, Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee filed a lawsuit against the Macomb County Republican Party in federal court, alleging that Republicans were planning to use home foreclosure rosters as caging lists. Though the claim is based entirely on the Messenger report, the complaint reminds the court of the GOP purging of 35,000 registered voters in Ohio just before the 2004 election. "This voter suppression scheme led to mass chaos in the Ohio election process, with 10 election officials across the state being diverted from activities essential to the orderly administration of elections to hold 'hearings' on each of the 35,000 challenges - all of which were based on nothing other than the return of a single postcard (many of which were misaddressed)."

Then, last Friday, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Bruner issued a "clarification" of election law, stating that undeliverable mail cannot be the sole reason for canceling an Ohioan's voter registration. "As we prepare for a November 4, 2008, election, in which every eligible voter who wants to vote should be able to do so freely, we seek to protect Ohioans' fundamental right to vote - to have their voices heard on critical decisions about all levels of their government," said Bruner.

That same day, Democratic Congressman John Conyers - who held unofficial hearings on the '04 election in Ohio - demanded that the U.S. Attorney General launch an investigation to find out if Macomb County Republicans were really using foreclosure lists to disenfranchise black voters.

Meanwhile, those quoted in the Messenger report claimed the article was a fabrication, a ruse concocted by a left-wing conspiracy. "I have no voter challenging program here in my county," Macomb County Republican Chairman James Carabelli told The New York Times' political blog, suggesting he was misquoted. In fact, the Messenger was forced to edit the story a bit after it was learned that the reporter had taken information that seemed to suggest that Franklin County, Ohio's GOP chairman was also planning to use foreclosure lists to challenge votes out of context from a July article that ran in the Columbus Dispatch.

In a post dated Friday, the Messenger explained the reporting of the piece, and stated that the site stands "behind this story 100 percent." The Messenger also pointed out that while Macomb County Republican leaders were attacking the article in the media, no one had contacted the Messenger to ask for a retraction.

If foreclosure caging were happening anywhere, surely it would be happening here in Cleveland, right? Yet Democrats cannot find a single report of such a case in Ohio.

Cuyahoga's GOP chairman, Rob Frost, says such a plan is not in the works and never has been. "I would not want to hear about anything of the sort going on in this area," he says. "This is typical misinformation. It's what the Democrats do year in, year out."

Even if Republicans aren't culling foreclosure lists, they're still up to no good, says Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Alex Goepfert. "We have yet to confirm any reports of the other side deploying this particular tactic against voters in Ohio," he concedes in an e-mail, "but already this election cycle we have witnessed the Ohio Republican Party brazenly engaging in what even nonpartisan voting experts … describe as 'blatant voter suppression'." He is referring to the Ohio Republican Party's lawsuit against Bruner, which asks the Ohio Supreme Court to undo her directive that allows people to register and vote on the same day, a practice that may tip Ohio's tally toward Obama as supporters comb the cities searching for unregistered voters. (Her directive was made possible by a law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, signed by a Republican governor and that's been in effect through several election cycles.)

In the end, we don't need Karl Rove operatives to disenfranchise and annoy us, anyway; we're doing a fine job of that ourselves. Consider the fact that the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections still hasn't fully tested the new optical scanners it bought to replace the glitchy Diebold machines. And that Bruner wants the office open seven days a week until the election, even though no one knows for sure who should be paying for the employees' overtime. Or that we don't have enough poll workers to staff every precinct and haven't bothered to train the ones we do have yet.

"Regardless of the system or the vendor, there's always going to be something that could happen," BOE Director Jane Platten told The Plain Dealer on Monday.

Well, yeah, but you had four years to figure it out. Maybe we could have at least tested the machines before the election this time.

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