are not the efforts of ACORN. It is that because we put so many barriers up to voting, especially for minorities, that our democracy is not fully representative. That is the thrust of today's lead New York Times editorial, entitled THe Acorn Story. The times wondered about the basis of the wild charges by McCain that
Acorn is "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history" and "may be destroying the fabric of democracy."
After an examination of the available information, the Times writes
Based on the information that has come to light so far, the charges appear to be wildly overblown — and intended to hobble Acorn’s efforts.
Remember - hobbling Acorn's efforts means restricting the number of low-income, primarily minority, new registrations. That is part of the real threat. Let me explore further.
The Times explores the particulars of the charges, reporting Acorn's contention that most of the forms about which there has been so much noise are precisely those its supervisors flagged as problematic. And remember, while the Times does not say this Acorn and anyone else doing such voter registration is required to turn in ALL forms collected including those that are clearly fraudulent.
Let me explore this point. I am well aware that the rules of this site require that extraordinary charges require extraordinary evidence. Thus what I am about to offer is not a charge per se, but a speculation about a possibility. Let me set it up.
- in the US Attorney's firing scandal, the key issue was the willingness or lack thereof of US Attorneys to bring charges of election fraud: those who did not were, like David Iglesias, forced out. That is documented.
- One group specifically targeted in those efforts was ACORN. That is also documented.
Now comes the speculative part.
- We are seeing an aggressive effort by Republicans, both rhetorically and now legally, to go after ACORN. That has included raiding one set of ACORN offices in a swing state, the rhetoric from the McCain campaign and others, and investigations by the FBI.
- The basis of these actions is supposedly the clearly problematic forms which ACORN itself had flagged.
- Karl Rove and his acolytes (Steve Schmidt, anyone?) have a track record of doing odd things: remember that back in Texas Rove apparently bugged his own office in order to be able to file a complaint against Texas Democrats.
- Everyone knew that the Obama campaign and progressive organizations were making a real effort to increase registration, especially among minorities.
NOW - my tin foil hat wondering aloud: is it possible that at least some of the problematic registrations are the result of a deliberate attempt by Republicans, a Rovian action, to discredit an organization known to be effective in outreach to minorities communities, perhaps even to through out large numbers of otherwise valid registrations in hopes of undercutting Democratic chances in swing states? And even if not disqualifying a sufficient number of the new registrations, of providing a basis to challenge anyone registered by such groups, thereby fouling up election day procedures? Remember, Republicans have a history of challenging and threatening minority voters. Think Rehnquist in Arizona early in his career, or even the 1st gubernatorial campaign of the supposedly sainted Tom Kean in NJ with uniformed personnel flashing badges and claiming they were "ballot security" personnel as they tried to dissuade minority voters in inner cities from voting. And if nothing else, generating news stories critical of ACORN helping to dissuade some weaker independents from voting for Obama: remember, they are a community organizing group, he was a community organizer, thus - wink, wink, hint, hint - he must have something to do with it and he must be similarly corrupt.
That's the end of this piece of speculation. But it is part of the larger context to which I will return soon enough.
The Times editorial makes clear that there is no "virtually no evidence" anywhere in any election cycle of people who are not entitled showing up at the polls and voting. And the editorial immediately notes Republican silence on another, more serious, voter registration scandal, that approximately one-third of those eligible are NOT registered to vote:
According to a study by Project Vote, a voting-rights group, in 2006, 71 percent of eligible whites were registered, compared with 61 percent of blacks, 54 percent of Latinos and 49 percent of Asian-Americans.
Here it is worth noting that traditionally about 9 in 10 African Americans who vote cast their ballots for Democrats. Hispanics have of course been a more contested group, although this cycle, in part because of Republican positions on immigration, including McCain abandoning his own immigration reform bill, they seem to be splitting about 2-1 for Obama.
The editorial rightly criticizes overly restrictive registration rules for the low rate of minority registration, and illustrates this by referencing the League of Women Voters, which abandoned a voter registration effort in Florida "after the state imposed onerous new requirements."
Ultimately, the Times points out,
The answer is for government to a better job of registering people to vote. That way there would be less need to rely on private registration drives, largely being conducted by well-meaning private organizations that use low-paid workers. Federal and state governments should do their own large-scale registration drives staffed by experienced election officials. Even better, Congress and the states should adopt election-day registration, which would make such drives unnecessary.
Election-day registration - what a novel idea. NOT! Since we have states that allow it, or are even more flexible. One reason Obama may win North Dakota is because that state requires NO registration, merely proof of thirty day's residence in the precinct.
And it is not just registration. It is easier access to voting. For more than a decade Oregon has had vote by mail, although you can drop your ballot off if you have doubts about USPS. And increasingly states allow early voting, or very flexible absentee voting which can be equivalent either to voting by mail and/or early voting.
Remember, we vote on a workday during the week. Many Western democracies vote on weekends, or make election day a national holiday. Our polls are often open for limited hours: in some places polls close at 6 PM local time. And it is very easy to discourage participation by having insufficient voting machinery in a precinct likely to be dominated by your political opposition, as we saw with Ohio for example in 2004, where some people were online for more than 12 hours.
Those lines can be increased by several other tactics designed to discourage the opposition from voting. Checking people in can be facilitated by splitting the alphabet into three or four or even five sections in large precincts, and slowed to a crawl by having only one set of registration books. The recent 6th Circuit decision seems to require the state to provide (by today!) computerized access to check registration against drivers license and social security administration, but there is as yet no Federal requirement for electronic verification of registration that could result in quicker processing of those online. And as we discovered in Florida in 2000, the process can be manipulated even when there is electronic access. WITHIN COUNTIES using paper ballots that were scanned, White, Republican precincts might have their optical scan machines programmed to reject ballots that had overvotes while those in Black Democratic precincts did not. White precincts might have laptop computers with up-to-date registration information while Black precincts were required to call in to an overburdened land line telephone to get verification. These should have been considered violations of equal protection, although SCOTUS made NO ATTEMPT to address these in the process of handling Bush v Gore.
There is something inherently violative of the spirit of a representative democracy in attempting to suppress the vote. The party or candidate who takes that approach is effectively admitting that s/he (it) lacks the appeal to win if everyone participates. It does not want a true democracy, it only wants those who support it to participate, to claim the mantle of mandate while preventing a broad election that might well deny it victory.
I have been consistent in my belief that this is wrong. I heavily criticized the Clinton campaign, including my friend Tom Vilsack, for its attempt to discourage out of state college students from participating in the Iowa caucuses. It is in my mind unconscionable for any Democrat to ever seek to suppress the vote. It is far too reminiscent of things like poll taxes, literacy tests, and the like, and the use of violence and intimidation - tactics used against Blacks in the South, unfortunately by the old Democratic party before the days that started with FDR and culminated with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act under LBJ.
That the Republican party is willing to use such tactics is despicable. Every time Republicans float the idea of fraud, we should be challenging their fear that they cannot win an honest election. Because that is one real issue
One, but not the only one.
The Times editorial ends with a clear statement:
The real threats to the fabric of democracy are the unreasonable barriers that stand in the way of eligible voters casting ballots.
Our entire electoral process is full of such unreasonable barriers, from restrictive rules on registration, to the ability to foul up the system on election day with challenges, to complicated and confusing rules on voting, such as the ballots in NC which require you to vote separately for president and only then be able to cast a party ballot for other offices. All of this is even before we consider outright manipulation of the process such as insufficient voting machines, or overly large precincts in minority districts (also designed to lengthen lines), or patently illegal activities like phone jamming and voter caging.
The real threats to democracy are not the efforts of groups like ACORN which seek to expand the participation of those eligible. The scandal is that it is, despite laws like Motor Voter, still necessary for third party groups to engage in voter registration, because our governments make it so onerous to register.
Our governments should be actively seeking to register people, to encourage them to vote, so that the actions taken by those elected are representative of the will of the people.
The real threats to democracy begin when we seek to keep people from voting.
So I have a challenge for those who do so seek: what are you afraid of? That your message, your platform, your candidate, is so unappealing that you cannot win a fair election? Then get a different candidate, run on a different platform, have a better message.
Lead or get out of the way.
And for all of us, we perhaps should consider the words Lincoln spoke in a very different context, but which might seem dangerously applicable today:
that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
If the people are prevented from participating, the government that results is not of the people because it is not by the people, at least not all of them. And such a government therefore is unlikely to address the needs of all, and thus is not for the people
Keep that in mind as we do all we can to turn out every possible vote so that the government officials elected November 4 do represent all the people, and we maintain a truly representative democracy.