RNC Wants Out of Consent Decree Prohibiting Them from Voter Caging
by Project Vote, Thu Apr 30, 2009 at 04:00:34 PM EDT
Cross posted at Project Vote's Voting Matters Blog
On the eve of the Presidential election, facing an historic defeat, the Republican National Committee quietly filed a motion to dissolve an existing consent decree in which they'd agreed not to engage in voter caging or other types of voter intimidation. Since 1982, the RNC has been restricted from conducting so-called "ballot-security" measures that have historically been used to deter thousands of Americans--largely low-income and minority citizens--from voting. Now, the RNC wants to be free of these restrictions. A hearing on the RNC motion is scheduled for next Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for New Jersey.
The case began in the early 1980s when the Democratic National Committee sued the RNC for voter suppression tactics that targeted about 45,000 people in low-income and minority areas. The RNC subjected minority voters in New Jersey to misleading election notices, the intimidating placement of off-duty police around polling places, and the unlawful practice of "voter caging" whereby unfounded voter challenge lists are compiled from returned mass direct mailings.
The case, DNC v. RNC, resulted in a 1982 decree in which the RNC agreed not to engage in voter caging and intimidation activities or to target minority voters.
Despite the consent decree, the RNC began using similar tricks in Louisiana in 1986. Under the guise of fraud prevention, the RNC facilitated voter caging programs and other tactics. Commenting on the program, Kris Wolfe, the Midwest RNC political director, sent a memo to Lanny Griffith, the Southern RNC political director, saying "I would guess this program will eliminate at least 60,000 to 80,000 folks from the rolls...If it's a close race...this could keep the black vote down considerably." The DNC filed a contempt motion to reopen the case and enjoin the RNC from conducting the Louisiana programs. Once again, the RNC voluntarily agreed to a consent decree rather than fight the claims in court. The result was a 1986 decree in which the RNC agreed not to do any ballot security programs anywhere in the country without prior court approval.
More than 20 years later, on November 3, 2008, the RNC moved to terminate the 1982 and 1986 consent decrees. The RNC claims the consent decrees hamstring their efforts to combat voter fraud, despite the fact that voter fraud is less common than death by lightning.
"The RNC claims that the lack of evidence of voter fraud is due to liberal voting laws that make fraud hard to detect," said Project Vote election counsel, Teresa James. "Yet legislatures in the past decade have pushed through the most restrictive voting codes we've seen since the Jim Crow era. Complicated voter ID rules, barriers to voter registration, and arbitrary rules on verifying provisional or absentee ballots all disenfranchise qualified voters, especially minority voters. Despite this frenzy of allegedly anti-fraud legislation, this political party wants carte blanche to also use questionable tactics that suppress targeted voters, all in the name of mythical voter fraud.
The GOP's history of "ballot security" programs hardly constitutes an argument that the consent decree is unnecessary; while the RNC has been officially restrained from conducting voter caging operations, the state parties have taken up the slack, most notably in 2004, when state Republican parties staged the most egregious and large-scale voter caging program to date, with caging operations that disproportionately targeted minorities in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky. (During a 2004 Detroit election campaign Michigan State representative John Pappageorge told a meeting of Oakland County Republican Party members that "if we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election."
In 2008, only public outcry and media attention prevented further targeted challenges, with threats of partisan caging surfacing in Michigan, Ohio, and Montana, among other states. In fact, the same day that the RNC filed its motion to dissolve the dissent decree, the DNC filed a contempt motion alleging RNC violations. The DNC cited RNC involvement in the 2008 New Mexico "caging" of Latino voters, wherein private investigators were hired to obtain "Social Security numbers and other confidential information about voters for the purpose of alleging that the voters were illegal aliens and/or were impersonating other individuals," according to the DNC's brief in support of the contempt motion. "The hiring of private investigators by the RNC to investigate voters clearly does not constitute a `normal poll watch function' within the meaning of the 1987 Consent Decree but rather constitutes a `ballot security' effort within the meaning of that Decree, which the RNC is prohibited from undertaking without a determination by this court that such program complies with the terms of the 1982 Consent Order."
After several postponements, the hearing on the Republican National Committee's motion to terminate the consent decree will be held Tuesday, May 5 at 9 a.m. in the court of Judge Dickenson Debevoise, the judge who heard the original case.
"There is no basis to terminate the consent decree that prohibits the Republican National Committee from engaging in tactics that suppress the vote in targeted populations," said James. "The unfortunate truth is that the Committee has engaged, and continues to engage, in self-styled ballot-security programs that have the effect of restricting ballot access to eligible voters, particularly minority voters."