Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Political Animal

Ground Game

By Brian Morton | Posted 10/22/2008

The end part of a national political campaign between Republicans and Democrats can often be compared to a football game, with each side hewing to specific strategies and tactics.

If voters can be compared to "points," Democrats for years have relied on a high-scoring offense--get as many voters out to the polls as possible. Especially in years with high numbers of voters self-identifying as Democrats, the party believes that when more voters go to the polls, Democrats win.

In contrast, low turnout favors Republicans. The 1994 midterms, known as the "Angry White Male" elections, handed the GOP a majority in both the House and Senate, due to general disillusionment with the Democratic Party and high turnout by single-issue voters such as National Rifle Association members.

Going all the way back to the 1960s, the Republican strategy has functioned like a football team's defense, to keep the other side from scoring. The idea has always been to hold down turnout, using methods ranging from negative advertising to purges of voter rolls and sending workers out to challenge voters, all the way down to less scrupulous methods.

Negative advertising operates in a psychological manner; if voters get disgusted enough with both parties, they stay home. Harsh TV and radio advertising bankrupts general goodwill toward politics and politicians and leads people to think, "It doesn't matter because they're all crooks anyway." Lower turnout once again favors Republicans.

Then there are more active efforts. Here in Maryland, in 2004, the Republicans distributed a 13-page handbook on voter suppression in predominantly Democratic areas. The Washington Post published parts of it, which included the phrases: "Your most important duty as a poll worker is to challenge people who present themselves to vote but who are not authorized to vote. . . . Undoubtedly, the challenge process will be awkward and may cause consternation on the part of the challenged voter as well as the judges. . . . If there is cause to make a challenge, you should not hesitate to do so merely because it upsets the challenged voter or the election judges."

The booklet even advised using threats: "If the election judge should try to ignore your challenge, point out that they would be committing a criminal offense punishable by not less than 30 days in jail."

Republicans have a long history with voter challenges. Former White House counsel John Dean wrote about former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist's early career attempting to drive down minority voting in Arizona elections in 1962. Former assistant U.S. Attorney James Brosnahan testified against Rehnquist's elevation to chief justice in 1986, claiming that Rehnquist was part of a group of GOP operatives who attempted to violate the civil rights of voters, saying, "The complaints we received alleged in various forms that the Republican challengers were aggressively challenging many voters without having a basis for that challenge. . . . Based on my interviews with others, polling officials, and my fellow assistant U.S. attorneys, it was my opinion in 1962 that the challenging effort was designed to reduce the number of black and Hispanic voters by confrontation and intimidation."

Once the Republicans gained the White House and Congress under the George W. Bush administration, they turned to using the system itself to garner an advantage through a two-pronged strategy. The first involved changing the ground rules, by making it institutionally harder to vote. In 2002 they passed the ironically named Help America Vote Act, which added more stringent rules for voter identification. When hurdles are placed in the way of voting, such as requiring more forms of identification or state-mandated voter ID cards, turnout decreases. The White House and Justice Department also colluded in efforts to change voting requirements at the state level, such as a 2005 Georgia ID law that a U.S. District Court judge later overturned, comparing it to Jim Crow-era poll taxes.

The second prong was political. The firing of the U.S. attorneys under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been traced to efforts by the Justice Department to bring politically motivated charges of voter fraud right before elections against organizations like ACORN. A report from the Justice Department inspector general cited the e-mail from Patrick Rogers, a lawyer for the New Mexico Republican Party, discussing the close race GOP Rep. Heather Wilson was running in September 2004. The e-mail said, "I believe the [voter] ID issue should be used at all levels--federal, state legislative races and Heather's race. . . . You are not going to find a better wedge issue. . . . This is the single best wedge issue, ever in [New Mexico]." Following that election, New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was given the boot by the Justice Department because he wouldn't participate in the plan to prosecute cases (which he found to be without merit) for voter fraud.

Right now we're in the thick of the season and approaching the fourth quarter of the game. The real question is, how much of the GOP's defense will work in a year when the Democrats are fielding an offense for the ages? And how much of the field has already been tilted due to the work of Gonzales, Bush, and the Justice Department? The clock runs out on election day.

Related stories

Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter