The Electric Commentary

Monday, August 16, 2004

Suppress the Vote?

Bob Herbert has a column in the New York Times (Registration required, use Bugmenot) calling into question an investigation of vote fraud in Florida. It is allegedly targeting elderly black voters who used absentee ballots during the last Orlando mayoral election. Herbert implies that the President's brother Jeb, Governor of Florida, is using the state police to intimidate elderly African-Americans into not voting in the upcoming election.

As I read this column, a few things became clear:

1. Herbert does not know very much about the actual investigation, other than the fact that some officers talked with a few elderly people:

Officials refused to discuss details of the investigation, other than to say that absentee ballots are involved. They said they had no idea when the investigation might end, and acknowledged that it may continue right through the presidential election.

2. Despite the fact that he has no information about the investigation, he concludes that it is racist, and that its purpose is solely to help George Bush win Florida in November:

Now, said Mr. Egan, the fear generated by state police officers going into people's homes as part of an ongoing criminal investigation related to voting is threatening to undo much of the good work of the league. He said, "One woman asked me, 'Am I going to go to jail now because I voted by absentee ballot?' "
According to Mr. Egan, "People who have voted by absentee ballot for years are refusing to allow campaign workers to come to their homes. And volunteers who have participated for years in assisting people, particularly the elderly or handicapped, are scared and don't want to risk a criminal investigation."
Florida is a state that's very much in play in the presidential election, with some polls showing John Kerry in the lead. A heavy-handed state police investigation that throws a blanket of fear over thousands of black voters can only help President Bush.

Aside from the fact that Herbert's column provides no analysis into the substance of the investigation, I also have issues with some of his logical conclusions.

First, are strong armed tactics by Republicans to suppress the votes of elderly blacks likely to decrease black voter turnout, or increase black voter turnout? I think it is obvious that it would increase black voter turnout. Would African-Americans simply allow this to occur with no resistance? I think not. It would certainly provide a rallying point (and justifiably so) for every African-American in the state to make their voices heard.

Does Herbert think that Republicans do not know this? For the sake of argument, let us assume that Jeb and the state patrol are racists willing to do whatever it takes to ensure a Bush victory. Is this the way to go about it? Can the Governor think of no better plan than deploying his personal Gestapo to intimidate widows for all the press to see? If you think Jeb is stupid, maybe, but if you think he is merely evil, certainly not.

I happen to think neither (as far as Bushes go, he's the best by far, especially on education reform) and suspect that this may end up being a worthwhile investigation. It reminds me of an investigation that recently took place in Milwaukee, resulting in several vote fraud convictions:

The tactic ACE used may be without precedent in Wisconsin history: the group went door to door in Holloway's district, persuading scores of residents to allow absentee ballots to be sent to ACE's offices rather than to would-be voters' addresses. The ACE workers - allegedly paid $28 a day plus bonuses for surpassing their quota of ballot requests - then were supposed to deliver the ballots to the requesters, officially witness their votes and carry the ballots to City Hall. The tactic was discouraged by elections officials but is legal under a loophole in state law - if done appropriately.

Forgery alleged

McCann's office alleged, however, that the workers actually forged voter signatures on at least five voter registration cards, on 17 absentee ballot requests and on 40 absentee ballot envelopes ACE submitted to the City of Milwaukee Election Commission. Fictional voters' names were submitted and vacant lots were cited as voting addresses on some absentee materials, the complaint says.

"This was outright fraud, not sloppiness," said Kurt Benkley, one of three prosecutors on the case. "This criminal complaint alleges that ACE and its employees robbed citizens of this county of their votes."

You can read the whole thing here.

Perhaps some devious plot is afoot, but most of the time, things like this are exactly as they appear to be. Absentee ballots have been a problem for a long time now, and thankfully, due to the competitiveness of recent elections, they are finally receiving the attention that they deserve. I have a big problem with them myself, as I disdain anything that makes the voting process easier. If someone is legitimately out of town, or if it is an ordeal to leave home for medical reasons, fine. In the two most recent elections (especially in Wisconsin) absentee ballots were used as a recruiting tool. This is just wrong, and if Jeb Bush in cracking down on this practice in Florida, more power to him.


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