Even as Alberto Gonzales rehearses his excuses for the strange dismissal of eight United States Attorneys, which he will perform in public at a Senate hearing this week, he is looking like a marginal player in this scandal. The Attorney General fumbled his role, but in keeping with his Presidential nickname (Fredo), he probably never understood the broader scheme originating in the Bush White House.
Developed by deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, the President’s top political aide, that scheme was evidently designed to advance his objective of discouraging minority voters and others with the bad habit of supporting Democratic candidates. In Republican parlance, such attempts to hamper registration, intimidate citizens and reduce turnout in targeted communities are lauded as “combating voter fraud.” Several of the fired U.S. Attorneys had angered party operatives, including Mr. Rove, because they had shown so little enthusiasm for trumping up fraud cases against Democrats.
Following the 2004 election, David Iglesias, then serving as the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, set up a task force to investigate Republican allegations of fraud. Those accusations boiled down to a single case where a woman had created a handful of phony registrations. (She did so for financial reasons, rather than out of any desire to manipulate the election.) When Mr. Iglesias declined prosecution for lack of airtight evidence, local Republicans began to demand his replacement with a more pliable and less professional prosecutor—a demand eventually fulfilled by Mr. Rove and President Bush.
In Wisconsin, by contrast, U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic prosecuted voter-fraud allegations regardless of merit, winning big headlines when he indicted 14 black Milwaukee residents for casting ballots illegally. Nine of those cases were either tossed out or lost in court—an awful result compared with the normal conviction rate of over 90 percent. But at least the mediocre Mr. Biskupic—whose conviction of a Democratic state official was just overturned on appeal—managed to remain in the good graces of the White House and keep his job.
The Republican cry of “voter fraud” is a specious complaint, amplified by right-wing hacks to conceal the fact that in recent years, the most sustained efforts to interfere with orderly elections and voting rights can be traced to the Republican National Committee.
Harassing minority voters with bogus claims of fraud is a venerable tradition in the G.O.P., as anyone familiar with the career of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist would know. Back in the early 60’s, when Rehnquist was just another ambitious young lawyer in Arizona, he ran a partisan campaign to confront black and Hispanic voters over their “qualifications.” Along with many of today’s generation of Republican leaders, he was a stalwart of the Goldwater campaign in 1964, which garnered its handful of electoral votes in the South by opposing the Voting Rights Act.
Then came Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy of nurturing racist grievances to build Republican majorities—around the time that a young operative named Karl Rove was rising in the party. Under his leadership, the G.O.P. has repeatedly been disgraced by conspiracies to diminish voter participation.
In 2002, Republican operatives used a telemarketing firm to illegally jam Democratic phone banks in New Hampshire to win the U.S. Senate seat now held by John Sununu. In 2004, Florida state officials sent armed officers into certain Orlando neighborhoods to scare elderly black registrants, while Republicans sought to challenge minority voters en masse in communities in Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and paid for the destruction of Democratic voter registrations in Nevada and Oregon.
Actual voter fraud of the kind decried in Republican propaganda is rare, according to nonpartisan experts. Although the White House recently rewrote a careful federal study by the Election Assistance Commission to hide that basic fact, it remains true that very few individuals intentionally seek to fabricate a registration or cast an illegal ballot. There are exceptions, of course—most notably illustrated by Republican celebrity Ann Coulter.
When the far-right columnist and television personality registered to vote in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2005, she wrote down the address of her realtor’s office rather than her own home address. She then signed the form, despite its plain warning that falsifying any information on it would make her liable to felony prosecution—and which she, as a lawyer, surely understood. According to Palm Beach County election officials, she also voted in the wrong precinct the following year, disregarding a poll worker who explained her error. (Coulter fans can view her dubious voter-registration form online at www.bradblog.com.)
If proved, those acts would be crimes punishable by prison terms of up to five years, but Ms. Coulter has stonewalled the ongoing investigation. (She says the Palm Beach officials are syphilitic and mentally defective.) No charges have been filed so far, perhaps because her lawyer is a prominent Republican who worked on Bush v. Gore in 2000—and whom the President then appointed as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He must know a lot about voter fraud.