Jim Crow -- The Remix

The Republican plan to steal the election and how we can stop it.

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The Republican Party has finally found the outer edge of political cynicism; it's located in Macomb County, Mich. Operatives there have figured out an upside to the foreclosure crisis roiling black neighborhoods: It enables mass voter-registration challenges and thereby offers a powerful opportunity to suppress the vote in Democrat-leaning districts.

An enterprising journalist for the independent-media site Michigan Messenger exposed the party's plan to exploit foreclosures last week, prompting local leaders to feign outrage, claim to have been misquoted and threaten a libel suit. Those denials notwithstanding, the Obama campaign has asked a federal court to issue an injunction against any use of foreclosure filings in registration challenges, just in case. As general counsel Bob Bauer put it, "They can tell it to the judge."

But while the details of the Michigan plot may be uniquely noxious, the broader tactic—known as voter "caging"—is a 50-year-old Republican dirty trick that is rooted in century-old voting laws designed to skirt the 15th Amendment. A series of legal challenges had finally driven voter caging into remission by the 1990s. But in 2004, desperate Republican operatives facing a huge Democratic turnout revived it with great success. And they're redeploying it widely in 2008.

The scam is as convoluted as it is craven. It starts with a list of potentially ineligible voters. The Macomb County gang planned to create its list from recent foreclosure filings, according to the Messenger, based on the notion that people who have lost their homes are likely to be registered under incorrect addresses. The more traditional route is to simply flood largely non-white districts with mailers marked "do not forward," then compile the names that are returned undeliverable.

Most states maintain stunningly broad rules governing registration challenges, so this sort of flimsy evidence is enough to make sweeping claims of voter fraud. Armed with their lists, Republican operatives file mass challenges to thousands of registrations, charging that the listed residents are cheating the system by polling in the wrong precinct. At the polls, they then challenge individual voters, which often means those voters only get a provisional ballot.

The challenge itself isn't the point, however. A 2007 Project Vote study outlines voter caging’s history and notes that most mass registration challenges are filed just under the deadline and are rarely pursued meaningfully. Rather, the goal is to gum up the democratic process by creating chaos, both at the point of registration and on Election Day.

By holding a breathless press conference trumpeting widespread voter fraud, Republicans busy election boards with responding to nonsense rather than serving voters and, worse, justify sending ranks of operatives to polling stations to harass voters in the name of "monitoring." Each Election Day challenge occupies a poll worker, creating long lines and disorder that discourages all would-be voters. And if they're lucky, they scare new voters away from showing up at all.

The tactic has been so wildly successful that Republicans have solidified the myth of voter fraud in both the popular mind and the law. This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Indiana law that requires voters to show a state-issued ID at the poll. The court ruled that the specter of voter fraud justified the imposition on democracy. It ignored research showing voter fraud to be extraordinarily rare and dismissed evidence that blacks, youth and low-income people are all far less likely to have state IDs.

Republican operatives set the stage for that ruling in 2004. They challenged half a million voters in targeted campaigns across nine politically strategic states, according to Project Vote. Prior to the election, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio all made voter challenges even easier than they had already been; all three states had Republican-controlled legislatures. In Ohio's Cuyahoga County—which includes Cleveland and is reliably Democrat—Republicans flooded polling stations with operatives to challenge 14,000 voters; 45 percent of them lived in majority black communities. They hit 31,000 voters statewide.

And as registration deadlines approach this fall, the same process is gearing up all over the country.

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