Florida Vote Scandal?

No doubt you will stumble upon a BBC Newsnight report by a Greg Palast, a writer for Britain’s Guardian (which last week noted that a Bush re-election called for some new Lee Harvey Oswald’s and who mounted a letter writing campaign to influence voters in Clark County, Ohio) that hints at new nefarious Republican activities in Florida.

Clearly Palast is an ultra liberal reporter who specializes in the sensational. His previous work highlights his conspiracy bent – and his work was the basis for Fahrenheit 9/11’s scenes on the Florida recount. Regardless of the hyperbole, he presents two pieces of evidence that need to be explored. The two points made in the Palast report are:

  1. The Republican Party has a list of voters in Jacksonville, Florida that contains 1,834 names that are supposedly questionable registrations, known as a ‘cage list.’

  2. A private detective was filming the outside of a polling place.

At first these to points seem to play directly into the hands of those who believe that there are active campaigns in place to disenfranchise African American voters. Upon closer examination these two points are better explained by Occam’s Razor.

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The Cage List

Where did Palast get his information regarding the ‘cage list?’ He got the Excel spreadsheet from GeorgeWBush.org who, by virtue of their confusing domain name, occasionally receive messages copied to GeorgeWBush.com. They publish a page of such messages that they call The Dead Letter Office. You can get the list from there just as easily as he did. There is a previous version of the list available as well with fewer names.

In 2004 there’s almost no chance that an African American voter, whether proper registered to vote or not, will be denied a chance to cast a ballot. Changes in federal law as a result of the 2000 election ensure that. What is supposed to happen, in the event of a challenge, is that the voter casts a provisional ballot and the local board of election officials verify the voters registration status during tabulation.

Provisional ballots are designed to give the maximum benefit of the doubt to voters who previously would have been turned away from voting for not being properly registered. It’s too soon to judge the effectiveness of this system – we are sure to be inundated with statistics after the election in that regard. What is happening is that massive voter registration drives have resulted in hundreds of thousands of questionable or outright bogus voter registrations. How do we know this? The Republican Party (and most likely the Democratic Party) gets computerized lists of new registrations from state election officials and send those voters post cards or letters. The letters that are returned from the Post Office as undeliverable are flagged by the parties as questionable.

Democrats, led by the pronouncements of their candidate Senator John Kerry, claim to have 10,000 lawyers ready to provide assistance on election day, and an unknown number of poll watchers poised to monitor voting sites. Republicans have a similar poll watching effort, and we know from Ohio, and now Florida, that they may be bringing with them the lists of questionable registrations for that district. Each state has different requirement for issuing challenges at polling places to individual voters. It is against the law to challenge a voter on the basis of race, gender, or religion. It is not against the law to challenge a voter when you have evidence in your hand (as the Republican poll watcher will presumably have) that the voter does not live at the address for which they are registered to vote. Again each state varies as to what is required of the voter if they are challenged. Some states simply require the voter sign a document stating they are eligible to vote, others require different information. It’s important to note that in most cases the onus is on the challenger to prove that the voter isn’t eligible to vote based on a couple narrowly defined rules, such as age, residency, etc.

The crux of the story about the Jacksonville list is that the area for which the names are listed is a predominately African American district. Palast doesn’t provide any evidence to support that claim, but even if true is ignores the larger perspective. The real story is that the Republican Party has lists like this for EVERY district. What Palast claims as a “secret list” is actually just one of hundreds of lists parsed down to the level for which they are intended to be used.

I have no special inside knowledge into the plans of the Florida Republican Party, but I would suspect that their lists are through and cover the whole state. It stands to reason that if you believe there are substantial numbers of voter registrations that are questionable you will equip your poll watching assets with the information needed to monitor whether those voters show up to vote. In most cases a reasonable observer would conclude that a potential voter who registered with a false or incomplete address will likely not show up to vote, but given how close the election is projected to be that’s probably a gamble not worth taking.

The Private Eye

Florida is in the middle of “early voting,” which is a separate procedural process from Election Day. If you’ve been following the news from Florida related to “early voting,” you are probably aware of all manner of strange occurrences. Union members have congregated at polling places and shouted down Bush supporters. At one polling place Kerry supporters blocked off a parking lot near the polls and reserved it for Kerry voters only. There are anecdotal reports of Bush supporters receiving physical threats at these early voting locations. Certainly there are probably stories of Kerry supporters being subjected to harassment, though I haven’t seen those reports.

Why is this happening?

Florida law is explicit about who can be where at polling places, but only on Election Day. Early voting locations are not covered by the laws that apply on November 2nd. Florida Democrats know this, and that helps to explain why the shenanigans listed above are occurring.

As for the private investigator… Given the free-for-all at these early voting locations, the most damning evidence that either side can present against the other is a secretly recorded video tape of voter harassment or other questionable behavior. Since the reports I’ve seen indicate that those affiliated with Democratic Party interests have a much bigger presence at the early voting locations it seems logical that, in the absence of the site restrictions of Election Day, Republicans would hope to get some of these acts of harassment on tape.

In Colorado, Republicans caught the wife of a Democratic candidate removing her husbands opponents signs. They caught her on video tape. Where do you think that ended up? On one of the Denver newscasts.

If you’re a private investigator paid to tape an early voting location in Florida, you’re certainly not interested in the voters – you’re hoping for an incident.

Hat Tip: Outside The Beltway

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