Documents and audio recordings released yesterday by One Wisconsin Now document an apparent plot by the Wisconsin Republican Party, Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (aka Fight Back Wisconsin), and various other tea party groups to suppress votes from minorities and students in this year’s elections using a well-documented — and illegal— practice known as “voter caging.” The alleged plot offers fresh evidence that long-discredited right-wing conspiracy theories about massive voter fraud supposedly perpetrated by minorities and others remain alive and well in both the official GOP establishment and its tea party base.
“Voter caging” is a means of voter suppression and intimidation that involves sending mail to a list of voters, compiling a list of mail pieces returned as undeliverable, and then challenging those voters at the polls or otherwise attempting to remove them from the voter rolls. The mere process of challenging voters can intimidate from voting even if they are eligible, cause long lines to form at polling places that will then discourage others from voting, and may result in eligible voters casting provisional ballots which stand a high likelihood of not being counted in the final tally.
In the alleged conspiracy uncovered in Wisconsin, Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, whose Wisconsin state chair was previously banned from politics in Wisconsin for three years, would finance a test mailing and other costs associated with compiling the caging list and then coordinate with the Wisconsin Republican Party to undertake an elaborate process to remove voters from the rolls ahead of the election, if possible, or at the polls on Election Day. Tea party groups were to provide the volunteer labor and cover for the activity — with all participants signing an extensive non-disclosure agreement under which they agreed to publicly operate in the name of Wisconsin GrandSons for Liberty, who would also provide some funding for the plan. The Wisconsin GOP would also provide additional funds, trainers for the tea party volunteers and would have a team of lawyers “standing by” on Election Day to respond to tea party volunteers and “bring the police” if necessary. As is typically the case in voter caging operations, the plotters appeared intent on targeting minorities, students, and others from heavily-Democratic areas of the state.
Audio recordings of the tea party meeting where the alleged voter suppression plot was discussed include numerous references by presenters to supposed instances of minorities and college students voting illegally. Tim Dake, a prominent tea partier in the state who belongs to Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, cited an anecdote about busloads of out-of-state voters voting multiple times in previous elections, then went on to discuss “the racial thing”:
“So, the problem is now you see elections being stolen and we have to get these guys fired up about it, which is not happening. The other thing is you run into the racial thing. You have people screaming, ‘Oh, you’re denying the minorities their right to vote.” No, we’re denying their right to vote multiple times.’”
“No, we’re not even denying the minorities anything, we’re denying fraud,” added an unidentified attendee of the meeting.
Later in the meeting, Dake offered up another anecdote that included a comment implying that individuals with Vietnamese surnames had committed voter fraud. He described how after moving into a “brand new condo” in 2004, he attempted to vote and was told that there were already twelve others registered to vote at his address:
“They said, ‘Wow, you must have a big family.” And I’m looking at names and going, ‘No, there’s nobody named “Nguyen” and “Din” and that sort of thing in my family.”
Considering that the voter rolls used to check voters in at the polls are typically organized by last name, it’s unclear how a poll worker could have immediately discovered this information or why they would have chosen to share it.
Another presenter at the meeting, Shane McVey of the Eau Claire Tea Party, raised the specter of college students voting illegally en masse; however, he then admitted that the one time he had personally challenged a student voter (based on a conversation he says he overheard in line), “[t]he kid turned away and started freaking out and it turned out he was who he said he was, but I challenged him.” He then described using a 6’4”, 300-pound man to challenge voters at the polls, which apparently provoked allegations of voter intimidation from Democratic poll watchers.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the groups chose Wisconsin’s 16th Assembly district — an inner-city Milwaukee district that is heavily Democratic (PVI +35 D) and majority-minority — for their July Americans for Prosperity-financed test run.
Presenters at the meeting also repeatedly blamed ‘quote unquote Republican’ and Democratic district attorneys, the media, and others for consistently failing to pursue purported instances of voter fraud — especially from the 2004 election in Milwaukee. However, a Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney did in fact pursue such an investigation — which some deemed politically-motivated — of the 2004 election and eventually admitted that he couldn’t find any evidence of a “massive conspiracy.”
What’s more, an exhaustive five-year investigation concluded in 2007 by the Bush administration’s Department of Justice, which was quite keen to investigate such cases, “turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.” Indeed, the biggest impact of the Department of Justice investigation seems to have been the subsequent politically-charged removal of several U.S. attorneys the Bush White House deemed to have been insufficiently aggressive in pursuing alleged cases of voter fraud.
The total lack of any clear evidence of voter fraud did not stop the right-wing from hysterically and repeatedly invoking the bogeyman of an ACORN-led plot to ‘steal the election for Obama’ in an effort to justify their numerous attempts to disenfranchise voters in 2008. For example, this “Republican War on voting” led the Wisconsin Attorney General, a McCain campaign co-chair, to sue his state’s election officials in a maneuver that could have potentially disenfranchised all 240,000 people who had registered to vote by mail since 2006.
While ACORN is now defunct thanks to a discredited right-wing smear campaign led by a convicted criminal, that has not even stopped the right-wing from continuing to invoke it to stir fears over minority voter fraud. Just today, Sarah Palin tweeted about the group. A new poll out this week found that 20% of Americans believe that “ACORN will steal the election to keep the Democrats in control of Congress.” Another 40% aren’t sure whether the phantom group will do so or not. Sadly, Slate’s Dave Weigel predicts that with this being the first ACORN-free election since 1970, the myth of ACORN will only grow as Democratic losses are attributed to the lack of a massive fraud by the group.
Tim Dake of the Wisconsin GrandSons for Liberty and Mark Block, State Director of Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin have both denied involvement in any plot to suppress votes. However, emails sent just last week and subsequently obtained by One Wisconsin Now show that Dake was having an ongoing exchange with tea party leaders and Republican Party of Wisconsin about proceeding with their project—citing plans to remove as many as 70,000 “suspect voter registrations” from the rolls. Attachments to the emails included a detailed plan for moving forward, including photographing the homes of voters to be targeted for challenge, intimidation, or removal from the rolls.