Even as Alberto Gonzales rehearsed his excuses for the strange dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys, which he performed in public at a Senate hearing this week, he was looking like a marginal player in this scandal. In keeping with his presidential nickname “Fredo,” the attorney general probably never understood the broader plan originating in the Bush White House.

Developed by political chief Karl Rove, that scheme was evidently designed to advance his objective of discouraging minority and other voters with the bad habit of supporting Democrats. 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 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 of a woman who had created a few phony registrations for financial gain. When Iglesias declined prosecution, local Republicans sought a more pliable and partisan replacement — a demand eventually fulfilled by 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 Biskupic managed to remain in the good graces of the White House.

The Republican cry of “voter fraud” is a specious complaint, especially when the most sustained efforts to interfere with orderly elections and voting rights in recent years can be traced to the Republican National Committee.

Harassing minority voters with bogus claims of fraud is a venerable GOP tradition, as anyone familiar with the career of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist must know. Back in the early ’60s, when Rehnquist was just another ambitious 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 1964 Goldwater campaign, which garnered its handful of Southern electoral votes by opposing the Voting Rights Act.

Then came Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy of nurturing racist grievances, around the time that a young operative named Karl Rove was rising in the party. Under his leadership, the GOP has repeatedly been disgraced by conspiracies to diminish voter participation.

In 2002, Republican operatives illegally jammed Democratic phone banks in New Hampshire to win a U.S. Senate seat. In 2004, Florida state officials sent armed officers into certain 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 registration forms 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, very few individuals intentionally 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 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 election fraud.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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