Watergate Without the Break-In
WASHINGTON — It is time to stop referring to the “fired U.S attorneys scandal” by that misnomer, and call it what it is: a White House-coordinated effort to use the vast powers of the Justice Department to swing elections to Republicans.
This is no botched personnel switch. It is not even a political spat between the fired U.S. attorneys and Bush administration officials who deemed some of them insufficiently zealous in promoting the department’s law enforcement priorities. Connect the dots and you see an insidious effort to corrupt the American electoral system. It’s Watergate without the break-in or the bagmen.
The emerging picture is one in which widespread Republican claims of “voter fraud” — unsubstantiated in virtually every case examined closely by law enforcement officials, local journalists, state elections officials and academics — were used to stymie Democratic-leaning voter registration groups and create a taint around Democrats. The Justice Department’s own statistics show that only a handful of people were convicted of voting illegally since it began a “voter integrity” initiative in 2002. Its top election crimes official, a career prosecutor, has told the U.S. Election Assistance Commission that the proportion of “legitimate to illegitimate claims of fraud” hasn’t changed.
The “voter fraud” claims that White House political adviser Karl Rove promoted before last year’s congressional elections were in battleground states such as New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with closely contested races. He also has complained about alleged fraud in hotly competitive states such as Washington, Florida and Missouri. Curiously, states where elections often are decided by wide margins — New York, for instance — don’t turn up on his lists.
According to McClatchy Newspapers, Rove pressed Justice officials about voter fraud probes in October. Complaints from Republican activists wound up in the hands of Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and a key figure in the imbroglio. Five of the 12 U.S. attorneys who were canned or targeted for removal were singled out for alleged laxity in pursuing voter-fraud prosecutions, The Washington Post has reported.
The Justice Department’s power to prosecute was expected to be put to use in carrying out a partisan witch hunt. Yet even this picture is incomplete.
The shenanigans involving U.S. attorneys must be seen alongside the parallel campaign to turn the department’s voting-rights section into a rubber stamp for Republican efforts to enhance the voting power of their loyalists while diminishing that of Democrats.
Toby Moore, a former redistricting expert in the voting rights section and now project manager for American University’s Commission on Federal Election Reform, says he believed that when the Bush administration began, ideological differences — a suspicion that liberals held too much sway — were at the root of chronic disagreements between political appointees and career lawyers. But he says he was wrong. “It now appears that what they were doing was not ideologically motivated but partisan motivated,” Moore says. “They came in 2001 with the idea of changing the rules of elections to benefit the Republican Party.”
The voting-rights section began producing rulings that would have the effect of crimping participation by Democratic-leaning voters. The department’s backing of state photo identification laws, notably in Georgia, was one such case. Moore notes that the Georgia law, which was struck down in court, did not only burden minorities, the elderly and the disabled. It loosened rules for early and absentee voting, ballots typically used more often by the educated and affluent — and more likely to be cast by Republicans. A new fervor for forcing states to purge registration rolls of invalid names, a process that often deletes names of eligible voters, also seized the voting-rights section.
The most vivid nexus between the “U.S. attorneys scandal” and the subjugation of the voting-rights section to partisan pursuits comes in Missouri, where the abrupt resignation of U.S. Attorney Todd Graves in March 2006 was followed quickly by the interim appointment of Bradley Schlozman, who’d helped to recast the voting rights section in the Bush administration’s image. Schlozman soon announced indictments of four workers for a liberal voter-registration group — the group itself had brought evidence of suspicious activity to the authorities. He did so just before November’s election.
No set of coincidences could possibly result in this pattern. It suggests a scheme to use the levers of government to shape the pool of voters in favor of the ruling party. In a fledgling democracy, we would consider this shocking corruption. The chilling truth is that it can happen here — and apparently it did.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.
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