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The War at Home

The Bush administration's long-anticipated October Surprise is upon us. Are you watching? The real magnitude of the story is not evident, because it's the sum of many local and regional stories. So do this. Go to Google's up-to-the-minute newswire site, news.google.com, and type these words into the search engine: voter registration fraud. As of Monday morning, that string yielded 1,940 returns from the previous couple of weeks. You will find mainly three kinds of tales. The first involves numerous instances of seemingly capricious legal and bureaucratic maneuvering by elected Republican officials where election rules are at issue. The second concerns allegations of fraud by paid operatives of the national Republican Party working in several states. The third, predictably, consists of blustery accusations by Republicans that the Democrats are preparing to commit election fraud and to falsely accuse Republicans of doing the same.

Here in Minnesota, the legalistic and political antics of Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer have hewn to a seeming pattern around the country: Take advantage of any unclear or archaic provisions in the law, and of any bureaucratic two-steps available to you, to make it needlessly confusing and difficult to register and to vote. And by all means call into question the integrity of the process itself. Warn about the practically nonexistent threat of fraud by individual voters; cluck about the terrorists likely to be lurking nearby on Election Day. Give confusing or impracticable advice to your polling place workers. All this, of course, can be done within the law. Just last week it was revealed that Madam Secretary had trained some 50 volunteer election "observers," cherry-picked in large measure from the ranks of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota e-mail list, to monitor the conduct of election judges and report back to her office throughout the course of the day. And on Friday, the Minnesota GOP entered the fray by filing a lawsuit claiming an overabundance of Democratic election judges in the Twin Cities metro area. (To lull the dimwitted, they also cited too many Republican judges in Olmsted County--this isn't, you know, a partisan stunt of some kind.)

The same sort of obstructionism is being tried, to potentially much greater effect, in the pivotal swing state of Ohio, whose secretary of state likewise happens to be a politically ambitious Republican hack. Last month the office of J. Kenneth Blackwell tried, unsuccessfully, to decree that all voter registrations in the state had to be filled out on 80-lb. paper stock, citing an obscure provision in the law that dated to pre- computer days when hard copies of registration forms had to be sturdy since they were the primary record retained. What was the practical impetus? Simply that not all new registrations were being collected on 80-lb. paper stock, and the fiat offered grounds for rejecting more of them.

Blackwell also sought to make election judges apply the strictest standards of verification to those voters who had moved to a new address. Why? Fraud worries, of course, though the measure also would have served to exclude more Democratic voters. In Ohio's Taft family Republican stronghold of Hamilton County, election registrars have purged some 105,000 "inactive" registrants over the past four years, as they are allowed but not obliged to do under law. In the Columbus area, writes the Columbus Free Press, "Franklin County election officials are considering a contingent of actions including arrests if the [Republican-appointed] certified election challengers attempt to challenge all new voters and hold up the voting process." (Yes, arrests.) This underscores an important point. A cynic might conclude that there is a Republican electoral offensive whose real object is not just to disqualify and discourage voters, but to make the lines in polling places move more slowly, so that fewer ballots can be cast before the clock runs out at 8:00 p.m. that day.

In Nevada and Oregon and possibly several other states, one paid Republican registration group has been accused of representing itself as nonpartisan in order to do registration drives at prime spots such as libraries, and then systematically destroying any forms they received from Democrats.

And of course there is Florida, where another Bush administration's allies commissioned the scrubbing of voter rolls in 2000 and attempted to do the same thing again this year before they were caught in July. But there is no end to the shenanigans a resourceful bureaucrat can pull; as Paul Krugman wrote in his most recent column, "Florida's secretary of state recently ruled that voter registrations would be deemed incomplete if those registering failed to check a box affirming their citizenship, even if they had signed an oath saying the same thing elsewhere on the form."

In the broadest sense, the jiggering of the American vote is one of the more routine facts of political life. Typically it's accomplished right out in the open through the vital gatekeeping function of campaign money, which assures that incumbency rates in the U.S. Congress rival those of the old Soviet politburo, and that almost no one who is not on the same page with the money power gets a chance to be heard. (Paul Wellstone was so venerated because he was, at first, one of the rare exceptions that prove the rule.) The mere fact that Minnesota is one of only six states that use the eminently sensible, eminently workable same-day voter registration system ought to tell you something about the American predisposition to limit the franchise.

But this is different. I believe we are seeing a war over voting rights on a scale no American has seen since the fight that culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and no Northerner has seen since the age of the utterly powerful and utterly corrupt urban political machines. The Rove-led Republicans do not seem to care if they lay waste to public confidence in the ballot box once and for all. They care only about holding on to the White House, and they appear to be making all due effort to render it as difficult as possible for people to turn out in large numbers to vote against them. If they fail in this, they at least will have created a legal foundation for conjuring a crisis of succession that can be kicked upstairs to the Supreme Court once again.

God knows I'm no Democrat. I voted for Nader in 2000, and the time before that I was proud to be one of a couple of dozen signers of a New York Times ad endorsing his candidacy on election eve. I think eight years of Bill Clinton played a vital and as yet unacknowledged role in setting the stage for George W. Bush in the first place. But the first order of business now is to understand what the Republicans are up to, and to combat it tooth and nail. At this point, our job as small-d democrats and small-r republicans is to turn out for Kerry (the only not-Bush vote that counts this time) in such numbers as to ensure that Bush/Rove cannot hijack the outcome.

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