Not so long ago, when Karl Rove was still dreaming of a permanent Republican majority based on his “50 percent plus one” model for fighting and winning elections, 2008 was shaping up as possibly the dirtiest election season yet.
The plan was straightforward: to use every legislative and executive lever available to the GOP to suppress the votes of minorities, students, the poor, the transient and the elderly; and to denounce any attempt by the other side to level the playing field as a monstrous exercise in systemic voter fraud.
A lot of pieces of that plan are still in place and could still pose a threat to the integrity of the November 4 elections if any one of them–a crucial Senate race, say, if not also the race for the presidency–turns out to be remotely close.
Voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures in Georgia, Indiana and elsewhere serve as thinly veiled mechanisms for suppressing opposition voters, because those without driver’s licenses or other forms of government-issued identity cards are more likely to be Democrats.
In several states, the Republican Party has made plans to challenge the legitimacy of thousands of voters, in some cases using a notorious, legally dubious technique known as “caging,” whereby the party sends out nonforwardable mail to low-income or minority households (the people likely to move frequently or to be victims of subprime mortgage foreclosures) and uses returned envelopes to question the eligibility of the addressees.
Some Republican-run states, most notably Florida, have introduced absurdly strict standards for the admission of new voters to the rolls, making it likely that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of them will have to go to extraordinary lengths on election day to prove that they have the right to cast a ballot. History suggests many of these new voters will either give up when challenged or fail to show up at all.
Most serious, the Republicans have sought to use the Justice Department to legitimize these efforts and, in some cases, to extend them–by paying close attention to the (mostly nonexistent) problem of individual ballot fraud while showing little or no interest in protecting the rights of minority voters, as the Voting Rights Act mandates that the department do.
The GOP has been laying this groundwork over the past several election cycles–using each technique either as a means to squeak ahead in tight races or as a pretext for challenging results in the event of a narrow loss. We know, for example, that in 2004 the party investigated the eligibility of more than half a million voters across the country, challenged 74,000 of them directly on election day and had a plan in place to challenge tens of thousands more in such swing states as Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Pennsylvania in the event that John Kerry came out ahead of George W. Bush in the race for the White House. (An e-mail trail setting out these plans was uncovered after the election by the PBS program Now.)