On October 5, an e-mail circulated around Allegheny County from Patti Weaver, head of the Pittsburgh Tea Party Movement, that was a clarion call for volunteers to be poll watchers on Election Day. In that message Weaver included a caveat:
Be warned that some of the areas that need poll watchers are not in the nicest part of town. However, this is an excellent opportunity to serve your country.… We are working with the Republican Committees so that they can place people at the locations with the highest likelihood of fraud.
This was interesting because for years, Tea Party groups and True the Vote have sworn that they aren’t targeting minority neighborhoods in their poll work. They’ve been denying this not just to sound moral but because they know it could be found a violation of the Voting Rights Act. And if it is happening in coordination with the Republican Party, then it’s in violation of a longstanding legal consent decree that grew out of the party’s previous efforts to suppress black voters.
But in the post-election fog of finger-pointing on the right, True the Vote and Tea Party groups are directing blame for Mitt Romney’s loss to that very consent decree. They believe that Obama was fraudulently elected both this November and in 2008, and that the Republican Party is unfairly restricted from rooting out that fraud because of the consent decree.
The consent decree was put in place in 1982 because of alleged voter caging and intimidation of people of color by Republican Party operatives in New Jersey. The RNC agreed to allow federal courts to review any “ballot security” measures it planned, to make sure they didn’t target voters of color.
Under the decree, the RNC must “refrain from undertaking any ballot security activities in polling places of election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor in the decision to conduct, or the actual conduct of, such activities.” It was updated in 1987 to say that the RNC could not “use or appear to use, racial or ethnic criteria in connection with ballot integrity, ballot security or other efforts to prevent or remedy suspected vote fraud,” and that, “even poll watchers cannot use the fruits of pre-election ballot security efforts, such as voter challenge lists, without prior court approval.”
The party has had trouble following these rules. Federal courts found the RNC in violation of the consent decree in 1990 and again in 2004 in Ohio, where the GOP targeted black voting districts with voter challenge lists.
Republicans have tried to have the decree dismantled as recently as this year, but federal courts have refused, citing how demonstrably effective it’s been in stopping the Republican Party from intimidating voters.