Turning Back the Clock On Voting Rights
Greene County, Alabama
The knock on the door in the summer of 1995 surprised the Rev. James Carter. He wasn't expecting company. It was a Sunday evening, and he'd planned to catch up on some well-deserved rest. He walked toward the door, peeking out the window before answering. The two men outside were dressed in dark suits. "The FBI," Carter thought to himself. "It's about time." As he opened the door and invited the two agents in, he assumed they were there about the church burnings. Four black churches, including the one where Carter worshiped, Little Zion Baptist, had been burned down days apart just a few weeks before. The burnings had taken an emotional toll on churchgoers like Carter, whose forebears, just out of slavery, had laid the foundation of the church in the late 1800s.
Inside, the agents informed Carter that they weren't there about the church burnings alone. They were there for something else as well--a multicounty voter-fraud investigation that alleged the misuse of absentee ballots by black voters. The agents began questioning Carter about his role in registering voters. Had he signed an absentee ballot for his elderly uncle? Did he know of anyone who had signed an absentee ballot for another person? "They were clearly more concerned about the voter-fraud investigation than the church burnings," Carter remembers.
Carter wasn't the only one targeted following the 1994 elections. In all, nearly 1,000 people in three counties were questioned and asked to submit handwriting samples to state and federal officials. The investigation was a joint state and federal undertaking spearheaded by Alabama Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a politician with a history of making racist comments about blacks and launching voter-fraud investigations in predominantly black counties. He would go on to win a seat in the US Senate in 1996.
The investigation culminated earlier this year, when nine people, all black, pleaded guilty to several charges related to the fraudulent use of absentee ballots. Two others, who had been convicted earlier on similar charges, have appealed their convictions. The trial and verdicts have widened the already fragile racial divide in these mostly rural counties. And they have radically changed the perception of the Justice Department, which was once seen as the protector of black citizens from Southern white segregationists. Attorneys representing the black activists prosecuted for voter fraud call it a case of selective prosecution. They note several instances in which whites were accused of the same crimes but never investigated, even though there was ample evidence. And, they say, each of the counties where voter-fraud investigations are taking place or have taken place is majority African-American.
Government officials and many white residents of the counties dismiss such comments as unfounded. The investigations, they say, are not about race but about crimes. Indeed, the Justice Department has treated voter fraud as a serious crime--for example, a mayoral election in Miami was overturned and indictments were handed down because of voter fraud. But an investigation shows that African-American voters' complaints about the Justice Department's activities in Alabama have considerable merit. While there do appear to be some instances where African-Americans have engaged in voter fraud, numerous interviews and court records show that blacks have borne the brunt of voter-fraud investigations. The records show that even in cases where there was evidence that whites had engaged in similar activities, those individuals were not investigated or even questioned by state or federal agencies.
The investigations, in many cases, appear to be the result of a Reagan-era Justice Department policy to go after black voting-rights activists. The policy was inherited by current officials, many of whom were appointed by Alabama Republicans who have called for voter-fraud investigations in black counties. Author David Burnham describes Alabama Republican prosecutors as "local hit men for a larger plan."
Records also show a history of voter-fraud investigations initiated by white citizens and elected officials dating back to the late seventies. These investigations in many cases have turned up little: Charges have been dismissed in numerous cases, while in others those accused have been acquitted of any wrongdoing. "It's an abusive effort to crush a successful black voting bloc," said Margaret Carey-McCray, formerly director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in Greenville, Mississippi, who has worked on voter-fraud cases across the South. "They know the best way to crush the vote is to go after the advocates."