Turning Back the Clock On Voting Rights | The Nation


Turning Back the Clock On Voting Rights

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The investigation proved an embarrassment for the US Attorney, Jeff Sessions. A year later, in 1986, when Sessions was being considered for a federal judgeship, witnesses recalled his treatment of the Marion Three and several alleged racist remarks he had made about blacks during his tenure as US Attorney. A black former attorney who worked under Sessions said he was once called "boy" by Sessions and that Sessions once spoke fondly of Ku Klux Klan members who lynched a black man. Another witness said Sessions once called a white civil rights attorney a "traitor to his race." Sessions said the remarks about the Klan and the white attorney were jokes. The Senate Judiciary Committee did not find the jokes funny; Sessions was denied a judgeship, becoming the only one of Ronald Reagan's 269 nominees to the federal bench to be rejected. He did go on to become the Attorney General of Alabama.

Research assistance was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

About the Author

Ron Nixon
Ron Nixon is a Virginia-based investigative reporter.

Sessions, a Republican, later won the Senate seat vacated by Senator Howell Heflin, an Alabama Democrat who had voted against his judgeship. In the Senate, Sessions was one of the biggest critics of President Clinton's temporary appointment of Bill Lann Lee to the Justice Department's top civil rights post in 1997. Lee was at the time of his appointment the western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the same group that opposed Sessions in his voter-fraud campaigns.

While Sessions was leading the case against the Marion Three, Frank Donaldson, the US Attorney in Birmingham, was trying to make a voter-fraud case against Spiver Gordon, a local official in Greene County and an activist with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group co-founded by Martin Luther King Jr. Gordon was found guilty of four counts of voter fraud: two counts of mail fraud and two counts of providing false information to an election manager. But the US Court of Appeals later overturned the charges, ruling that Gordon had been denied equal protection because the government had used all its peremptory challenges to strike every black potential juror from his trial. The court also held that Gordon's lawyers had proved that voter-fraud investigations had occurred only in those counties where blacks made up a significant part of the population and that those indicted were affiliated with majority-black groups. But perhaps the most damning piece of evidence in overturning Gordon's conviction was a statement by an unidentified Justice Department spokesman in Washington who said that the prosecution of black political activists in Alabama's Black Belt without prosecution of whites was "a new policy...brought on by the arrogance on the part of blacks in these counties."

The US Attorney did not seek to retry Gordon. Gordon, however, along with several other black voting-rights advocates, did plead guilty this past February to charges of voter fraud in connection with the case in which Reverend Carter was questioned. Attorneys would not say why they allowed their clients to plead guilty to lesser charges in the case. But in motions filed with the court, they wrote that their attempts to prove selective prosecution had been limited by the government's refusal to share information and thus by an inability to review all the material relating to the fraud investigation. As a result, "We did what we thought was in the best interest of our clients," said Laura Hankins, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who refused to elaborate further on the case.

Most whites in Alabama, as elsewhere, maintain that investigations of voter fraud are about corruption in local government, not race. Pam Montgomery, co-founder of Citizens for a Better Greene County, a majority-white organization, points out that the county is the poorest in the state and that a recent audit showed a $3 million budget shortfall, which raises questions about the financial accountability of local officials, most of whom are black. "They keep saying that this is about whites wanting to take control," Montgomery said. "People in the North want to believe that, so the South gets stuck with a bum rap of being racist."

G. Douglas Jones, the US Attorney in Birmingham who prosecuted the latest voter-fraud case--the one involving the questioning of Reverend Carter--says that absentee ballots have become a way for some black leaders to build their power base by illegally signing and submitting ballots that have been filled out or changed without the voter's permission. Jones also says his office found that absentee ballots were being mailed to several people on trial for voter fraud. The ballots, he says, are supposed to be filled out and then sent to the local elections office. He added, "We also had witnesses who said that their names were written on ballots that they didn't sign. All this stuff about intimidation [of black voters by government officials] was brought up at the trial, and there was no merit to it." As far as the number of blacks investigated for voter fraud is concerned, Jones said, it's because of the racial makeup of the voting population. "I think if you look at the voting population, it's over 80 percent black," he said. Jones's office denied that race was a motive in the investigations, adding in a statement that "the right to vote is an essential guarantee under the Constitution and it must be protected. That is our purpose in bringing these investigations--and it is our sole purpose."

Still, federal and state court records show that the investigations have been uneven. Despite years of investigation into voting abuses, only one white has been indicted and prosecuted for voter fraud--and she was helping a black voter. One of the most vivid examples came after the 1992 mayoral election in Selma, Alabama. Incumbent Mayor Joe Smitherman, who is white and has been Mayor of the majority-black town since the sixties, won a controversial re-election with the aid of absentee ballots. His challenger quickly sued, charging fraud. In several affidavits taken in preparation for the suit, numerous people said that workers for the Mayor's office either bribed them for their votes or forged their signatures on absentee ballots. For example, a man named Henry Kirk said in a sworn statement that a worker for Smitherman offered him "a half gallon of Thunderbird wine, a half case of Milwaukee's Best Beer and two packs of Newport cigarettes" in exchange for his vote. Conec Walker, Kirk's roommate, said he was offered the same thing. Another resident, Leo Mitchell, said he signed his name on an absentee ballot but didn't fill it out. "I was not sick or out of town that day," Mitchell said in his statement. Several black citizens filed complaints with the state Attorney General's office about these alleged violations.

But neither state nor federal officials ever investigated the complaints against Smitherman. Instead, as part of a settlement with his challenger, he agreed to establish a voting oversight panel to which he would appoint half the members and his challenger the other half. The Mayor's office did not return calls seeking comment about the fraud allegations. "We've said for years that was operating like this, buying votes," said J.L. Chestnut, who lives in Selma. "This is the one time he got caught, and even then the government did nothing. Is this selective prosecution? You tell me."

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