Turning Back the Clock On Voting Rights
While black citizens in Selma were calling for the state to investigate voting irregularities, in nearby Wilcox County, Sheriff Prince Arnold was also receiving complaints about voter fraud. A subsequent investigation found evidence that two people, both white males, had forged signatures on absentee ballots, stolen several ballots and voted in the names of several people without their permission. Arnold, who is African-American, thought he had an open-and-shut case. The results of the investigation were presented to the Alabama Attorney General's office with witnesses and documents. But to Arnold's surprise, the Attorney General refused to present the case to the grand jury that had already been convened to look into alleged voter fraud by two African-Americans. "The office informed me that no cases would be presented to the grand jury, and the jury would be dismissed," Arnold said. "However, I learned the next day that the grand jury was in fact called together, and cases were presented against the two African-American individuals."
Furious, Arnold confronted the Assistant Attorney General and insisted that his investigation be presented to the grand jury. As a precaution, he placed a deputy outside the grand jury door. Finally, the deputy was allowed to present the case to the grand jury. But no prosecutors from the Attorney General's office went along to present the case. After hearing the deputy, the jury requested guidance but was given none. Arnold angrily fired off a letter to the Attorney General's office and to the Justice Department calling the investigation "racially charged, political." Said Arnold: "If you're going to send a message to people that voter fraud is illegal and that they could go to jail, then you need to send that to all people, not just black people."
Reverend Carter said blacks in Greene County experienced frustrations similar to Arnold's when they tried to get government investigators to look at illegal voting activities by whites. For example, during the voter-fraud trials and in later court documents it was revealed that members of Citizens for a Better Greene County used video cameras at polling booths to tape black voters as they entered to vote in the 1994 elections. And Pam Montgomery, the group's co-founder, engaged in what critics regarded as an attempt to intimidate black voters by sending out a letter days before the November elections saying that the group was investigating voter fraud. In October 1994 two members of Citizens for a Better Greene County, Rosie Carpenter and Annie Thomas, were arrested by the Greene County Sheriff Department (which is presided over by an African-American) for attempting to influence voters by physical threats and offers of money and for marking ballots contrary to voters' choices, according to arrest warrants. One witness said Carpenter offered her $5 for her vote. Still, federal investigators, already involved in a massive voter-fraud investigation in the county, brought no charges after being presented with the evidence against the group.
Montgomery adamantly denies that anyone associated with her organization has engaged in any wrongdoing. "There may have been some people who thought that they should fight fire with fire," she said. "But we did not encourage anyone to do anything illegal." Nevertheless, court records show that a handwriting expert and state and federal judges believed that there was sufficient evidence of wrongdoing by at least five people associated with the group to warrant a closer look, even though the judges did not believe the government had engaged in the selective prosecution of blacks. So far, no additional investigations by the state or federal governments have taken place. US Attorney Jones said his office would look into further allegations, but he said he didn't think additional indictments would be forthcoming.
Blacks say the voter-fraud investigations have had a profound impact on voting in Alabama's Black Belt counties, causing a dramatic reduction in voter turnout even while the number of people registered to vote has climbed. Dozens of blacks say they are simply afraid of voting for fear of being investigated. The impact is felt most in Greene County. In a June 2, 1998, primary election, the overall voter turnout declined to 3,928--down from 4,691 in 1994. Most striking was the fall in absentee ballots. In a similar primary in 1994, 1,118 absentee ballots were filed. In the 1998 primary, just 147 were cast. In nearby Marengo County, many believe that fear on the part of black voters cost Barrown Lankster, the first black elected District Attorney in Alabama, his seat in 1998. Lankster lost by 256 votes to a white prosecutor whom he had ousted in the previous election.
Voting rights, civil rights and black Congressional leaders met with US Attorney General Janet Reno in June 1998 to complain about what they called gross misconduct and abuse by the local US Attorneys and the FBI. Winnett Hagens of the Southern Regional Council, a racial-justice organization in Atlanta, said Reno has yet to respond to their complaints. In a recent interview, Justice Department civil rights division press officer Christine DiBartolo said she didn't know about the voter-fraud investigations or what action, if any, the division would take.
Voting-rights activists say that if something isn't done soon to stop what they see as abusive prosecution, the rights that blacks have fought hard for may be in fundamental danger. The Voting Rights Act was a landmark piece of legislation. It ended arbitrary voting tests in seven Southern states, and black voting registration soared. Almost overnight, citizens who had been shut out of the political process took control of it in many areas. Activists like J.L. Chestnut see the voter-fraud investigations and other attempts to intimidate black voters as a stunning reversal of the goals of voting rights, aided by a willing Justice Department. "In this climate, not only are we going to lose cases," he said, "but we're going to lose all the things that we have gained over the past thirty years."