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Turning Back the Clock On Voting Rights | The Nation

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Turning Back the Clock On Voting Rights

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Greene County, 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.

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."

Nor are such tactics unique to Alabama. For years, voting-rights activists and black voters in the South have complained to federal officials that their rights have been denied through such tactics as harassment at the voting booth in the form of having their pictures taken or their license-plate numbers recorded by white poll workers. Officials at the Justice Department's Washington headquarters even warned the State of Mississippi and the Republican Party of Georgia--the former in 1996 and the latter in 1998--about allowing such practices. In a similar vein, Republican North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, trailing a black opponent in 1990, mailed out postcards to 125,000 black voters implicitly threatening them with jail if they went to the polls. Helms's campaign settled a complaint with the Justice Department in 1992, but not before he had won another term.

But it is here in Alabama, the state that boasts the largest number of black elected officials, that voter intimidation has taken on its greatest significance. The voter-fraud investigations are concentrated in counties that make up the so-called Black Belt of the state: Greene, Wilcox, Hale, Sumter, Perry, Marengo, Pickens and Dallas. These counties served as the backdrop for some of the hardest-fought battles of the civil rights movement and the struggle for black voting rights. The brutal beating of civil rights marchers as they attempted in 1965 to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the seat of Dallas County, was televised nationally and became the catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, although the counties rank among the most impoverished in the state, blacks, largely because of the civil rights movement, have made enormous political gains. Most of the elected officials are African-American, even though economic power remains largely in the hands of whites.

The voter-fraud cases in Alabama may be a harbinger of things to come if they are allowed to continue, said Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. "This could have political ramifications across the South," he said. "Blacks, who have worked hard to get the basic right to vote, could find themselves, once again, at the mercy of the very people who opposed them in the fifties and sixties."

The first voter-fraud investigation in the Black Belt counties came after African-Americans began to hold office in significant numbers for the first time as a result of the civil rights movement's success in insuring blacks the right to vote. The case, which started in 1979, involved Maggie Bozeman, a young teacher in Pickens County, Alabama, and Julia Wilder, a local voting-rights activist. After complaints of voter fraud by local whites, federal investigators charged both women with voter fraud after they assisted voters with absentee ballots.

Bozeman and Wilder were convicted, but the decision was eventually overturned in 1985 with the assistance of Lani Guinier, then a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later, briefly, Clinton's nominee to be Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights. "Absentee ballots have always been used in these counties, even when whites were in control," said J.L. Chestnut, an attorney in Selma and former chairman of the Alabama New South Coalition, an African-American-led group that advocates voting rights. "Only when blacks began to win did they become a problem." (The use of absentee ballots is common in areas where many voters are elderly or work elsewhere because of high local unemployment.)

In the same year as the Bozeman and Wilder case, a federal investigation of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a group established to help black farmers in the rural South, began after whites in the surrounding counties said blacks were using illegal means to elect officeholders. In May 1979 more than 100 influential white citizens of Sumter County gathered at the Cotton Patch Restaurant in Greene County. Among those at the meeting were several local and state elected officials, the local newspaper editor, both of Alabama's US senators and then-US Representative Richard Shelby, who is now a US senator. The purpose of the meeting, which was later called the Cotton Patch conspiracy, was to determine whether black staffers at the federation were using federal money to register voters. Representative Shelby was asked by attendees to initiate a General Accounting Office investigation of the federation--to stop the alleged "government-funded activism." But the state comptroller general at the time, Elmer Staats, said a full-scale investigation by the GAO was unwarranted, because the federal agencies giving money to the federation had their own inspectors general to monitor the use of federal dollars. Undeterred, the Cotton Patch attendees managed to get the local US Attorney's office in Birmingham to investigate. The office spent more than a year poring over federation records and questioning hundreds of people. In the end, nothing was found. In May 1981 the US Attorney issued a statement saying, "I have decided to decline prosecution."

But just four years later, in 1985, the federal government launched another investigation of voting-rights activists that would also end in acquittals. This time the investigation was two-pronged. In the Southern District of Alabama, the US Attorney in Mobile began a probe of three veteran civil rights activists: Albert Turner, a local activist and former aide to Martin Luther King Jr.; his wife, Evelyn Turner; and Spencer Houge Jr., all of Perry County, Alabama. As in other cases, the government alleged that the Turners and Houge had illegally obtained absentee ballots and had forged the signatures of voters. All three defendants denied the charges and called the investigation an attempt to undermine black voting power. The case got national attention, and the three activists became known as the Marion Three. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and several other civil rights organizations provided legal counsel. After a long trial, a jury found the three activists not guilty on all counts.

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.

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."

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."

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