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.
So now the talk among Republican and Tea Party election volunteers (and often those people are the same) is that the consent decree is hamstringing them from doing the kind of voter fraud uprooting they need to be doing. Conservatives are circulating blogs that refer to a recent True the Vote webcast in which leader Catherine Engelbrecht speaks about a meeting she had with RNC chair Reince Preibus about voter fraud. Preibus tells her in the video there is nothing the party can do about fraud, due to the consent decree.
But as Weaver’s plotting in Pennsylvania illustrates, Republicans’ Tea Party surrogates haven’t been quite so concerned with the decree.
Weaver wouldn’t comment to me on what she meant by her “not the nicest part of town” and “locations with the highest likelihood of fraud” appeals. “It’s totally not about race,” she insisted. When I asked where her target areas were, she refused comment again, deferring instead to a guy named Bob Howard, a Tea Party activist working for the local Republican Party as a pollwatching trainer.
Progress Pittsburgh attended one of Howard’s trainings and learned how he told Tea Party activists to talk about their target areas: “historical places of fraud.” Some of those areas, like the Hill District, Homewood, Wilkinsburg and Penn Hills are unmistakably African American neighborhoods.
Before Election Day a number of civil rights groups including Advancement Project, the Pittsburgh A. Phillip Randolph Institute, Common Cause, SEIU and ACLU, sent a letter to DOJ urging them to monitor Weaver’s group and illuminated information that showed the majority of precincts the Pittsburgh Tea Party Movement were monitoring were African-American.
Weaver told me her group was not affiliated with True the Vote, but this article from a Pittsburgh local newspaper about True the Vote heavily references Weaver and her Pittsburgh Tea Party Movement. In April, at True the Vote’s national summit, they spoke openly about how areas that historically have the most voter fraud are communities of color, as argued by Stealing Elections author John Fund, who made that case at the summit, framing it as minorities are most likely to be victimized by voter fraud in their communities.
What’s the Remedy?
“If the RNC is involved in any way, directly or indirectly,” with True the Vote suppression work, “I would say that is a violation of the consent decree, because it prevents targeting on the basis of race, whether that’s intentionally or that’s the effect,” says Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which represented an African-American woman named Ebony Malone in the 2004 enforcement complaint against the RNC.
Citizens like Malone, however, can no longer bring legal challenges against the RNC if they find evidence of voter caging or targeted challenges; only the Democratic National Committee can do so. The DNC didn’t respond to request for comment on whether it plans to bring any such action against the RNC for this year’s elections.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings office tells me they are still investigating True the Vote and its affiliated groups to see if they have violated the law in targeting voters of color. True the Vote, the champions of transparency that they are, has declined to hand over any documents to Cummings. Meanwhile, Engelbrecht has insisted to people like Mike Huckabee that True the Vote has hundreds of thousands of complaints of voter irregularities and fraud from the Obama election. The True the Vote volunteers who were denied poll-watching certification in Ohio are making the case that this also was a sign of fraud.
Meanwhile, Weaver told me her plan for the future is to “continue doing what we have been doing, which is recruiting and training volunteers to poll watch those areas known for statistically high irregularities, where there are more votes being placed than actual voters registered, and anywhere there were reported issues of possible voter fraud.”
No areas with such reputations or histories actually exist in Pittsburgh or Allegheny County, but that fact has yet to deter Tea Party activists who insist there’s something fraudulent about people of color voting.
In our latest issue, Ari Berman writes that the GOP's war on voting is far from dead.