John McCain’s attempt to magnify allegations of voter registration fraud could mitigate the impact of a Barack Obama victory and deter black Democrats from turning out to vote in future elections.
Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) and his allies have seized on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN, which has worked to register more than 100,000 lower-income and minority voters. Some of the registrations have been faked and investigations are underway in some key states.
Even though Republicans have leveled the same attack against Democrats in recent election cycles, accusing Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) of stealing the election could preemptively undermine the legitimacy of his presidency.
It’s part of the Republican DNA to accuse Democrats of stealing elections just as Democrats accuse Republicans of intimidating minorities. It has been ingrained in the GOP’s neurons since John F. Kennedy eclipsed Richard Nixon in 1960 when there were allegations of cheating in Illinois and Texas.
“Republicans tend to believe that Democrats tend to cheat. The belief is nothing new,” John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, said.
But the allegations are more ferocious because the Obama campaign has registered millions of new voters. In Minnesota, ACORN claims to have registered 42,581 voters, which could give Obama a one or two point edge in a close race.
While Obama’s voter registration effort is a part of his presidential campaign and entirely separate from ACORN’s, the McCain campaign and its surrogates have continued to falsely link Obama to ACORN.
“The reason that it is [more intense] is because Obama is black, that’s the difference,” former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), said, adding that the attacks have longer-term implications. “This is a good way of raising the race card without raising it.”
“If [Obama] loses, two things happen. [Republicans] still have the race issue and then the black community becomes turned off” to electoral politics, Coelho said.
“I think they are doing that to build a case against Obama if the left tries to steal this election, which clearly they are trying to do,” John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said in an email.
McCain has created a campaign committee to examine allegations of voter registration fraud. On Monday, GOP volunteers handed out flyers at a McCain rally in Virginia urging reporters to link ACORN to the $700 million rescue package (something that McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis also said last week).
McCain has continued the line of attack even after being reminded that he attended an ACORN rally in favor of an immigration bill he was working on in 2006.
The McCain and Obama campaigns held dueling press conferences on Tuesday to accuse the other of acting in bad faith.
“If left uncorrected, these numerous investigations and accusations of voter fraud with ACORN could produce a nightmare scenario on Election Day,” Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, said in a statement.
David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said McCain’s tactic was “a strategic and cynical ploy to sow confusion and a deliberate attempt to decrease turnout. It is a smokescreen to challenge people inappropriately. Throwing anything they can at the wall to create a diversion.”
The GOP’s outrage erupted last Friday when the McCain campaign released a web-only advertisement insinuating that Obama worked for ACORN in the early 1990s (he did not) and argued that McCain killed the initial bailout package because ACORN’s partners would have been able to apply for government money to invest in low income housing. In fact, House Republicans objected to such a provision and it was dropped before McCain took a position on the bill.
Top GOP lawmakers also believe that Democrats are trying to steal the election. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) told reporters on Friday that a Democratic lawmaker – who he would not name – told him jokingly that, “We got the votes, we’re just looking for the bodies.”
“We could lose, I suppose, if they cheat us out of it. I think the only way we lose a state like North Carolina or Indiana is to get cheated out of it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette last week.
And there are multiple ongoing investigations into voter registration fraud in several swing states.
ACORN, not surprisingly, has a different take on the situation. “Not only is this a preemptive strike to try to attack Obama, it’s a strategy to try to justify challenging the basis of the election,” Brian Kettenring, an ACORN spokesman, said in a phone interview.
Moreover, there is no evidence that a falsely registered voter have cast actual ballots. To Democrats and independent analysts, the entire story is contrived.
“In almost every case where you’ve heard about fraud by Acorn, it’s because Acorn itself notified officials about the fraud that’s been perpetrated on them by rogue canvassers,” Brad Friedman, the author of the blog, BradBlog.com, which reports on voting rights issues, wrote recently in The Guardian. “None of this is about voter fraud. None of it. Where any fraud has occurred, it’s voter registration fraud and has resulted in exactly zero fraudulent votes.”
Robert Bauer, Obama’s election law attorney, said on Tuesday that Republicans had put “enormous amounts of pressure on criminal justice system” to ferret out voter fraud and reminded reporters that the U.S. attorneys firing scandal started because some U.S. attorneys did not prosecute voter registration fraud to the Bush administration’s liking.
“The only fraud that has affected the governmental process is the one that has been launched on the other side looking to establish a fact that does not exist,” Bauer said.
Despite the torrent of accusations, Democrats remain confident that the accusations will disappear by the wayside if Obama wins.
“Post election, all of this will be swept away,” Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist and speechwriter, said. “Having gone through 2000, where Republicans did steal the election, everybody moves on.”
“Obama is on his way to such a huge electoral win, at least as things look today, that this will not work after the election,” Joe Trippi, a Democratic political strategist, said. “And there will not be fraudulent voting that is provable in any case.”
Beyond the political calculus of winning or losing, the next president will confront larger and more complex issues.
“Obama will have much bigger problems than that—because he’s a liberal Democrat, because he’s black, and because he faces challenges far more vexing than those that confronted most of his predecessors,” G. Calvin Mackenzie, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, said.
Others argued it was unlikely that the McCain campaign, like most campaigns, is incapable of thinking so far ahead.
“That notion assumes way too much long-term thinking on the part of McCain and the Republicans. Their time horizon goes no farther than Election Day,” Pitney said.
Unless McCain – assuming he comes up short on Election Day – raises questions or contests the vote, the issue likely will disappear. Even in previous elections where there was no clear winner, the loser has often helped establish the winner’s legitimacy.
“That Al Gore did not cry foul about the way the election was decided probably contributed to Bush’s legitimacy,” Mackenzie said, “in the same way that Nixon’s refusal to cry foul in 1960 when there was genuine cheating in Illinois and Texas helped Kennedy.”
Jonathan E. Kaplan is the Center for Independent Media’s Washington correspondent.