Caging the cagers

If you haven't heard about vote caging, don't feel bad. News Hits is paid to keep up on these sorts of things, and, until recently, we didn't have a clue either.

Then Monica Goodling, a former U.S. Justice Department official who recently testified before the House Judiciary Committee under a grant of immunity, raised the subject during her testimony, and the issue received a smattering of attention.

It deserves much more, because if what's been reported so far is true, an illegal effort by the Republican Party to keep minority voters from having their voices heard has been uncovered.

It is an issue that should be creating outrage everywhere in the country because at its heart this is about the subversion of democracy. But it is also an issue that should have particular resonance here in Detroit, where memories of the fight to win voting rights for African-Americans and other minority groups are especially vivid and poignant.

There's another factor that ups the level of local relevance as well — the interest of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the Detroit Democrat who heads the House Judiciary Committee.

That anyone at all is talking about this can be attributed to investigative reporter Greg Palast, an American who works for the BBC program Newsnight. It was Palast who first broke this story back in 2004.

It all began with a fortunate mistake. Fortunate, that is, if you are not a member of the Republican Party hierarchy. As Palast reports in his book Armed Madhouse (an updated version of which has just been published in paperback by Plume), a "prankster" named John A. Wooden set up the Web sites and Thinking the sites were part of the official Bush campaign, a low-level clerk in the party sent Wooden a copy of e-mails with attached files containing names and addresses of Florida residents on spreadsheets. According to Palast, Wooden's site had captured more than 50 such files, containing tens of thousands of names.

Palast and his team began investigating, and found that the addresses on the lists were in largely African-American neighborhoods. Further investigation found that the Republican Party had sent campaign material to these targeted addresses via first class and, in some cases registered, mail. That in itself is highly unusual because of the added and unnecessary expense. Unnecessary, however, unless you wanted mail that was undeliverable returned to you, so that you could, for instance, challenge John Doe, formerly of 321 Anywhere Street, for not updating his registration. These were the "caging" lists, which then could be used to challenge voters.

Now, challenging individual voters is perfectly legal. What's not legal is targeting groups of minority voters in attempt to keep them from casting ballots. As Palast reports, that's a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And the Republican Party got caught trying to run that nasty gambit in New Jersey in 1981: "Facing prosecution, the party signed a consent decree swearing in federal court never again to play the racial profile game anywhere in the nation, so help them God."

According to Palast, the Republicans were back at it for the 2004 presidential elections, creating caging lists for voters not only in Florida, but also Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Jump ahead to May of this year. Monica Goodling — the former Justice Department liaison with the White House who resigned after being implicated in the ongoing scandal involving the firing of nine U.S. attorneys — testifies before the House Judiciary Committee under a grant of immunity from prosecution.

Among other things, Goodling tells the committee chaired by Conyers that Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty (who also resigned his post) was less then candid when he appeared before the same committee. Goodling testified that McNulty failed to disclose that the White House had an interest in seeing a guy named Tim Griffin appointed as the interim U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Arkansas, and that there were allegations Griffin "had been involved in vote caging during his work on the president's 2004 campaign."

This is where the pieces start to fit together, Palast tells News Hits in a phone interview. Some of the U.S. attorneys who've lost their jobs are saying it was because they wouldn't pursue cases involving alleged voter fraud on the part of Democrats. At the same time, we see a guy like Griffin, a protégé of chief Bush political strategist Karl Rove, installed as a federal prosecutor last year. Rather than being the nonissue Republicans claim, the scandal involving U.S. attorneys could be the "tip of the vote suppression iceberg," Palast says.

Among those in a position to turn up the investigative heat is Conyers, who, in a recent appearance on Newsnight, asked Palast to provide copies of the e-mails containing the caging info.

Referring to Griffin, Conyers told Palast that "we're not through with him by any means."

Griffin resigned the next day.

The question now, says Palast, is whether Conyers can convince other members of his committee that this is about more than simply firing prosecutors for political reasons, but rather is key to bringing fully to light an organized effort to keep minorities from voting, and who exactly was involved in the illegal scheme.

We hope Conyers does just that. And if the trail leads to the White House, then anyone there involved needs to be taken away in handcuffs.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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