Election spin cycle

Pardon the neck brace, but News Hits is suffering from a bad case of whiplash. No, we weren't in a car accident. The injury comes from trying to follow a controversy involving state Republicans and the online publication The Michigan Messenger.

It started with a story by reporter Eartha Melzer alleging that the head of the Macomb County Republican Party had disclosed plans to use lists of foreclosed homes as a way to keep some voters from casting ballots in the upcoming presidential election.

After reading that, we called Macomb GOP Chairman James Carabelli, who denied making any such statement to Melzer, who works for the left-leaning online publication. He claimed that the quotes attributed to him were a complete fabrication. Then we talked with Melzer, an award-winning journalist, who steadfastly maintained her report was accurate and that Carabelli was changing his tune after The Wall Street Journal and other mainstream media had picked up on the bombshell of a story.

"I have good notes on this," assured Melzer.

She followed up her first report with a second story alleging that Eric Doster, identified as a former counsel for the Michigan Republican Party, had revealed that Michigan Republicans planned to challenge voters if direct mail sent to them had been returned in a voter suppression tactic known as "vote caging."

So we called Doster, who claimed that he'd never made any such disclosure to Melzer. The reporter had used his response to one question and then wrongly made it look as if he was admitting to vote caging plans, he said. He would not say what the real question was, but directed us to Michigan GOP spokesman Bill Nowling.

Nowling denied that his party had any plans to systematically quell Democratic turnout on Election Day. Instead, the only thing the party wants is to attempt a repeat of what it did in 2004, when 4,000 volunteers were dispatched to 1,800 precincts throughout the state to make sure that election law was being adhered to.

For various reasons, he contended, what Melzer was alleging didn't make much sense. The party was asking for a retraction — though it didn't contact anyone at The Michigan Messenger directly.

Undaunted, Melzer — who received the support of her editor in an online posting of his own — posted a new story on Monday quoting the opinion of Allen Raymond, a veteran Republican campaign manager who spent three months in federal prison for the role he played in a "phone-jamming operation aimed at blocking elderly people from arranging rides to the polls" in New Hampshire in 2002. Earlier this year Raymond published a book titled Confessions of a Republican Operative: How to Rig an Election.

Raymond, according to Melzer's story, thought the alleged scheme being described by her wasn't just plausible, but potentially very effective:

"You would go into certain geo-political areas and make a selection based on voter history and performance, and then what you would do is look for foreclosures within those geopolitical areas, and you would mail letters, and then those letters would come back and say that that person's not there any more because their house has been foreclosed on, and they get challenged," he reportedly said.

As we reported last year, Republicans allegedly pulling these kinds of dirty tricks isn't anything new. Here's some of what we wrote then:

"In case you missed it — and considering the absence of coverage in the mainstream media, you probably have — caging is a direct-mail term that, in this context, refers to the practice of compiling lists of potential voters who can be challenged at the polls. According to [Greg] Palast's reports — he works for the BBC program Newsnight — Republican officials in 2004 sent first-class mail to registered voters in largely minority neighborhoods in Florida and other states, and then kept track of those that were returned.

"Challenging an individual voter because his or her name doesn't match up to the address listed on their registration is perfectly OK. But, as Palast points out, when you attempt to disenfranchise large groups of minority voters this way, it is potentially a felony violation of the Voting Rights Act."

As of Monday, we were still trying to get clarification from the Michigan Secretary of State's office regarding what, exactly, is legally allowed when it comes to challenging the legitimacy of a potential voter. Part of the problem, says Wayne State law professor and election expert Jocelyn Benson is that state law in this area is somewhat vague and that SOS Terri Lynn Land needs to make sure everyone is absolutely clear on what is permissible and what is not.

So, stay tuned. We'll be back next week with more.

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