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Legal Commentary

: FORTUNE Legal Pad

Tumult builds over alleged ‘Lose your home, lose your vote’ scheme

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Not since the Reagan administration allegedly classified ketchup as a vegetable to save money on the federal school-lunch program, have the Democrats found such a potent symbol of Republican callousness. But Republicans insist that this latest purported gaffe is a complete fabrication.

As many blogs have reported, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee have sued the Macomb County (Michigan) Republican Party, the Michigan Republican Party and Republican National Committee to prevent them from pursuing an outlandishly unseemly “voter suppression” tactic which Republican officials have already disavowed ever having contemplated: a plan to challenge voters’ residency qualifications if their homes have recently been foreclosed.

The complaint, filed in federal court in Detroit, is here.

The suit was triggered by this controversial article in the Michigan Messenger, an online political daily published by the nonprofit Center for Independent Media.

In the article, which came out September 10, writer Eartha Jane Melzer quoted James Carabelli, the chairman of the Republican Party of Macomb County, Michigan (a northeastern section of the Detroit Metropolitan area), as saying, “We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren?t voting from those addresses.” The plan, according to the article, was to mount challenges to voters who’d lost their homes on the theory that they might no longer reside within the precincts where they were registered. (According to RealtyTrac, a site that monitors foreclosures nationwide, Detroit led the nation in foreclosures in 2007, with close to 72,616 filings, reflecting almost 5% of all households.)

Carabelli responded a few days later with this press release, asserting that “The story is not true. The Michigan Messenger made it up.” He also demanded a retraction.

The state Republican party chairman, Saulius Anuzis, condemned the story in the same release, saying: ?What we have here is a liberal blog funded by a liberal billionaire pushing a fabricated story that supports a liberal agenda. Never in my 30 years in politics have I seen the mainstream media pick up such a completely false and utterly ludicrous story as this one and run with it with such glee.” (The Messenger describes itself as “As a coalition of long-time progressive bloggers, freelance writers and professional journalists,” and the Center for Independent Media is partly funded by George Soros’s Open Society Institute.)

The Messenger has stood by its story. Reporter Meltzer’s editor, Jefferson Morley, wrote here that Melzer’s “notes show that she asked [Carabelli] about plans to have election challengers at the polls on Election Day. As they spoke, she typed a question about Republican voter challengers: ‘How will they know if the addresses match? How will you know which addresses to check?’ Her notes show that Carabelli responded, ‘We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren?t voting from those addresses.’ Melzer?s notes then show she asked a follow-up question: ‘How will you know people are who they say they are?’ Carabelli responded, ‘I would rather not tell you all the things we are doing.’”

It is, of course, not unusual for Republican Party officials to organize “election integrity” or “ballot security” challenges in what they say are efforts to prevent voter fraud; Democratic Party officials routinely decry these efforts as voter intimidation and voter suppression, and they have from time to time sued to stop them — sometimes successfully. Melzer’s story quotes two additional Michigan Republican Party officials as confirming that the party is, indeed, “gearing up for a comprehensive voter challenge program” for the upcoming Presidential election, and nobody has disavowed that portion of the story.

During the last presidential election, the DNC sued to stop a Republican attempt to challenge the residency of 35,000 voters in Franklin County, Ohio (around Columbus), two weeks before the election. In that instance, party officials sent letters to voters, and if the letters were returned to sender the voter’s residency was challenged. A federal judge in Columbus enjoined the effort, finding that the “timing and manner” of the challenges likely violated the voters’ constitutional and statutory rights, and an appeals court affirmed.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, attorneys for Obama for America acknowledge that Macomb County Republicans now deny having ever planned to use foreclosure notices to mount voter challenges, but they characterize these protestations as “public relations maneuvers under pressure” which provide “little comfort when compared with the Defendant Republicans? clear statements on the record of their plans and their long history of voter suppression tactics.”

Chris Taylor, a spokeperson for the Republican National Committee says, “The RNC would not, has not, will not use foreclosure lists as a basis of any challenge lists.” He continues, “The Democrats have hung quite a bit on this one quote in a liberal blog post that’s been challenged as inaccurate, and we need to know what else they have to support their claim.”

(Foreclosure proceedings, even if they force a homeowner to move, will not necessarily affect his or her voter registration, but the precise rules vary locally. According to a press release issued by the county clerk for Macomb County: “A registered voter who moves from one precinct to another within the same city or township may vote one last time in the precinct where registered. A registered voter who moves from one Michigan city or township to another can vote one last time in the precinct where registered if the move was made within 60 days of the election.”)

      

Full post as published by FORTUNE Legal Pad on September 18, 2008 (boomark / email).

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