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A View From Inside the Tea Party’s Voter Suppression Confab

Brentin Mock May 4, 2012

Just two weeks ago a Rasmussen poll showed 64 percent of Americans believe voter fraud exists. This poll was a major hit with the folks at the pro-voter ID True the Vote conference held over the weekend in Houston. No less than three speakers mentioned it to the crowd of roughly 200 attendees. According to conference host and True the Vote president Catherine Engelbrecht, 32 states were represented here for their third national summit, but it was clear most in the room were from Texas. Many appeared to be part of one Tea Party group or another (True the Vote is the 501c3 arm of the King Street Patriots, a Texas Tea Party group), and none seemed to be aware that they were far from losing the war on voting.

They were stuck in a reality that was unfamiliar to anyone who’s been paying attention to voter issues. Speakers — among them, Heritage Foundation’s Hans Von Spakovsky, Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton and former title-challenged DOJ employee J. Christian Adams — spoke about the voter ID cause as if they were failing, as if sixteen states didn’t pass photo voter ID laws, most of them in just the past 18 months. As if a federal court didn’t just validate a strict photo voter ID law in Arizona the week before the conference.



It didn’t stop there. Liberals own the media and have been framing the debate around voter IDs while giving favorable coverage to the Obama administration, said a conservative consultant during a PowerPoint on who “real mainstream Americans” are. He claimed this after mentioning the Rasmussen poll that seemed to indicate otherwise, and during a weekend when one of the top trending stories was how Obama was getting more negative press than Mitt Romney.

Topping it off, former Congressman Artur Davis (yes, that one) had some kind words for the protesters outside the conference. But if there were actual protesters they must have been invisible. The only people gathered outside the conference hotel were a bunch of African-American motorcycle clubs on their bikes, a few of whom told me they had no idea who True the Vote was or that they had a conference going on.

As for those actually there to hear True the Vote, there were as many African Americans found in the audience as are found cases of voter impersonation fraud, less than one percent. I was one of maybe six African Americans scattered among the group. Two others were Davis and Anita Moncrief, a “whistleblower” for True the Vote’s old enemy ACORN. Between her and Davis — both opening speakers for the conference — they gave the Tea Partyin’ (Starbucks coffee-gulping) crowd enough ammo for their weaponization against their new enemies: the Advancement Project, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the Brennan Center for Justice and their archnemesis, the Department of Justice.

“The Department of Justice has gone wild,” Moncrief told the room. “It is not working on behalf of the American people. It is working for these pressure groups,” she said after rattling off a litany of alleged fraudulent, sinister activities that her former employer ACORN used to do. Among those activities was producing the “ACORN Socialist Wishlist” — the secret agenda that President Obama will soon unleash upon Americans. On that list: environmental justice, which Montcrief described as “EPA regulations gone wild.”

Davis took it further. He told them that when people “use the word rights” — voting rights, civil rights, human rights — that what they mean is “they don’t want any responsibility,” comparing rights-seekers to people who who want jobs, but don’t want to show up for work. He indulged the Tea Partiers indignation telling them, “Don’t let anyone tell you you are what’s wrong with America, you are what’s right with America!”

These were great set ups for American Spectator senior editor John Fund who said the next day that “the biggest victims of voter fraud are minorities” to no applause. He assured the crowd that the real good in their fight for voter ID laws was to protect the very black and Latino people such laws would hamper. This moved nobody, especially as he told them “Some of us who live in nice suburban areas … we’re insulated from” voter fraud. It was less proof that he cared about “minorities” and unintentionally more evidence that when it comes to having equal protection under the law and resources for democratic participation, that place matters. But Fund reminded the audience of the Rasmussen numbers, which also said roughly two-thirds of African-American respondents believed voter fraud existed.

If so many people believe voter fraud exists, it’s only because these groups have been successful in spreading myths while suppressing the truth, which is that you have a better chance of finding Michelle Obama in a Burger King than you will find voter fraud in a poll booth. All weekend they recycled anecdotes about voter registration problems — animated by James O’Keefe’s wannabe-Borat-but-missing-the-point films. Registration errors also occur at insignificant rates, and photo voter ID laws do little to address that. But people see the O’Keefe shenanigans or hear Moncrief talk about evil ACORN plots to take over the world by registering Jive S. Turkey to vote, and they become convinced that voter fraud exists.

It’s like the Koch-funded propaganda campaigns to block climate change truths by declaring it a hoax. Except here they use an actual hoax — voter fraud — to block voting rights. In this arena, contrary to True the Vote’s speakers, these campaigns appear to be winning, if only in the sense that democracy loses every time a state passes a photo voter ID law.

The voting rights army is not befallen yet, though. Just before Houston, I attended the W. K. Kellogg Foundation “America Healing—Healing for Democracy” conference in New Orleans, where I heard Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne-Dianis, Southwest Worker’s Union director Genaro Lopez-Rendon and Blue Stone Strategy vice president Alvin Warren address voter suppression. They discussed many battles they’ve been gaining ground on in communities and courthouses, getting people registered to vote and removing barriers to the polls. They all spoke of groundwork in terms of finding those who needed ID, citizenship or birth documents, and getting people engaged in the electoral process for November 2012 and beyond.

I was curious about the fictitious protesters Artur Davis warned the crowd of, while warning them about equally fictitious voter fraud. I asked Christina Sanders, the Houston-based director of the League of Young Voters Education Fund about why none of the state’s voting rights groups showed up for the protests Davis feared. No time for it, said Sanders. They’re too busy getting ready for the showdown between Texas and the Department of Justice over a strict photo voter ID law. League of Young Voters Education Fund is on the lawsuit.

“Marches and protests,” said Sanders, “I support them. I won’t be the one to organize them, though. We’re fighting this one in the courtroom.”

This article was originally published by Colorlines.

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