The Republican National Committee has a special offer for African-American soldiers: Go to Baghdad, lose your vote.
A confidential campaign directed by GOP party chiefs in October 2004 sought to challenge the ballots of tens of thousands of voters in the last presidential election, virtually all of them cast by residents of Black-majority precincts.
Files from the secret vote-blocking campaign were obtained by BBC Television Newsnight, London. They were attached to emails accidentally sent by Republican operatives to a non-party website.
One group of voters wrongly identified by the Republicans as registering to vote from false addresses: servicemen and women sent overseas.
Here’s how the scheme worked: The RNC mailed these voters letters in envelopes marked, “Do not forward”, to be returned to the sender. These letters were mailed to servicemen and women, some stationed overseas, to their US home addresses. The letters then returned to the Bush-Cheney campaign as “undeliverable.”
The lists of soldiers of “undeliverable” letters were transmitted from state headquarters, in this case Florida, to the RNC in Washington. The party could then challenge the voters’ registration and thereby prevent their absentee ballots being counted.
One target list was comprised exclusively of voters registered at the Jacksonville, Florida, Naval Air Station. Jacksonville is third largest naval installation in the US, best known as home of the Blue Angels fighting squandron.
Our team contacted the homes of several on the caging list, such as Randall Prausa, a serviceman, whose wife said he had been ordered overseas.
A soldier returning home in time to vote in November 2004 could also be challenged on the basis of the returned envelope. Soldiers challenged would be required to vote by “provisional” ballot.
Over one million provisional ballots cast in the 2004 race were never counted; over half a million absentee ballots were also rejected. The extraordinary rise in the number of rejected ballots was the result of the widespread multi-state voter challenge campaign by the Republican Party. The operation, of which the purge of Black soldiers was a small part, was the first mass challenge to voting America had seen in two decades.
The BBC obtained several dozen confidential emails sent by the Republican’s national Research Director and Deputy Communications chief, Tim Griffin to GOP Florida campaign chairman Brett Doster and other party leaders. Attached were spreadsheets marked, “Caging.xls.” Each of these contained several hundred to a few thousand voters and their addresses.
A check of the demographics of the addresses on the “caging lists,” as the GOP leaders called them indicated that most were in African-American majority zip codes.
Ion Sanco, the non-partisan elections supervisor of Leon County (Tallahassee) when shown the lists by this reporter said: “The only thing I can think of – African American voters listed like this – these might be individuals that will be challenged if they attempted to vote on Election Day.”
These GOP caging lists were obtained by the same BBC team that first exposed the wrongful purge of African-American “felon” voters in 2000 by then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Eliminating the voting rights of those voters — 94,000 were targeted — likely caused Al Gore’s defeat in that race.
The Republican National Committee in Washington refused our several requests to respond to the BBC discovery. However, in Tallahassee, the Florida Bush campaign’s spokespeople offered several explanations for the list.
Joseph Agostini, speaking for the GOP, suggested the lists were of potential donors to the Bush campaign. Oddly, the supposed donor list included residents of the Sulzbacher Center a shelter for homeless families.
Another spokesperson for the Bush campaign, Mindy Tucker Fletcher, ultimately changed the official response, acknowledging that these were voters, “we mailed to, where the letter came back – bad addresses.”
The party has refused to say why it would mark soldiers as having “bad addresses” subject to challenge when they had been assigned abroad.
The apparent challenge campaign was not inexpensive. The GOP mailed the letters first class, at a total cost likely exceeding millions of dollars, so that the addresses would be returned to “cage” workers.
“This is not a challenge list,” insisted the Republican spokesmistress. However, she modified that assertion by adding, “That’s not what it’s set up to be.”
Setting up such a challenge list would be a crime under federal law. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlaws mass challenges of voters where race is a factor in choosing the targeted group.
While the party insisted the lists were not created for the purpose to challenge Black voters, the GOP ultimately offered no other explanation for the mailings. However, Tucker Fletcher asserted Republicans could still employ the list to deny ballots to those they considered suspect voters. When asked if Republicans would use the list to block voters, Tucker Fletcher replied, “Where it’s stated in the law, yeah.”
It is not possible at this time to determine how many on the potential blacklist were ultimately challenged and lost their vote. Soldiers sending in their ballot from abroad would not know their vote was lost because of a challenge.
For the full story of caging lists and voter purges of 2004, plus the documents, read Greg Palast’s New York Times bestseller, ARMED MADHOUSE