On Thursday of last week, Virginia authorities charged a man working for the Republican Party with dumping the voter registration forms of Democrats. In Albertis, Pa., authorities arrested the town’s 19-year-old Democratic city council member after he allegedly stole yard signs of his Republican opponent. In minority urban areas of Ohio and Wisconsin, an anonymous group has paid Clear Channel (owned in part by Mitt Romney’s former company Bain Capital) to put up billboards proclaiming that “Voter Fraud Is a Felony.” And a Tea Party-affiliated group, True the Vote, is promising to send observers into polling places in Democratic areas, leading Democrats to cry voter intimidation. Does this stuff matter? Or is it just a bunch of noise before our hyper-polarized and hyper-partisan election, as polls show both sides expect the other to try to steal the election? The answer is probably a little bit of both. But the real action when it comes to affecting election turnout probably happened months or even years ago.
Every close election seems to have its share of dirty tricks, and in recent years more of the stories seem to involve Republican actions to keep down the Democratic vote rather than the other way around. (Though there are counterexamples, such as claims of Democrats slashing tires of vans rented by Republicans to get out the vote in 2004 in Milwaukee.)
In researching these incidents for my book, “The Voting Wars,” I discovered that many of these attempts at vote suppression were boneheaded and unlikely to work. Consider the case of ex-Marine Chuck McGee, who was working for the Republican Party in New Hampshire in 2002. McGee received a flier in the mail from the state Democratic Party with phone numbers for voters to call offering them rides to the polls on Election Day. The flier listed six phone numbers from around the state, including five Democratic Party offices and the firefighters union in the town of Manchester. McGee later testified that after reading the flier, “I paused and thought to myself … I might think of an idea of disrupting those operations … Eventually the idea coalesced into disrupting their phone lines … [It’s] military common sense that if you can’t communicate, you can’t plan and organize.” McGee hired a company from out of state to jam the phone lines. Within an hour of its happening on Election Day, with news reports swirling, the head of the state Republican Party figured out what happened and shut the effort down. But Democrats made political hay of the incident for years, and it led to criminal and civil trials.