Block the Vote

Traitor Baiters

excerpted from the book

Banana Republicans

How the Right Wing Is Turning America into a One-Party State

by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin, 2004


In the face of overwhelming rejection from African-American and other minority voters, Republicans have adopted a two-tiered strategy: token efforts at symbolic inclusion (aimed primarily at soothing the conscience of white voters, many of whom want to see themselves as supporters of a racially inclusive party), combined with a variety of strategies for minimizing the number and influence of black votes.

Perhaps the most striking recent example of voter suppression came in the 2000 presidential election, where a slim margin of 537 votes in Florida gave George W. Bush the votes in the electoral college that he needed to claim victory over Al Gore. (Nationwide, Gore won the popular vote by 543,614 votes.)

What most people remember from Florida, of course, is the "butterfly ballots" in Palm Beach County, the lengthy voter recount, hanging chads and legal filings on behalf of candidates Al Gore and George Bush. There were other disturbing events connected with the 2000 presidential election, such as a report that General Electric chairman Jack Welch visited the studio of NBC News (which is owned by GE) on election night, where he cheered when Bush was ahead and at one point reportedly asked a staffer, "What would I have to give you to call the race for Bush?"" At Fox News, the election-night "decision desk" was headed by John Ellis, a first cousin of Bush who was instrumental in the network's decision to call the race for Bush before any of the other networks. It was also disturbing to see the supposedly spontaneous "Brooks Brothers riot" (so nicknamed because of participants' upscale clothing) staged by GOP staffers and activists that helped stop the Miami recount,'- after which the "rioters" and other GOP anti-recount organizers received plum positions within the Bush administration."

Another disturbing aspect of the Florida election was the double standard used by Republicans regarding the counting of absentee ballots, including votes by overseas military. After the Supreme Court's decision, the New York Times conducted an exhaustive investigation into the handling of absentee ballots, some of which were received after election day but included in the Florida total nevertheless. "With the presidency hanging on the outcome in Florida, the Bush team quickly grasped that the best hope of ensuring victory was the trove of ballots still arriving in the mail from Florida residents living abroad," reported David Barstow and Don Van Natta, Jr. "Over the next 18 days, the Republicans mounted a legal and public relations campaign to persuade canvassing boards in Bush strongholds to waive the state's election laws when counting overseas absentee ballots. Their goal was simple: to count the maximum number of overseas ballots in counties won by Mr. Bush, particularly those with a high concentration of military voters, while seeking to disqualify overseas ballots in counties won by Vice President A] Gore." In counties where Bush had strong majorities, the GOP team successfully persuaded canvassing boards to accept flawed votes that "Included ballots without postmarks, ballots postmarked after the election, ballots without witness signatures, ballots mailed from towns and cities within the United States and even ballots from voters who voted twice. All would have been disqualified had the state's election laws been strictly enforced." In Gore strongholds, by contrast, "Bush lawyers questioned scores of ballots, almost always from civilian Democrats but occasionally from members of the military. They objected to the slightest of flaws, including partial addresses of witnesses, illegible witness signatures and slight variations in voter signatures." Correcting this disparity alone might have been enough to tip the balance in Gore's favor, they noted, since "without the overseas absentee ballots counted after election day, Mr. Gore would have won Florida by 202 votes, and thus the White House. But no one knew that until the 36 days were over; by then, it was a historical footnote."

Other scenarios are possible, of course. Following the election, a consortium of eight leading U.S. news organizations commissioned the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago to compile a comprehensive study of the 2000 election in Florida, in which trained investigators closely examined every rejected ballot in the state. They created a database detailing the condition of each ballot-whether it had a hanging chad, dimpled ballot, double vote or any of the other characteristics that were bones of contention when the Bush and Gore teams quarreled over the recount rules. This in turn made it possible to predict how the election would have turned out under a variety of different scenarios based on different recount rules. Under six of the nine scenarios that they considered, Gore would have emerged as the winner- although, ironically the recount procedure that Gore's team advocated was one of the scenarios that would have still left Bush ahead .21 These results left sufficient room for interpretation for CNN to declare, "Bush Still Wins," while other news organizations reported vindication for Gore. But none of these recount scenarios considered the separate role that race played in shaping the election outcome.

In the end, racial disparities in treatment of voters may have been the worst scandal of the Florida 2000 election. Five months before the election, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, acting under the direction of Governor Jeb Bush, sent local election boards a list of 42,389 "probable" and "possible" felons, with instructions that the list should be used to exclude ineligible voters. The scrub list was compiled by a private company hired by the state called Database Technologies, a division of a national database company called ChoicePoint. To compile the list, ChoicePoint-DBT had compared the state's list of registered voters against lists of known felons and also removed duplicate listings and deceased residents .2' As journalist Greg Palast and others have noted, the purged names were disproportionately black- 54 percent of the names on the ChoicePoint-DBT list, although only 14.6 percent of the state's residents were black in 2000. '3 ChoicePoint's system for purging names accomplished this in part by purging black people from the voter rolls if their names were the same as or similar to convicted felons, while keeping white people with names similar to convicted felons. 24

"They were supposed to use their extensive databases to check credit cards, bank information, addresses and phone numbers, in addition to names, ages, and social security numbers. But they didn't," says Palast, who has written extensively about the Florida balloting in his book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. "They didn't use one of their 1,200 databases to verify personal information, nor did they make a single phone call to verify the identity of scrubbed names." Instead, ChoicePoint compiled its list of felons by downloading names from other states' Internet sites. "They scrubbed Florida voters whose names were similar to out-of-state felons," Palast explains. "An Illinois felon named John Michaels could knock off Florida voter John, Johnny, Jonathan or Jon R. Michaels, or even J.R. Michaelson. DBT matched for race and gender, but names only had to be similar to a certain degree. Names could be reversed, and suffixes (Jr., Sr.) were ignored, but aliases were included. So the felon John 'Buddy' Michaels could knock non-felon Michael Johns or Bud Johnson, Jr., off the voter rolls. This happened again and again. Although DBT didn't get names, birthdays or social security numbers right, they were very careful to match for race. A black felon named Mr. Green would only knock off a black Mr. Green, but not a single white Mr. Green .

In addition to kicking out innocent people as felons, Florida committed a number of other irregularities that disadvantaged blacks and elderly voters (who also tend to vote Democrat). "In a presidential race decided by 5 37 votes, Florida simply did not count 179,855 ballots," Palast states. Many votes went uncounted due to inferior voting-machine models and suboptimal machine settings. In counties across the state, Palast reports, racial demographics correlated closely with the proportion of uncounted ballots. Gadsden County, for example, had 52 percent African-American residents and a 12 percent ballot rejection rate, while Citrus County, with only 2 Percent black residents, had only I percent of their ballots rejected.- When USA Today compiled a statewide database correlating race and other factors to rejected ballots, it found that blacks were four times as likely as whites to have their votes go uncounted .21

Palast believes that racial factors alone were sufficient to throw the election to Bush, which is certainly plausible given the closeness of the result. Here too, of course, not everyone agrees. The Palm Beach Post conducted its own investigation and found "at least 1,100 eligible voters wrongly purged" due to the ChoicePoint-DBT list-a smaller number than Palast alleges. According to the Post, "these voters-some wrongly identified as felons, and many more wrongly turned away based on felony convictions in other states-could have swayed the election had they been allowed to vote. It also noted, however, that ChoicePoint-DBT's list was so unreliable that elections supervisors in 20 counties ignored it altogether, thereby allowing thousands of ineligible felons to vote-a report that has been cited by Republicans as evidence that it was Gore, not Bush, who benefited from the scrub list. However, Florida is one of only 12 states-most of them in the South-that bar felons from voting after their prison term has ended, and there is no question that the law disproportionately bars blacks, who account for 49 percent of felons in the state.'

After a lengthy investigation the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) produced a report in June 2001 titled "Voting Irregularities in Florida During the 2000 Presidential Election." The report concluded, "Despite the closeness of the election, it was widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest, that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election. The disenfranchisement was not isolated or episodic." The USCCR found that African-American voters were at least ten times more likely to have their ballots rejected than other voters and that 83 of the 100 precincts with the most disqualified ballots had black majorities." The Florida governor's office responded by dismissing the USCCR report as "biased and sloppy" and "riddled with baseless allegations, faulty reasoning and unsupported conclusions."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) disagreed. From the time the polls opened until they closed on election day, the NAACP's national office in Baltimore had received scores of telephone calls from Floridians throughout the state complaining of voter irregularities and intimidation. Following the election, the NAACP convened its own hearings and compiled 300 pages of testimony, based on which it filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Florida. In September 2002, just days before the lawsuit was scheduled to go before a judge, the state finally agreed to a settlement that included reinstating the voters who had been wrongly disenfranchised as felons. Conveniently for Jeb Bush, who was in the middle of a race for reelection as governor, the settlement came too late to get them reinstated in time for that year's fall elections. 3

And Florida was not the only state whose elections had racially tinged inequities. Following the 2000 elections, the American Civil Liberties Union filed voting-rights lawsuits in Georgia, California, Illinois and Missouri, in addition to Florida. These suits, filed on behalf of African-Americans who said their votes went uncounted due to systematic irregularities in the voting process, called for improvements in voting systems and technology. A series of newspaper advertisements run around the same time as part of the ACLU's Voting Rights Campaign began: "There was a day in American history when black people counted less than white people. November 7, 2000."

America was born in rebellion, through acts of civil disobedience such as the Boston Tea Party and overt efforts to overthrow British rule. Not surprisingly, therefore, the founding fathers who wrote the United States Constitution had the good sense to define the crime of treason in very careful and limited terms, thereby ensuring that parties in power could not use it as a weapon against their political opponents. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers in 1788, "new-fangled and artificial treasons have been the great engines, by which violent factions ... have usually wrecked their alternate malignity on each other."' Similar observations came from James Wilson, who also played a major role in drafting the U.S. Constitution and was one of the first judges appointed by George Washington to the Supreme Court. The accusation of treason, Wilson warned in 1791, "furnishes an opportunity to unprincipled courtiers, and to demagogues equally unprincipled, to harass the independent citizen, and the faithful subject, by treasons, and by prosecutions for treasons, constructive, capricious, and oppressive."'

As defined by the Constitution, treason consists of two types of crimes, both of which constitute intentional acts of betraying the nation. "Treason against the United States," it declares, "shall consist only in levying war against them, or, adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." Recognizing the serious nature of such a charge, U.S. courts have rarely sought to use it as the basis for criminal prosecutions. In the entire history of the country, there have been fewer than 40 federal trials for treason and even fewer convictions.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, however, the rhetoric of the conservative movement marked an abandonment of this tolerant tradition. The charge of treason has been bandied about routinely against liberals in general and especially against critics of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. Examples include:

* After correspondent Peter Arnett gave an interview with Iraqi state television during the war in Iraq, Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning called for Arnett to be "brought back and tried as a traitor to the United States of America, for his aiding and abetting the Iraqi government during a war." Even after Arnett apologized for his remarks and was fired by MSNBC, Bunning declared in a speech on the Senate floor that "that's not enough for me.... I think Mr. Arnett should be met at the border and arrested should he come back to America."'

* Shortly after September 11, David Horowitz published a column calling anti-war professor Noam Chomsky "the most treacherous intellect in America.... Disruption in this country is what the terrorists want, and what the terrorists need, and what the followers of Noam Chomsky intend to give them ." A year later, Horowitz commented on a speech that Chomsky gave in Texas: "If the word 'traitor' has any meaning at all, Noam Chomsky is an American traitor, and in fact the leading advocate of the call for all progressive citizens of America to betray their country."

* In April 2003, Tennessee State Senator Tim Burchett drew cheers when he called for the deportation of war critics. "That's treason, not patriotism," Burchett said. "They ought to be run out of our country and not allowed back."'

* After a number of celebrities 'joined other prominent Americans in opposing the war in Iraq, the website urged visitors to "boycott Hollywood" and created a "traitor list" including entertainers such as George Clooney, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Depp, Danny Glover, Mike Farrell, Janeane Garofalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Madonna, Sean Penn, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen and Barbra Streisand.

* The Clear Channel radio network pulled the Dixie Chicks from their playlists after the group's lead singer, Natalie Maines, told fans in London that they were ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush. Only a few days previously, Clear Channel Entertainment, the company I s concert tour promotional arm, had been enthusiastically promoting its co-sponsorship of 26 upcoming concerts in the Chicks' upcoming "Top of the World Tour."' In Colorado Springs, two disk jockeys were suspended from Clear Channel affiliate KKCS for defying the ban.

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter's Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War-to, the War on Terrorism has perhaps gone further in this direction than any of the others. Her book derides Democrats as "the Treason Party," stating, "Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason. You could be talking about Scrabble and they would instantly leap to the anti-American position. Everyone says liberals love America, too. No they don't. Whenever the nation is tinder attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy. This is their essence.""' Coulter claims that liberals have been conspiring to destroy the nation for the past half century, beginning with the Cold War when "Democrats opposed anything opposed by their cherished Soviet Union."" In contrast with the Constitution, which declares that treason must be intentional, Coulter insists that it doesn't even matter whether liberals know they are betraying the nation. "They are either traitors or idiots," she writes, and "the difference is irrelevant."

Even former president Jimmy Carter's acceptance of a Nobel Prize makes him a traitor in Coulter's eves. Why? Because the prize was awarded in December 2002, both to honor Carter for his "decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts" and-in the words of Nobel committee chair Gunnar Berge-as an implicit "criticism of the line that the current administration has taken." By accepting the Nobel at a time when Bush was preparing for war with Iraq, Coulter declares, Carter betrayed the Country: "For any American to accept this award on the ground offered " she writes, "does sound terribly like adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."

It is tempting to imagine that Coulter and her admirers don't literally believe the words that come out of her mouth. Maybe she is being satirical, exaggerating for effect, or attempting to exploit the nation's post-9/1 I mood of war fever and intolerance for alternate views. Whatever the reasons, though, her book spent more than two months on the New York Times bestseller list, and she insists that she is serious, so it seems fair to take her at her word and to see her hyperbole as a reflection of beliefs that many conservatives currently hold.

Repeatedly and relentlessly, conservatives have hammered away at the theme that liberals, Democrats and anyone else with whom they disagree are conscious traitors engaged in fifth-column subversion within the United States. "Even fanatical Muslim terrorists don't hate America like liberals do," declared Ann Coulter at the February 2002 annual conference of the Conservative Political Action Committee. Speaking before an audience of 3,500 that included luminaries such as Lynne Cheney, Bill Bennett and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, Coulter drew applause when she commented on the recent capture of John Walker Lindh, an American citizen who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. "In contemplating college liberals," Coulter said, "you really regret, once again, that John Walker is riot getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they could be killed, too.""' (Actually, John Walker Lindh himself is riot a liberal. Like Coulter, he is a fundamentalist.)

... Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly declares that Americans who don't support the war in Iraq should "Just shut up" or "be considered enemies of the state," ...

On the second anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, the New York Times surveyed opinions in places from Africa to Europe to Southeast Asia and found "a widespread and fashionable view ... that the United States is a classically imperialist power bent on controlling global oil supplies and on military domination. That mood has been expressed in different ways by different people, from the hockey fans in Montreal who boo the American national anthem to the high school students in Switzerland who do not want to go to the United States as exchange students because America is not 'in.'"

The world wants democracy, but-at least for the present-it no longer sees the United States as a democratic leader. This is the real challenge facing the United States. Will it live up to its own traditions and become once again a leader and inspiration to others? Or will the conservative movement's vision of "politics as war" undermine those traditions for a generation to come?

Banana Republicans

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