The GOP’s dirty deeds of 2006

Salon's guide to robo-calls, push polls, vigilantes and other murky dealings from this year's elections.

Topics: 2006 Elections, Virginia,

The GOP's dirty deeds of 2006

Before the 2006 midterm election, you couldn’t escape the predictions of Election Day disaster: voting machine meltdowns, interminable lines, endless recounts. But the control of both houses of Congress was decided without interference from Diebold or hanging chads, so few (outside of Florida’s 13th Congressional District) are suffering flashbacks of 2000 and 2004.

But while this year might not have included any repeats of Palm Beach County or Ohio, that doesn’t mean the midterm elections were squeaky clean. This November there were some old-school dirty tricks that had nothing to do with voting machines or secretaries of state. An unscientific sample seems to show that most were the product of a party that was desperate for something, anything, that would help it protect its doomed congressional majorities. The bulk of this year’s murky dealings took place in those tightly contested races — from the battle for Virginia’s Senate seat to House races in Illinois, New York and Connecticut — that were crucial to control of Congress.

Fortunately, politicians in several states and the U.S. Senate are taking steps to criminalize some of the more heinous tricks played this year. Before any of the bad deeds from this election are forgotten, here’s Salon’s Cheat Sheet — our top 10 list of dirt.

In Maryland, Republicans turn Democrat — and truck in homeless men to spread the word

In some states, like deep-blue Maryland, being a Republican is a political liability. Still, it’s not often that you see Maryland’s top Republican candidates actually pretending to be Democrats — but that’s exactly what Gov. Bob Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who was running for the state’s open Senate seat, did.

A flier distributed in majority black Prince George’s County, and unsubtly hued red, black and green, featured three prominent black Democrats — Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and former head of the NAACP; Wayne K. Curry, the former county executive in Prince George’s County; and Jack B. Johnson, the current Prince George’s county executive — stating that each endorsed Steele for the U.S. Senate and Ehrlich for governor. In reality, none of them had endorsed Ehrlich, and only Curry had endorsed Steele. On the back of the flier was a “Democratic Sample Ballot” that endorsed Ehrlich for governor and Steele for Senate.

The men who were passing out the deceptive fliers were homeless, and had been trucked in from Philadelphia specially for the event with the promise of three meals and $100 cash in exchange for one Election Day’s work.

In Virginia, voter intimidation

It’s not illegal to be registered to vote in two places, as long as you don’t vote in both. But that’s not what Timothy Daly, of Clarendon, Va., was told. Daly got a message on his answering machine that told him that the nonexistent “Virginia Elections Commission” had “determined you are registered in New York to vote.”

“Therefore,” the message said, “you will not be allowed to cast your vote.” It ended by promising Daly, who has voted in Virginia since 1998, that if he did come to vote, he would “be charged criminally.”

Daly wasn’t the only Virginia resident to receive such a message; enough similar calls were made, in fact, that the FBI has opened an investigation into the allegations. It’s not yet known who was behind the calls, but it seems likely they would have taken an organized effort, or at the very least no small investment of time — whoever called Daly and the other victims of the scam would have had to comb through voter registration data to find voters registered in multiple states. In the end, Democrat Jim Webb defeated incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen by just over 7,200 votes.

The Social Security Administration gets into the act

Illinois Democratic congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth, running for the open seat that once belonged to Henry Hyde, wanted to extend Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants. At least, that’s what one mailer to district residents said — and there was no reason to doubt it. After all, it was from the Social Security Administration. The mailer came in a yellow-brown envelope whose front bore the image of an eagle and the words “Notice: Social Security Benefit Change Proposal.” To be fair, the letter did acknowledge its source — the National Republican Congressional Committee — at the bottom of the page and again on the back of the envelope, where the return address listed “Social Security Benefits Proposal c/o National Republican Congressional Committee.” But some of Duckworth’s supporters have alleged that the mailing was more than just deceptive: It could, they say, be considered mail fraud for seemingly imitating mail from an official government agency without the disclosure required of any non-governmental entity sending out such a letter. On Election Day, Republican Peter Roskam beat Duckworth by less than 5,000 votes.

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“Not like in Mexico, here there is no benefit to voting.”

This October, nearly 14,000 Orange County, Calif., residents received a letter stating that if they attempted to vote on Nov. 7, they could face jail time or deportation. The recipients — all of whom had Latino last names and were registered as Democrats — were discouraged in formal Spanish laden with grammatical errors from voting in the midterm elections. The letter not only targeted illegal immigrants and legal immigrants who are not naturalized citizens; it also went to naturalized legal immigrants, who are eligible to vote, and to many native-born Latinos. Although early investigations by the state attorney general pointed to an independent anti-immigration group as the source of the letter, it was later discovered that campaign officials working for Republican congressional candidate Tan Nguyen were responsible for composing the letter and compiling names for the mailing list. Nguyen, who is a staunch supporter of anti-immigration legislation, has said that he had nothing to do with the letter, but believes it was legal. Not everyone agrees with Nguyens assessment, though; the California Attorney General’s Office is weighing criminal charges.

Blood runs thicker than party affiliation

Family ties can make for some strange political situations; perhaps none was stranger this year than the saga of the Ford family in Tennessee. Though it was Rep. Harold Ford Jr. who received the lion’s share of the attention as the Democratic candidate for Senate in a key state, his younger brother Jake was on the ballot as well, hoping to take over the 9th District House seat Harold Jr. had vacated to run for Senate. Jake Ford was running for Congress as an independent after losing the Democratic primary. But that’s not what Ford family patriarch Harold Ford Sr. said.

The elder Ford, himself a former congressman, is famous for his unofficial party ballots, handed out to the black voters of Memphis. This year, like every year, he printed and distributed a “Ford Democratic ballot.” This time, though, one candidate stuck out — Jake Ford, who made the sample ballot over Steve Cohen, the real Democratic candidate. Cohen easily beat Ford in the general election.

The robot that called. And called. And called

If you’re the average American, you’ve gotten a call from a telemarketer. You’ve probably gotten a call from a telemarketer who was really a robot. And if you’re like most of us, you’ve probably hung up. But what if the robot didn’t get the message?

In this year’s biggest dirty trick, that’s what happened to voters across the country, who were deluged with robo-calls that purportedly were coming from Democratic candidates. The calls started innocently enough, by offering information about the local Democrat. But if you hung up, the robot would call back. Hang up again and, like some character out of a Stephen King novel, the robot would call again. And again. And again, sometimes as many as seven times before it gave up. So the voters who had the temerity to want to enjoy their dinner unmolested were left with the impression of a Democratic candidate who simply would not leave them alone; those who stayed on the line were instead treated to a string of disinformation about the Democrat. The calls, which were paid for by the NRCC, hit many of the House races vital to Democrats’ chances to take back the House. They ran in at least two key Illinois districts, including Duckworth’s, and in Connecticut, where vulnerable Republican incumbent Chris Shays survived a stiff challenge from Democrat Diane Farrell, and in other races in states as diverse as Georgia, California, Pennsylvania and New York. In all, a total of 1 million calls were spread over 53 House races; this means that an average of 20,000 calls were made in each district, each of which contained about 200,000 votes. The calls could potentially have reached one out of every 10 voters in the targeted races.

The uproar that followed hasn’t escaped the attention of politicians. Sen. Barack Obama has introduced a bill that would criminalize the practice, and on the local level several states are considering similar legislation.

Push polls

The robo-calls weren’t this election season’s only example of trick by telephone; another old tactic was trotted out this year: the push poll.

Relying on the public’s trust of pollsters as objective questioners, not partisan propagandists, push polls come from callers pretending to be interested in recipient responses — but what they really care about is their own message, which is slipped into the question.

One group, Common Sense Ohio, was responsible for many of the push polls this year, which hit key Senate races in Maryland, Montana, Ohio and Tennessee, along with the governor’s race in Ohio and a ballot initiative in South Dakota to overturn an abortion ban. In Missouri, where stem cell research became an issue with the intervention of Parkinson’s-stricken actor Michael J. Fox, voters were asked about their support for medical experiments on babies still in the womb — and were then told that Democrat Claire McCaskill did.

The progressive group that wasn’t

Bob Casey, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, isn’t your typical Democrat — pro-gun, pro-death penalty, antiabortion — but he was running against a Republican, Rick Santorum, who made him look positively liberal by comparison.

Still, there was ample room for anyone who wished to attack Casey from the left — and there were plenty who did. Like the people behind the Progressive Policy Council, a self-described nonprofit organization that popped up just before the election to denounce Casey’s conservative stances. But the group, which appeared to have no signs of actual life other than mailers sent out attacking Casey, may not have been as “progressive” as advertised: It’s represented by the former deputy general counsel to President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, who has also worked for the Dole campaign and the Republican National Committee.

It wasn’t the only attempt by Republicans to hit Casey from the left. The race’s Green Party candidate was funded entirely by donors who normally support Republicans.

Case of the vanished polling place

Most people — well, most people other than Ann Coulter — try to make sure they’re voting in their assigned polling place. But voters in several states had their polling place changed just before the election.

At least, that’s what the phone calls told them. Voters in New York, New Mexico and Virginia were told by anonymous callers that their polling places were changed and they were given erroneous directions to new polling places that didn’t exist. In New Mexico, at least one call giving incorrect information about a polling place was actually traced back to the local Republican Party. Republicans claimed it was a mistake, but in response the state’s Democrats unsuccessfully petitioned a judge to enjoin the state GOP from calling any more Democrats at all.

And last, but not least — vigilantes

On Election Day, a posse of three men in Tucson, Ariz., proved that the Wild West still lives.

The group, which was three strong, and allegedly composed of two anti-immigration activists, Russ Dove and Roy Warden, carried a camcorder, a clipboard — on which, they said, was information about a proposed law to make English the state’s official language — and a gun. While one man would approach a voter, holding the clipboard, another would follow, pointing the video camera at them. The third would stand behind, holding his hand to the gun at his hip in what activists on the other side called classic voter intimidation tactics in a precinct one local paper had previously declared the bellwether of the area’s Hispanic vote.

It’s not the first time Dove and Warden have been accused of this type of act. Dove, who is a convicted felon and former militia member, patrolled Arizona’s polls in 2004 as well, and Warden has publicly burned a Mexican flag (for which he was charged with arson) and acknowledged that he sought a concealed-carry permit for a gun, partly in hopes of enticing a local police officer to attack him and force Warden to use deadly force in self-defense.

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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