The muckraking journalist Greg Palast is reporting for the BBC that Republicans in Florida have cooked up "a plan -- possibly in violation of U.S. law -- to disrupt voting in the state's African-American voting districts." Palast has gleaned this apparent plan from a "secret document" that he says he obtained from within the Bush campaign's Florida headquarters.
The document is a spreadsheet file that lists the names and addresses of more than 1,800 people in Jacksonville, Fla., an area with a high minority population. Somewhat mysteriously, the file is named "caging." Nowhere in the file is the purpose of the list explained, but Ion Sancho, the Democratic elections supervisor in Leon County, Fla., tells Palast that the only possible reason that the Republicans would have to draw up the list is to "challenge voters on election day." The list, Sancho tells Palast, probably indicates the names of the voters whom Republican operatives, stationed in polling places, will challenge on their qualification to participate in the election -- a tactic that Republicans have acknowledged planning in an effort to prevent what they say will be widespread voter fraud by Democrats at the polls this year.
But Palast's evidence for this theory is quite thin, and it's premature to conclude that the list is suggestive of any kind of wrongdoing. The list Palast cites was first uncovered by the folks who run GeorgeWBush.org, a parody of the Bush campaign's official Web site, at GeorgeWBush.com. Over that past few months, it seems, insiders at the Bush campaign, the Republican National Committee and groups aligned with the two have occasionally, accidentally addressed some of their e-mails to the .org domain rather than the .com. Earlier this month, the GeorgeWBush.org people noticed that they'd collected a stash of Republican e-mail in their "catchall" box, and they decided to post the messages on their site. Much of the mail is the sort of banal dialog you'd expect from politicos: frequent updates on phone-banking operations, a confirmation of Arkansas Governor Mick Huckabee's Holiday Inn reservations, and a junior campaign staffer's wistful appreciation of Jenna Bush -- an appreciation that prompts the response, "Just stay away from Jenna or things could get ugly."
When Salon looked over the stash of e-mail a couple days ago, two of them piqued our interest -- both from Kelly Porter, at the Republican Party of Florida, to officials at the Republican National Committee, and with the subject line "caging." But the purpose of the messages was unclear. One message, sent on Aug. 25, says only, "The total to date is 1771," and it includes this attachment of an Excel spreadsheet. The other message, sent the next day, includes this Excel attachment. It says, "Total as of today is 1834."
It's possible to see how, looking at these lists, Palast -- a reporter with more than a little bit of experience in uncovering Florida Republicans' disenfranchisement plans -- concluded that they constituted plans for voter intimidation. But it didn't take much Googling to discover that "caging" has a more innocent definition; it's a common term in the jargon of direct marketing, meaning, according to one online source, "the process of receiving, processing, and reporting the mailing results."
That definition jibed with an explanation we got from Mindy Tucker Fletcher, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republicans, who said that the list was part of a direct marketing campaign. Fletcher forwarded Salon a letter that she sent to the BBC in response to Palast's article in which she explains that the list "was a listing of returned mail that came from a mailing that the Republican National Committee sent to new registrants in Duval County in Florida, encouraging newly registered Republicans, Democrats and Independents to vote Republican. Voter registration has been a heavy concentration of both parties this year and both national and state Republican parties have been reaching out to new registrants for the upcoming election. The Duval County list was created to collect the returned mail information from the Republican National Committee mailing and was intended and has been used for no purpose other than that."
In other words, Fletcher is saying that the lists were essentially meant to collect bad addresses returned from a direct marketing campaign -- a plausible explanation. Now, it's possible that the purpose of this list could have been less than innocent; Republicans could have been compiling the list to challenge voters who come to the polls on residency grounds. The RNC has in fact been accused of these actions before. In 1987, in response to a civil rights suit, it signed a consent decree pledging not to do this. According to a lawsuit filed this week by Democrats in Ohio who want to stop Republicans there from challenging voters at the polls (PDF), the GOP in that state has used bad addresses returned from direct marketing campaigns in its voter-challenging practices there.
But Republicans in Florida told Salon that this was not the purpose of the "caging" list, and, so far, we have no way of proving otherwise -- the lists themselves are a complete mystery, a list of names and addresses who purpose could be fully innocent.
In her letter to the BBC, Fletcher added that "Palast's insinuation that [the list] was created for and will be used for the purposes of an Election Day challenge is erroneous and frankly illustrates his willingness to twist information to suit his and others' political agenda. Reporting of these types of baseless allegations by the news media comes directly from the Democrats' election playbook."
Palast's breathless story comes at a time of extraordinary worry over voter fraud, but without much evidence to support his claims regarding the "secret document," it only feeds Republican claims that opponents are more interested in taking cheap shots than seeking out the truth. Salon has certainly been on the lookout for Republican malfeasance in this election, and we've found no small bit of it, especially in Florida -- but without clearer evidence, we can't add this to the pile.