Voter suppression in North Carolina?

Allegations have been flying about robo-calls supposedly intended to suppress votes for Obama, but the incident appears to be about incompentence, not malice.


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Alex Koppelman
May 3, 2008 12:46AM (UTC)

Did a pro-Hillary Clinton nonprofit group make voter suppression robo-calls to keep Barack Obama's voters from going to the polls in North Carolina on Tuesday? That's the charge from part of the liberal blogosphere this week, but it's a charge based on no solid evidence of wrongdoing. While the calls were misleading and probably against the law, a close look at the facts leads to the conclusion that the group responsible had no malicious intent, but is just another well-intentioned but bungling nonprofit.

The North Carolina Attorney General's Office has asked the group, Women's Voices. Women's Vote, to cease and desist from making the calls, and WVWV agreed to do so. The group's leader, Page Gardner, who has donated to Clinton in the past, has apologized. Board members -- including one Obama supporter who's also an elected delegate for the senator -- have said the calls were a mistake, and that the group wasn't trying to suppress African-American voter turnout.

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Last Thursday and Friday, North Carolinians received the following message:

Hello. This is Lamont Williams. In the next few days, you will receive a voter-registration packet in the mail. All you need to do is fill it out, sign it, date and return your application. Then you will be able to vote and make your voice heard. Please return the voter-registration form when it arrives. Thank you.

In all, that robo-call was made 182,236 times. Those who received it would be justified in being very confused. First, at least some of them had already registered to vote. And second, the registration deadline for the state's primary, which is on Tuesday, had already passed by the time the calls were made. Also, WVWV appears to have violated North Carolina law because it did not provide contact information in the message, or a way for recipients to decline future calls. WVWV is subject to civil penalties for the infraction.

Soon, the blogsphere was abuzz with accusations. But the coverage of the incidents was severely flawed, and people like Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall -- who has written for Salon and is one of the blogosphere's most respected residents -- were lobbing criminal allegations against WVWV before all the facts were in. In fact, some had made these charges even before they knew who was behind the robo-calls. Writing about the calls on Marshall's TPM Muckraker on Tuesday, before WVWV had been identified as the source of the calls, Paul Kiel said, "Here's another for the annals of vote suppression." Kiel further characterized the calls as a "scheme."

WVWV denies any wrongdoing, and says it wasn't trying to suppress the vote in North Carolina's primary -- or even to register voters for that contest. Its focus is the general election. "The goal was to register them for the general election in November," a spokesperson for the group told Salon. "The timing was clearly a mistake. We regret the confusion."

Shaun Dakin is the founder and CEO of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry; in February, he testified about robo-calls in a Senate Committee on Rules and Administration hearing. He thinks there's an innocent explanation for WVWV's actions. "I think it may be more of the case of an organization being kind of incompetent rather than really trying to do something that is nefarious ... This is an organization that is trying to do the right thing as far as I know," Dakin told Salon. "If you're an Obama supporter, then this is another example of Clinton trying to take over the world. If you're an impartial observer who doesn't have a dog in the fight, it is what it is." Dakin also says WVWV's apparent violation of North Carolina law is not uncommon, that he thinks few organizations identify themselves properly or offer callers a way to stop the calls. He believes North Carolina's attorney general may have taken action in this case because of the attention given it. "If you put it in context, the context is pretty much every campaign and every nonprofit that makes robo-calls is 'violating the law,' but usually there's nothing done," Dakin said.

Despite its name, WVWV isn't just about women. Founded in 2004, the group's mission statement says, "Despite their numbers, unmarried Americans are underrepresented in national elections and their voices are not being heard in our democracy. Women's Voices. Women Vote was created to activate unmarried Americans in their government and in our democracy." As part of that mission, WVWV has been engaging in national voter registration work for years. This latest effort didn't include just North Carolina -- in fact, 23 other states were targeted. And, unfortunately, North Carolina isn't the only state in which the organization has had problems. It has been castigated by officials in several other states, including Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin.

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Those who've suggested there was voter suppression at work often started their coverage from the assumption that the calls were directed at the primary. In fact, the calls were part of a campaign aimed at 24 states in total, and they were intended to boost voter registration in general. The calls had nothing to do with the primary, and the registration deadline the group says it really cared about -- the one for the general election -- won't pass until this fall. Admittedly, the call itself did not specify this, and it should have. But even so, this still isn't an after-the-fact assertion by WVWV. The group had made its purpose clear even before the controversy began. In a letter Gardner sent April 24 to the executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, she explained the purpose of the mailings intended to follow the robo-calls and wrote, "Unfortunately, North Carolina residents will receive this mail after the deadline for registering to vote to participate in the upcoming primary election. Please be aware that the mailing is not intended to encourage registration specifically for the primary, but simply to encourage voter registration in general."

On OpenLeft, blogger Matt Stoller provided some detail about why WVWV had timed the calls the way it did. (For purposes of full disclosure, it's worth mentioning that one of Stoller's partners in founding OpenLeft was Mike Lux, who is a board member at WVWV and an Obama supporter.) Stoller published an e-mail he received from Becky Bond, who works for CREDO Mobile, a brand of Working Assets, which Bond says has funded WVWV "since it started." In her e-mail, Bond wrote:

there is always a spike in voter registration around primaries AFTER the registration deadline has passed. this is the best time to register voters. research confirms this. around primaries people are reminded that they need to register in time for the general. WVWV has done a lot of research in this area. they know when people are most likely to register. unfortunately, what makes sense in registering the largest aggregate number of voters for the general election at the lowest cost is having a confusing effect in the N.C. primary which is hotly contested and very charged.

On Wednesday, TPM published Gardner's letter, and Kiel wrote a post in which he linked to it. Even with the letter in hand, though, Kiel headlined his very next post "Group Missed Oregon Primary Deadline, Too," and wrote about a mailer in Oregon that "arrived just as the deadline to register in Oregon's presidential primary passed," adding, "That's been a persistent problem for the group, not only in North Carolina, but also in Virginia and Wisconsin ... So while the spokeswoman for the group told me that the North Carolina calls and mailers were a mix up, it seems that the group has gotten mixed up a number of times before." On TPM's main page, Marshall linked to Kiel's post and wrote, "Seems the group flubbed the deadline in Oregon too."

Believing that WVWV was trying to suppress votes in North Carolina requires something of a leap of faith. You could, for instance, believe that Clinton allies had created the group as a front, and had spent years working to register voters across the country so that, when Clinton finally ran for president four years after the group was founded, they could pervert the electoral process to help their candidate. Or you could believe that at some point Clinton allies began manipulating the group and WVWV conducted drives in 23 states other than North Carolina -- some of which had already held their nominating contests by the time the mailings went out -- in order to mask wrongdoing they planned for one state, maybe even a few states.

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But these conclusions -- or any other conclusion that WVWV was actively trying to hurt Obama and help Clinton -- conflict with quite a bit of available evidence that suggests WVWV is no Clinton front. On Feb. 13, the group put out a press release declaring proudly that unmarried women were a "powerful component of the dramatic young (under 30) and female turnout" in the Maryland and Virginia Democratic primaries, which Obama won. Not long before the South Carolina primary -- which Obama also won -- WVWV put out a different press release, this one about the importance of unmarried African-American women in the 2008 election. Then there's Ron Rosenblith, the husband of WVWV founder Gardner. His company, Integral Resources, has done telemarketing work for WVWV and for the Democratic Party. It has also worked for the Obama campaign, which recently submitted to the Federal Election Commission an amended October quarterly report showing that it owed the company more than $140,000. And while it is true that there are Clinton supporters on the group's board -- and that Maggie Williams, Clinton's current chief of staff, previously worked with the group -- there are Obama supporters there as well, including Lux and William McNary. Responding to the controversy on the Huffington Post, McNary wrote:

In this election, I am supporting Barack Obama, whom I've known and worked with for years. I am also an elected delegate to the Democratic Convention for Barack Obama.

Given my candidate preference and my background and associations in voter registration efforts, I can say with great conviction, there was no effort to suppress or confuse African American voters, or any other voters in the state of North Carolina by Women's Voices, Women Vote ... There may have been mistakes made in this particular registration drive in North Carolina, but Women's Voices, Women Vote's motives were not malicious or intended in any way to confuse voters. Ironically, just the opposite. I know the staff is making every effort to right the situation.

Stoller has been a harsh critic of those who've suggested deliberate wrongdoing by WVWV. In one post, Stoller wrote:

Josh Marshall in particular has been flogging this story without context, implying some sort of nefarious subplot here despite WVWV's long track record of registering unmarried women and statements from both Obama and Clinton supporters validating their work. WVWV has worked with the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, and is a highly respected organization that does real data-driven voter registration ...

I believe this is the lowest point I have ever seen the blogosphere sink. There is no reason whatsoever for this mob mentality to go after one of the most important voter registration efforts out there designed to empower women ... There is simply no motive here for voter suppression. If WVWV was trying to suppress votes in North Carolina for Clinton or Obama, why would they also be doing this work in 24 states at the same time? If they are such an evil anti-progressive group, why would they award 'female blogger of the year to Digby' and run ads encouraging women to vote?

On Wednesday, at the main TPM site, Marshall asked, "Does that group doing voter-suppression calls in North Carolina have ties to the Clinton campaign?" (He later updated the post to walk back any implicit suggestion that there was "Clinton campaign complicity in the group's activities.") Three hours after he wrote that post, Marshall published a new one, this one titled "Keystone (cops) Voter Registration." In it, he acknowledged, "We've looked into the group's activities in other states and at least outside of North Carolina it's really difficult to figure out whether the group was up to no good or just mind-numbingly incompetent ... Setting aside the incidents in North Carolina, that we're still looking into, it seems like in the rest of the country the group was involved in legitimate voter-registration efforts for a targeted group even though they went about it in a heavy-handed way and sometimes confused voters by failing to note key registration deadlines."

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It was good of Marshall to acknowledge that. But even considering the pace of the blogosphere, the responsible, ethical thing to do would have been to wait before flatly stating that voter suppression was going on. It's not even as if he would have had to wait that long: Within just three hours after Marshall said WVWV was "doing voter-suppression calls," he was able to report that -- even if he still believed there might be some wrongdoing afoot in the North Carolina calls -- the pattern of WVWV's recent activities nationally was one of incompetence, not malevolence.

On Thursday, I spoke to a seemingly irritated Marshall and asked him whether he stood by his stories. Marshall responded, "Yeah. I mean, what is there not to stand behind?"

(Additional reporting by Vincent Rossmeier)

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Update: Due to an oversight on my part, I left out something I intended to include in this post, an acknowledgement of the reporting done by Chris Kromm and others at the blog Facing South. Kromm was the one who publicly identified WVWV as the source of the robocalls in North Carolina. When editing the post, I forgot to include this section from my first draft:

When news of the calls first found its way into the liberal blogosphere, the responsible party was still unknown. But on Wednesday, Chris Kromm confirmed that WVWV was responsible. Kromm is the executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies; writing about his information on the institute's blog, Facing South, Kromm also noted the "ties between Women's Voices operatives and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton," including donations made to Clinton by Page Gardner, the group's founder and president, as well as its executive director, and high-level work for Bill Clinton that had been done by some WVWV board members. (Kromm did not respond to a message left seeking comment.)


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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