The Republicans' superior ground operation -- they spend more on targeting voters and getting out the vote -- has received some attention in the press. But far more ominous is the organized effort to suppress voter turnout, directed entirely against groups likely to vote for Democrats.
An exhaustive report, "Voting in 2006: Have We Solved the Problems of 2004?" by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Century Foundation, and Common Cause, catalogs new, sickening assaults on our democracy:
Hurdles to voter registration. Several states, led predictably by Florida and Ohio, have added criminal penalties for voter-registration efforts that violate deliberately complicated rules . In Florida, the Legislature added fines for nonpartisan groups that turn in registration materials late. This put League of Women Voters volunteer efforts in many minority areas out of business.
In Ohio, where the notorious secretary of state, Ken Blackwell, is also the Republican candidate for governor, technical violations of complex voter-registration laws are now felonies. Republicans even tried to disqualify Blackwell's opponent, Ted Strickland, from running, on the ground that he had voted in past years from two different Ohio addresses (where he lived).
Excessive ID requirements. In states that require voter ID, common-sense documentation such as a utility bill or tax receipt has long been accepted. Other states have accepted a signed affidavit or signature match, and experienced no fraud problems. But in several Republican-controlled states, such as Florida, Georgia, and Missouri, photo-ID requirements have been added, disqualifying people -- mostly poor, elderly, minority (and likely to vote for Democrats) -- who lack driver's licenses or passports or special voter cards. In Florida, the requirement could disqualify 300,000 voters.
Impediments to voting. In Arizona, an anti-immigrant ballot initiative passed in 2004 requires voters to bring proof of citizenship. In the first two months after the initiative passed, 70 percent of voter-registration applications in Maricopa County (Phoenix) were rejected for lack of adequate documentation. In Ohio, where voters in heavily Democratic and minority precincts waited for as long as 10 hours and countless gave up because of mysterious shortages of voting machines, the state belatedly required roughly equal allocation of voting machines. This remedy takes effect in 2013!
Polls have Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Sherrod Brown leading Republican incumbent Mike DeWine by about eight points. But one Ohio activist told me, "We put the margin of theft at about seven points."
Mechanical manipulation. Immense problems remain with voting machines, most notoriously "touch-screen" machines that leave no paper trail . If you want to be really terrified, check out a nine-minute video produced by three computer scientists at Princeton, which shows how to hack into a Diebold machine to change the recorded vote (See itpolicy.princeton.edu/voting).
A recent report by The New York Times suggests that impediments to voting deter turnout in other ways. They contribute to a why-bother mindset, particularly among black and Hispanic voters.
In GOP-controlled states like Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Arizona, and in hundreds of counties elsewhere in Red America, millions of citizens will show up on Election Day only to be turned away for lack of ID, or to find that their names are not listed on voter rolls. The Help America Vote Act allows these spurned voters to cast provisional ballots. But it will be days before election officials, and in many cases judges, determine which of these ballots count. In many close races, the number of contested ballots will be larger than the election-night margin.
Republicans defend these vote-suppression measures as necessary to combat fraud. Once, big-city Democratic machines made sure people voted "early and often." But the right has been unable to produce evidence of deliberate ballot fraud today.
In Washington State, where Democrat Christine Gregoire won the governorship in 2004 by 133 votes, Republican litigators spent millions seeking improperly cast ballots. All they found were exactly five former felons who had unintentionally neglected the paperwork necessary to restore their franchise.
The real fraud is the theft of our democracy, by deliberate suppression of the right to vote and to have one's vote counted. The popular revulsion against the Bush administration is so powerful that even with these abuses, Democrats are likely to take back the House. Then the recovery of American democracy can begin.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 The Boston Globe