Facing South has confirmed the source of the calls, and the mastermind is Women's Voices Women Vote, a D.C.-based nonprofit which aims to boost voting among "unmarried women voters."
What's more, Facing South has learned that the firestorm Women's Voices has ignited in North Carolina isn't the group's first brush with controversy. Women's Voices' questionable tactics have spawned thousands of voter complaints in at least 11 states and brought harsh condemnation from some election officials for their secrecy, misleading nature and likely violations of election law.
First, a quick recap: As we covered yesterday, N.C. residents have reported receiving peculiar automated calls from someone claiming to be "Lamont Williams." The caller says that a "voter registration packet" is coming in the mail, and the recipient can sign it and mail it back to be registered to vote. No other information is provided.
The call is deceptive because the deadline has already passed for mail-in registrations for North Carolina's May 6 primary. Also, many who have received the calls -- like Kevin Farmer in Durham, who made a tape of the call that is available here -- are already registered. The call's suggestion that they're not registered has caused widespread confusion and drawn hundreds of complaints, including many from African-American voters who received the calls.
The calls are also probably illegal. Farmer and others have told Facing South the calls use a blocked phone number and provided no contact information -- a violation of North Carolina rules regulating "robo-calls" (N.C. General Statute 163-104(b)(1)c). N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper further stated in a recent memo that the identifying information must be clear enough to allow the recipient to "complain or seek redress" -- something not included in the calls.
It is also a Class I felony in North Carolina "to misrepresent the law to the public through mass mailing or any other means of communication where the intent and the effect is to intimidate or discourage potential voters from exercising their lawful right to vote."
The calls have been denounced by the N.C. State Board of Elections, as well as by voter advocacy groups including Democracy North Carolina, which called them "another in a long line of deceptive practices used in North Carolina and elsewhere that particularly target African-American voters."
Yesterday, I placed a call to the Virginia State Police, which had investigated similar suspicious robo-calls before that Virginia's primaries last February. Their investigation concluded that the source of the calls was Women's Voices Women Vote.
Facing South then contacted Women's Voices, and staffer Sarah Johnson confirmed they were doing similar robo-calls in North Carolina; they later admitted that they were the ones behind the deceptive "Lamont Williams" calls.
So who is Women's Voices Women Vote, and why are they making shadowy and legally-questionable calls that are causing North Carolina voters so many headaches?
The D.C.-based nonprofit, led by well-connected Washington operatives, claims in a press release they sent to Facing South [PDF] that the North Carolina calls are part of a 24-state effort targeted at a list of 3 million voters, especially unmarried women. The robo-calls, which never mention Women's Voices, are followed by mailings that include information on how to register to vote. They plan to mail some 276,000 packets in North Carolina alone.
But since last November, in at least 11 states nationwide, Women's Voices -- sometimes working through its Voter Participation Center project -- has developed a checkered reputation, drawing rebukes from leading election officials and complaints from thousands of would-be voters as a result of their secretive tactics, deceptive mailings and calls, and penchant for skirting or violating the law. For example:
* In Arizona last November, election officials were "inundated with complaints" after Women's Voices sent a mailing erroneously claiming that recipients were "required" to mail back an enclosed voter registration form. Many who received the mailing were already registered; the mailing also gave the wrong registration date. Secretary of State Jan Brewer denounced the group's tactics as "misleading and deceptive." A similar mailing in Colorado that month "[drew] fire and caused confusion," according to a state press release.
* In Wisconsin, state officials singled out Women's Voices for misleading and possibly disenfranchising voters, stating in a press release [PDF]: "One group in particular -- Women's Voices. Women Vote, of Washington, D.C. -- apparently ignored or disregarded state deadlines in seeking to register voters," sending in registrations past the January 30 deadline and causing "hundreds of Wisconsin voters who think they registered in advance" to actually not be.
* Michigan officials ended up "fielding tons of calls from confused voters" after Women's Voices did a February mailing to "380,000 unmarried women" -- including numerous deceased voters and even more that were already registered. Sarah Johnson of Women's Voices "seemed confused by the confusion," the Lansing State Journal reported.
* A 1.5 million-piece Women's Voices mailing in Florida falsely stated: "To comply with state voting requirements, please return the enclosed application." Pasco County's elections supervisor called it "disingenuous"; another said it created "a lot of unnecessary panic on behalf of the voters," reported local newspapers. Sarah Johnson of Women's Voice said, "I'm sorry to hear that."
* By March, Women's Voices was backing off the erroneous "registration is required" language, but there were still problems. For example, a mailing in Arkansas allowed that "registering to vote is voluntary," but a clerk in Washington County reported that "the majority [of forms] sent back to the county come from registered voters, causing needless labor for office employees."
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Problems with the group's tactics have also been documented in Louisiana, Kentucky and Ohio.
In each state, the Women's Voices campaigns have brought the same news and the same themes, again and again: Deceptive claims and misrepresentations of the law -- sometimes even breaking the law. Wildly inaccurate mailing lists, supposedly aimed at "unregistered single women," but in reality reaching many registered voters as well as families, deceased persons and pets. Tactics that confuse voters and potentially disenfranchise them.
For such a sophisticated and well-funded operation, which counts among its ranks some of the country's most seasoned political operatives, such missteps are peculiar, as is the surprise expressed by Women's Voices staff after each controversy.
In at least two states, the timing of Women's Voices' activities have raised alarm that they are attempting to influence the outcome of a primary. As we reported earlier, in Virginia, news reports surfaced the first week in February that prospective voters were receiving anonymous robo-calls telling voters that they were about to receive a voter registration packet in the mail.
The timing of the calls was astoundingly off: As the Virginia State Police confirm, the calls were made Feb. 5 and 6 -- about 10 days before the then-critical Virginia primary, but more than two weeks after the deadline for registering in the state had passed (Jan. 14). The Virginia State Board of Elections was deluged with calls by confused voters -- many who were already registered. When they heard the calls from Women's Voices, they feared that they really weren't.
Because of the horrible timing and their secretive nature, state officials assumed the calls and mailings were part of an identity theft scheme. When the Virginia State Police investigated, they found Women's Voices was behind them. Women's Voices was unapologetic after the controversy, merely issuing a boilerplate press release trumpeting the success of the program.
Now Women's Voices is plunging North Carolina into the same confusion. State officials tell Facing South they are still receiving calls from frustrated and confused voters, wondering why "Lamont Williams" is offering to send them a "voter registration packet" after the deadline for mail-in registration for the primaries has passed.
In correspondence with North Carolina election officials, Women's Voices founder and President Page Gardner merely said that the disruptive timing was an "unfortunate coincidence" -- a strange alibi for a group with their level of resources and sophistication.
There are other questions about Women's Voices' outreach efforts. Although the group purports to be targeting "unmarried women," their calls and mailings don't fit the profile. Kevin Farmer in Durham, who first recorded the call, is a white male. Many of the recipients are African-American; Rev. Nelson Johnson, who is a married, male and African-American, reported that his house was called four times by the mysterious "Lamont Williams."
And as Farmer asks, "Why are they using a guy for the calls if the target audience is single women?"
Some have also questioned the ties between Women's Voices operatives and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton. Gardner, for example, contributed $2,500 to Clinton's HILLPAC on May 4, 2006, and in March 2005 she donated a total of $4,200 to Clinton, according to The Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org. She has not contributed to the Obama campaign, according to the database.
Women's Voices Executive Director Joe Goode worked for Bill Clinton's election campaign in 1992 as a pollster; the group's website says he was intimately involved in "development and implementation of all polling and focus groups done for the presidential primary and general election campaigns" for Clinton.
Women's Voices board member John Podesta, former Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton, donated $2,300 to Hillary Clinton on April 19, 2007, according to OpenSecrets.org. Podesta also donated $1,000 to Barack Obama in July 2004, but that was well before Obama announced his candidacy for president.
"The reports from other states are very disturbing, especially the pattern of mass confusion among targeted voters on the eve of a state's primary," Democracy North Carolina's Bob Hall tells Facing South. "These are highly skilled political operatives -- something doesn't add up. Maybe it's all well-intended and explainable. At this moment, our first priority is to stop the robo-calls and prevent the chaos and potential disenfranchisement caused by this group sending 276,000 packets of registration forms into North Carolina a few days before a heated primary election. We need their immediate cooperation."
While Hall says his group has "begged" the group to stop the mailings, Women's Voices has refused to do so -- even though the mail-in voter registration deadline for the primaries passed April 11.
State election officials say they are bracing for the deluge of confused phone calls and complaints that are sure to follow.
[UPDATE: Bob Hall tells us that Women's Voices is now cooperating and trying to stop the North Carolina mailing. The mailing has apparently left the mail house but there's still a chance it can be stopped before it gets into the mail system.]
Reporting and research assistance by Sue Sturgis
© 2008 Institute for Southern Studies