Worried about Russian hackers or other outsiders meddling in US elections? Arguably, the greatest threat to our democratic system comes not from the outside but from forces within our own two-party system that are trying, and often succeeding, to prevent American citizens from voting.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks to journalist Greg Palast, author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, about “caging” and “crosscheck” — two species of “dirty tricks” that are being used ever more frequently to suppress votes. While the primary practitioners have been Republicans, encouraged for years by Karl Rove, Palast explains that Democrats are using similar tricks to gain advantages in primary elections.
In “caging,” letters are sent out to voters who must spend time away from their primary addresses, such as minority soldiers stationed abroad or students during summer recess. When the letters come back as “undeliverable,” the senders can use this as a reason to get those voters taken off the rolls.
Over the years, caging has led to millions of eligible voters being purged from voting rolls, Palast says. He adds that this and other stratagems are very much in use today by operatives like Brett Doster, a onetime Rove operative who is now running Roy Moore’s senatorial campaign in Alabama.
The story that Palast tells is truly one of “birds of a feather” getting together to undermine what’s left of our electoral democracy.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you hang around politics long enough, if you look at the patterns of money, dirty tricks, and sleazy people that are in politics for all the wrong reasons, it’s amazing how often it all circles back to some of the very same people. The same billionaires and their political hacks appear over and over again, and yet it’s not just running sleazy campaigns or disseminating misinformation. Today the goal, if it can’t be achieved with the help of the Russians, is voter suppression. The techniques have been being perfected election after election, and my guest Greg Palast has been looking at this in his books and his films.
Greg Palast is a reporter whose stories have appeared on BBC Television, the Guardian, and in Rolling Stone Magazine. He’s just released the updated post-election edition of his movie The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. It is my pleasure to welcome Greg Palast to Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Greg Palast: Glad to be back with you, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you’ve looked at recently in a recent Rolling Stone article is this character of Brett Doster, who was involved in the Bush campaign in Florida back many years ago and surfaces again in the Roy Moore campaign. Talk about who this guy is.
Greg Palast: Yes, Judge Roy Moore … Well, you know, by the way, let’s … I know everyone’s been attacking Roy Moore, and when he was judge he put up the 10 Commandments and they’re saying he’s not living up to it, and that’s not really true. The 10 Commandments say “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” It didn’t say anything about your neighbor’s daughter.
Jeff Schechtman: Good point.
Greg Palast: But his … But the attack dog he has, a guy named Brett Doster, he’s his campaign chief and the guy’s who’s been attacking the women accusing … Not just accusing. Who were molested. Let’s cut this accusing stuff. Who were molested when they were teenagers. And so why do we care about Brett Doster? Because obviously this is a type of character that will be running our government. He’ll be in the United States … He’ll be running Moore’s operation in the United States Senate. Doster, I’ve been hunting this guy for years, for 10 years tracking his mischief operations for right-wing candidates, including one … He ran the political operation for George W. Bush in Florida.
One of the tricks he used to stop voters of color from voting — and when I say “voters of color,” I mean blue, like democrats — is a trick called “caging.” Now, what is caging? Caging is a trick … Which, by the way, it’s illegal. What you do is you send out letters. What Doster did was send out letters to people he knew were not home, would not be at their home address where they’re registered to vote. Now, who’s not at home at their voter registration address? Well, he would claim that they’re ghost voters, that they’re people who don’t exist and people are casting votes for these non-existent voters. Actually, people who are not at home at their home address includes soldiers who are overseas. It includes students, and in his case he sent letters to students at the black colleges throughout Florida, students at black colleges who were away from Florida — away from their home address, they’re somewhere else in Florida — during the summer vacation. Sent letters to elderly Jews in Miami. I can’t make this up. Sent letters to elderly Jews in Miami who are known as snowbirds. They’re in Miami for the winter, but then they go back home and visit their families in the summer up North. They’re legal voters of Florida, but they aren’t there when the letter arrives, and it says “Do not forward.”
So what’s the problem with that? When that letter comes back, Brett Doster and the Republican National Committee were challenging these voters’ votes as non-existent voters, as ghost voters. They sent … And I kid you not, I have the list that I got my hands on, sent by Karl Rove’s office to Brett Doster in Florida with the caging list, and these are lists of soldiers, one soldier after another at the naval air station in Jacksonville Florida. These are African-American and Hispanic soldiers who were overseas. We even found … We contacted one family. You know, said, “You’re on this list.” And here’s the evil thing: you don’t even know you’ve lost your vote. You send in an absentee ballot. Your ballot’s been challenged, and you don’t know it, and so your vote doesn’t get counted. And this is against the law.
The Republican Party was found to have done this many years ago. They entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department saying they will never do this racist trick again. It’s against the law. You can’t steal people’s votes, especially when you’re targeting voters of color or you’re targeting Jewish voters, which is targeting a religion. You cannot do that in the United States of America. But he did it anyway. And now this guy’s running Judge Moore’s campaign and attacking women who have stepped forward to talk about Judge Molester.
Jeff Schechtman: How did this practice of caging get started? Where does it come from?
Greg Palast: It started out many years ago. I don’t even … I think it was in the ’60s with the Republican Party sending out letters to voters. As I say, they pick out democrats, but particularly they can go by ethnicity. And they know when voters are not going to be home. And so they got caught doing this. You cannot systematically target voters because of their religion. You can’t target voters because of their race. And by the way, you can’t illegally block someone from voting no matter what their race or religion. But the Republicans were caught doing this, and under both the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other voting rights laws which apply to everyone, they agreed not to ever do this trick again where they would get these caging …
The reason, by the way, it’s called caging, it’s a term of art used in direct mail. When you send out letters to people and they return usually the letters with money in them, believe it or not, people who work in direct mail industry, when they’re taking checks out of an envelope they do so in a locked cage, and that’s why it’s called caging.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit the degree to which this has expanded beyond some of these small efforts of Doster’s in Florida. How big a problem is it?
Greg Palast: Massive. We just found out in states where … See, ’cause the thing is so many elections are actually quite close. We knew that in Florida in 2000. The Presidency of the United States was determined by 537 votes. That’s it, 537 votes. Now, I know Doster’s operation … I actually have the internal emails sent to Doster, which are supposed to be highly confidential. How I got them is kind of a funny story, but it has a tremendous effect. They were challenging hundreds of thousands of voters in Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and several other states, and this is enough to literally swing the presidency. We just had a vote in Virginia. Right now we are facing recounts in three races where Democrats seem to have come up short anywhere from 14 votes to 89 votes, so a few votes makes a big difference.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent is Doster operating on his own, or is it part of a larger scheme?
Greg Palast: Very much a larger scheme. And if this were just about one bad apple, Brett Doster, you could say, “Okay, him and Moore are a creepy pair. Let them go off in the sunset.” But that’s not what’s happening. Doster was not minor. He was acting in Florida with this caging game. He was acting at the behest of Karl Rove’s office at the Republican National Committee. In fact, the guy that sent him the email is a guy named Tim Griffin, who was what they call Research Director. In other words, he does … He’s the hitman. Gets dirt on the opposition. It was sent by this guy Tim Griffin. I put the emails from Tim Griffin to Brett Doster on the air on BBC Television at the top of the nightly news. By the next morning, Tim Griffin, the guy who sent the emails who’s Karl Rove’s assistant, resigned as a US Prosecutor. So he lost his job. But Brett Doster was not on the US payroll. He was on the Bush campaign. He’s always a campaign operative, so his job was not in danger.
I should tell you, I tried to reach Doster. I flew to Tallahassee and literally physically chased him around the capital. He was dodging me. Finally, he sent out a PR person to say that the lists of people he was mailing letters to, it was not to find, to come up with a way to get them knocked off the voter rolls. Remember, he sends letters to people who aren’t home. He says do not forward. The letters come back and he says, “That’s evidence they don’t exist.” He said, “We were actually sending letters to our Republican donors, Republican Party donors.” I showed his spokeswoman a list of hundreds of names of voters registered out of a homeless shelter in Florida. A homeless shelter. I said, “These are your Republican donors? Really?” So that’s the type of gameplay.
And so it was done at the behest of Republican National Committee Tim Griffin, Head of Research for the RNC, and Griffin … And by the way, I’m going to… Griffin said he never sent the emails, even though it’s from his machine. It says, “From Tim Griffin.” There are 50 emails that I captured. He says he never did it. He never sent those emails. Now how does that happen? The answer that I have, and I’ve never gotten a “no” from Karl Rove, he was Karl Rove’s assistant. Karl Rove, a computer genius, does not and will never have a computer because it could always be grabbed by law enforcement. So Karl Rove has no computer. His assistant does. His assistant says he never sent out these letters, these caging letters. Karl Rove is a known expert at caging. By the way, which is … By the … When it’s not used in political purposes, if it’s just used to sell you toothbrushes through the mail, it’s perfect … caging is legal. He is a caging expert.
So was it Karl Rove who sent out the emails? Anyway, it came from the top of the Republican Party. Doster is a top operative of the Republican Party. And they were targeting black voters, black students, black soldiers, Jewish voters, not because they have a particular hatred of Jewish, black, or Hispanic voters, they just don’t like the color of their vote, which is blue.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there any reason to think that similar tactics are done by Democratic operatives anywhere?
Greg Palast: Absolutely. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has its hands in a lot of these Jim Crow operations. …[?] say, “Wait a minute, they’re knocking off black voters?” Yes they do, because when Democrats remove voters it’s usually the same targeted group, which is black voters, poor Hispanics, Native American voters, because Democrats usually do their purging and games, playing games with the voter rolls, in primaries when it’s battles between Democrats. So for example, the Secretary of State of New Mexico some years ago, Rebecca Vigil-Giron, Hispanic Democrat. I caught her removing and not counting the votes of Hispanic soldiers sending in their absentee ballots from overseas. Now, why would a Hispanic Democrat stop the count of Hispanic voters? The answer is because of war inside the Democratic Party in New Mexico.
So that’s what happens. We saw that, and in fact David Iglesias, who was fired by George Bush and at Karl Rove’s request. This is a special prosecutor, or a US Prosecutor for New Mexico. He refused to go along with these vote suppression tactics. And we use the term “suppression.” We don’t mean vote theft. Vote suppression tactics. He refused to go along, so he got fired. But he did actually arrest Democratic officials who were deliberately blocking the vote of Native Americans, of … in the pueblos of New Mexico because they didn’t like the way that they were voting within the Democratic Party.
So unfortunately Democrats are not as sophisticated. They’re not as good at it. They don’t use the massive computer-driven techniques like caging. We have another system called crosscheck that removes hundreds of thousands of voters across the nation. But Democrats still do it, unfortunately.
Jeff Schechtman: To what degree can any of this be monitored by the other political party or by the public in general?
Greg Palast: Well, it can be monitored by any political party, and I would say … John Kerry believed that he lost the election because of this caging trick, and he put in legislation with the late Ted Kennedy to make it a crime. It already is a crime, but he wanted to tighten up the law. But, you know, Kerry didn’t raise hell during the election. He didn’t raise hell right after the election. The Democratic Party’s very, very reluctant to take on these issues. So the public has to do it, and you have great groups like the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. I can tell you that the Brennan Center for Justice and the ACLU are bringing legal actions against the State of Indiana. I just got off the phone with a lawyer bringing a case against the State of Virginia, where they just had this vote. Democrats say, “Oh, we won despite the … And there’s no vote suppression there.” Well, yes there is. In fact, you’d have a Democratic legislature if there weren’t more racial suppression tricks afoot in Virginia.
So, yeah, the parties can do it, but the parties don’t do it because they each have their … Both parties have dirty hands. The Republicans … The fact that the Republicans are better at it doesn’t … The Democrats don’t want to bring this up. And as you know, Hillary Clinton said, ridiculously, “No presidential candidate has ever challenged the electoral … the election vote for President,” forgetting that Al Gore went to the Supreme Court in 2000. I mean, many elections in America have been contested bitterly over the last two centuries. So the Democratic Party’s put itself in a corner saying, “Our election system is wonderful,” and it ain’t.
Jeff Schechtman: Are there new tricks coming along for voter suppression?
Greg Palast: Absolutely. The worst trick, no question, that’s pretty new that is, it’s now widespread … You have to understand that the Voting Rights Act in 2013 was gutted by the Supreme Court, and with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act a new trick called crosscheck was implemented, and that was created by a guy named Kris Kobach of Kansas. If that sounds familiar, this is the guy in charge of Trump’s so-called Vote Fraud Commission. Trump and his guy Kris Kobach claimed that there are three million voters, three million voters, who voted twice in America or are registered in two different states to vote twice. So the same guy voting in two states, same woman voting in two different states. Three million. And it would not …
It’s been derided by the press as a bad joke, but it’s not a joke because they actually have the list of three million, and it’s people with names like Maria Hernandez. This is a real example. They say Maria Hernandez of Georgia is the same voter as Maria Hernandez of Virginia. Now, I know, Jeff, you’re going to say, “Hey, isn’t that just a common Hispanic name, Maria Hernandez?” Well it’s not common for a Republican. They’re saying that if your name is Maria Hernandez and they see that on two different states’ voter rolls, it’s got to be the same person. In fact, in this case it’s Maria Inez Hernandez in one state and it’s Maria Cristina Hernandez in another state, and they’re saying that that’s the same voter. And I’ve got to tell you, I went … I had experts go through the actual list. We ran it through computers, the whole list. Two million names are mismatched on middle name alone. You’ve got junior and senior, in other words father and son, are listed as the same person. They are challenging the votes of these people, about one in eight is getting knocked off the vote rolls.
And so in the last election, 2016 election, we had about 1.1 million people who were removed from the voter rolls by this system called crosscheck, and I’ve got to tell you, they’re not just any people. Who has common names, okay? It’s like Martinez … So you see a lot of Maria Martinez. You see Jose Garcia. You see John Black. You see Joseph Washington. And you see a lot of people with the last name Kim, a lot of Asian-Americans. There’s like four main names for all of Korean-Americans, and they all vote … These are groups that vote heavily Democratic, and so when you remove a million names you’re removing a huge Democratic constituency, and it made the difference in states like Michigan.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you find in terms of the degree to which citizens, average people, care about this, are willing to really focus on this issue?
Greg Palast: When people are told about it, one thing … The reason why this stuff is secret, the reason why Brett Doster’s caging operation was secret, the reason why crosscheck operates in secrecy, is that Americans really believe the vote should be fair. Democrats, Republican, doesn’t matter. Most … Overwhelmingly, Americans believe everyone has a right to vote, every legitimate vote should be counted. And people get angry, and people do want to do something about it. The problem is that we don’t have much discussion about it in the US because we want to maintain this myth that we have the most wonderful democracy on the planet, and I wish that were true.
Jeff Schechtman: Greg Palast, thanks so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Greg Palast: You’re terrific. Thanks, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
By JEFF SCHECHTMAN/WhoWhatWhy
Posted by The NON-Conformist