Monday, June 25, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Investigate vote 'caging'

A couple of eastern senators, one of them named Edward M. Kennedy, asked the Justice Department this week to investigate Timothy Griffin, the recent U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Arkansas, to see whether he illegally sought to suppress voting for Democratic candidates in Florida in 2004.

The “caging” of voters, as Griffin called it at the time, ought to be investigated, but do not expect the Justice Department to bring charges against Griffin or the other Republican operatives who were engaged in the pre-election voting work in Florida, Ohio and elsewhere. And perhaps it shouldn’t, but the investigation is long overdue.

Although Griffin implied last week that he had to look up the word “caging” after he was accused of it, and he declared again this week that the accusations were “malicious and false,” his emails back to the Republican National Committee in 2004 referred to the “caging” his people were doing. The RNC sent letters to thousands of registered voters in predominantly black precincts of Jacksonville, Fla. — thus Democrats, one would assume — with the notation on the envelope that it should not be forwarded.

So if the voter had moved to a new address, it would not be forwarded to him or her but be returned to the sender. Griffin’s people would go to the voting registrar and have the names stricken from the rolls. When they showed up to vote, they couldn’t. A few were in the military, and if they tried to vote by mail, they didn’t get ballot applications or else their votes were not counted.

Some probably were stricken from the rolls unlawfully. Was it voter intimidation? People everywhere in our increasingly mobile society move and neglect to transfer their registration to their new address immediately, as they are supposed to do. They may vote in their old polling place for a time.

Were Griffin’s activities unlawful? Maybe not; contemptible, yes. If you target only one group of people whom you want to keep from voting and try to have their voter registration canceled, it is not evenhanded justice, but it may not merit jail time either. But let us find out exactly what Griffin and his people did.

Here is the irony. The common ingredient in the firings of U. S. attorneys last year was inaction by the Republican prosecutors on White House suspicions that Democratic-leaning groups like Acorn were engaged in voting or registering people illegally or else the prosecutors’ energetic investigations and prosecutions of Republican congressmen and other officeholders.

But the Justice Department made no effort to investigate efforts by Republican “research” teams to block minority voting in 50-50 states like Florida and Ohio.

The Justice Department chased the U. S. attorney for the western district of Missouri last year because he showed no interest in prosecuting people the Republicans suspected of voting fraud. Although Justice Department rules historically forbid filing charges in those kinds of cases before an election because it was an overt political action, the Justice Department sent one of its own to western Missouri to replace the prosecutor, and he soon brought voting-fraud charges, shortly before the election, against several people. A federal judge subsequently threw out the charges, saying they were bogus.

Whether Griffin engaged in illegal or even contemptible voting activity on behalf of the president and then was rewarded with an appointment as U. S. attorney in Arkansas is a matter of more than curiosity.

The question is whether the Justice Department under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had become just another political enforcer for the White House and the Republican National Committee.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln said Tuesday that the Justice Department owed it to the American people to determine whether vote suppression occurred. An aide to Sen. Mark Pryor said the senator was “comfortable” with the request for the probe. Having been the object of Griffin’s “opposition research” in 2002, Pryor may not be entirely objective.

An investigation of Republican activities by this Justice Department would not begin with the confidence of many people, but even that gesture could be the beginning of restoration of trust. Let it begin.