What the heck is vote caging, and why does nobody care?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 31 2007 6:24 PM

Raging Caging

What the heck is vote caging, and why should we care?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Last week, in her testimony before the House judiciary committee, Monica Goodling referred several times to "vote caging" possibly done by Arkansas'soon to be ex-interim, never-confirmed U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin. Yet Goodling was questioned about this almost not at all, nor did the media do much more than report the words of the former liaison between the White House and Alberto Gonzales (why a "liaison" is required between two institutions with no boundaries between them is incomprehensible, but perhaps another story). Meanwhile, liberal talk radio, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and the blogosphere went nuts. So, which is it: Is vote caging the most underreported part of this U.S. attorneys scandal or the most over-hyped?

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

One of the reasons the mainstream news reports (including mine) barely touched the vote-caging story was that nobody had any idea what Goodling was talking about. "Vote caging, what's that?" we e-mailed each other at Slate. The confusion seemed to extend to Goodling herself. The subject came up in her testimony about former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. In saying he had not been forthright with the House judiciary committee in his testimony on the firing of the U.S. attorneys, she cited three areas, one of which was McNulty's failure "to disclose that he had some knowledge of allegations that Tim Griffin had been involved in 'vote caging' in the president's 2004 campaign," when he spoke to Congress.

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Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., asked Goodling to "explain what caging is," clarifying that she was unfamiliar with the term. Goodling fumbled around, muttered something about, "it's a direct-mail term, that people who do direct mail, when, when they separate addresses that may be good versus addresses that may be bad," then made sure to end with, "I don't … I believe that Mr. Griffin doesn't believe that he, that he did anything wrong there and there, there actually is a very good reason for it, for a very good explanation." Which explanation Goodling did not then provide.

To recap, Goodling told the judiciary committee that: 1) Griffin was possibly involved in caging; 2) he doesn't believe he did anything wrong (she is less certain, it seems); and 3) McNulty lied under oath when he downplayed his knowledge of these allegations to the committee.

That would suggest that vote caging is a big deal. Is it?

Vote caging is an illegal trick to suppress minority voters (who tend to vote Democrat) by getting them knocked off the voter rolls if they fail to answer registered mail sent to homes they aren't living at (because they are, say, at college or at war). The Republican National Committee reportedly stopped the practice following a consent decree in a 1986 case. Google the term and you'll quickly arrive at the Wizard of Oz of caging, Greg Palast, investigative reporter and author of the wickedly funny Armed Madhouse: From Baghdad to New Orleans—Sordid Secrets and Strange Tales of a White House Gone Wild. Palast started reporting allegations of Republican vote caging for the BBC's Newsnight in 2004. He's been almost alone on the story since then. Palast contends, both in Armed Madhouse and widely through the liberal blogosphere, that vote caging, an illegal voter-suppression scheme, happened in Florida in 2004 this way:

The Bush-Cheney operatives sent hundreds of thousands of letters marked "Do not forward" to voters' homes. Letters returned ("caged") were used as evidence to block these voters' right to cast a ballot on grounds they were registered at phony addresses. Who were the evil fakers? Homeless men, students on vacation and—you got to love this—American soldiers. Oh yeah: most of them are Black voters.

Why weren't these African-American voters home when the Republican letters arrived? The homeless men were on park benches, the students were on vacation—and the soldiers were overseas.

Palast supplies evidence linking Tim Griffin, then-research director for the RNC, to this caging plot; specifically, a series of confidential e-mails to Republican Party muckety-mucks with the suggestive heading "RE: caging." The e-mails were accidentally sent to a George Bush parody site. They also contained suggestively named spreadsheets, headed "caging" as well. The names on the lists are what Palast's researchers deemed to be homeless men and soldiers deployed in Iraq. Here are the e-mails.

As Palast points out—and Griffin himself has observed—the American media barely touched this story, and Griffin has yet to explain the e-mails or the lists. He did tell The New Yorker's Jane Mayer last March that "caging is not a derogatory term. ... [I]t's a direct-mail term. It derives from caging categories of mail in steel shelves and files." Still, that hardly explains why he was allegedly caging only transient African-American voters in those shelves or files, which would likely violate the Voting Rights Act.

Palast is surely not above overstatement. He is one of many who have repeated the claim that, "In an Aug. 24 e-mail, the Justice Department's Monica Goodling wrote to Sampson, that Griffin's nomination would face opposition in Congress because he was involved 'in massive Republican projects in Florida and elsewhere by which Republicans challenged tens of thousand of absentee votes. Coincidentally, many of those challenged votes were in black precincts.' " Goodling wrote no such thing. That quote is from an article circulated by Goodling on Aug. 24. It's an unfair smear of both Griffin and Goodling (both of whom have proven amply capable of smearing themselves).

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