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).

Still, Palast's vote-caging claims are hardly unbelievable. Republicans have been systematically trying to suppress minority votes for decades, most recently calling it pushback for rampant liberal voter fraud. Our own former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was alleged to have mastered the art. And while bouncing voters from the rolls on the basis of their race violates federal law, it's not beyond imagining that eager young "loyal Bushies" aren't all that bothered by federal laws, especially if there's a way to bend rather than overtly break them. 

From the point of view of the ongoing DoJ scandal, perhaps what's most urgent about the vote-caging claims is that they go a long, long way toward explaining why Karl Rove and Harriet Miers were so determined to get Griffin seated in the Arkansas U.S. Attorney's office, and to do so without a confirmation hearing. If, as the Justice Department has continued to insist, Griffin was eminently qualified for the position, why did he need to be spared the hearing at all costs? And once it became clear that he would undergo a hearing, why did Griffin sideline himself with the colorful observation that undergoing Senate confirmation would be "like volunteering to stand in front of a firing squad in the middle of a three-ring circus?" Griffin—who is now in job talks with the Fred Thompson campaign—sure looks like a guy hiding something, and if vote caging is that something, it becomes even more interesting that the White House was pushing him forward.

Why did Goodling choose to shine a beacon on the vote-caging allegations in her perfectly rehearsed, highly coached testimony last week? Having slaved to secure Griffin's U.S. attorney post, why  raise the allegations against him and then subtly distance herself from him, if there is nothing to see here? Professor Rick Hasen of Loyola Law School, who wrote earlier this month about voter fraud, is my personal voting-law guru. (Everyone needs one.) When I asked him whether the mainstream media were making a mistake in blowing off the vote-caging story, he said Goodling's mention of it "makes me suspect that there's something there worth investigating by the MSM, even if you don't buy into the grand conspiracy theories."

If the media have fallen down on this story, how much more so has Congress? Nobody tried to press Goodling about what McNulty allegedly knew and withheld from Congress in regard to Griffin's alleged vote-caging schemes. I'd be interested in the answer. I'd also like to hear what Griffin himself has to say about those lists the BBC has. If the RNC was paying good money to send registered mail to homeless black men in Florida, there must have been a reason for it. Griffin, after all, has left his Arkansas post and is looking for work. (Tim, if Sen. Thompson is a no-go, I need a babysitter next Saturday!) I bet he'd like nothing better than to clear his name and remove the taint of voter suppression from his résumé.

I'd also like to hear from Karl and Harriet about why Griffin's elevation to the Arkansas job was so important, yet his confirmation so fraught. If Palast is right, Griffin and vote caging open the door to explaining the White House involvement in the U.S. attorneys purge. And the White House—not the Justice Department—has always been the least-understood part of this story. So, let's bake up some of those warm, crusty subpoenas. Last week was the first time most of us heard about vote caging. It shouldn't be the last.

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