The Front

The Front

The Front

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
April 4 2000 11:30 PM

The Front

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Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Before the Arizona Democratic Party held the first ever binding online election in March, a Virginia-based nonprofit called the Voting Integrity Project tried unsuccessfully to get an injunction to stop it. VIP argued that because more whites than minorities have access to the Internet, the election was in violation of the Voting Rights Act. VIP will go to court again later this year to try to set aside the results on the same argument.

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On this basis, you might assume that VIP is a liberal group. The organization encourages that impression. Its first annual conference opened last Friday in Washington with a press briefing about the voting-rights problems with online elections. VIP attorney Miller Baker explained to the few assembled journalists why Internet voting is the iron fist of white supremacy.

Perhaps so, but Baker isn't the guy you expect to be making the case. He clerked for two very conservative federal judges, worked in the civil rights division of the Reagan Justice Department, and served as counsel to Orrin Hatch on the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Hatch led the Republican effort to weaken the Voting Rights Act when it was renewed in 1982.) A conservative résumé doesn't mean Baker can't support an activist interpretation of the Voting Rights Act, but it kind of makes you wonder.

In fact, almost everything about the Voting Integrity Project makes you wonder. Though VIP's members assert that they are both independent and nonpartisan, the organization is essentially a conservative front. Five of seven on the governing board are Republicans. The lone Democrat is a college student who designed the VIP Web site. The president is a conservative activist. The chairman of the board is Helen Blackwell, who also serves as the Virginia chairman of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and is the wife of conservative activist Morton Blackwell. James Meredith, the civil-rights-pioneer-turned-Jesse-Helms-crony, sits on the national advisory board. VIP has worked on special projects with the far-right Frontiers of Freedom Institute (Malcolm Wallop) and Americans for Tax Reform (Grover Norquist).

But the problem isn't who they are, it's what they do. VIP started up in 1996 by answering the call from election losers who accused their opponents of fraud. Its first high-profile moment was the investigation in Louisiana into Democrat Mary Landrieu's Senate victory. VIP hired a private investigator to look for evidence of vote stealing and filed a report with the Senate Rules & Administration Committee, whose own investigation dragged on for almost a year. Democrats insisted it was a partisan witch hunt, and in the end the rules committee voted unanimously to drop it.

Since then, VIP has changed its focus from particular (possibly) tainted elections to election policy in general. VIP is critical of Motor Voter. It wants to abolish write-in registration and tighten the rules for absentee voting. Last year VIP sued Texas to prevent early voting and Oregon to prevent mail-in voting. The argument against these progressive voting reforms goes like this: They have opened and will open the electoral process to cheaters, cheaters will discourage honest voters from believing in the system, honest voters will stop turning out, and democracy will collapse.

VIP objects to Internet voting on pretty much the same grounds. Before the organization zeroed in on the voting-rights claim, it was on the warpath against online elections because they could be ripe for fraud. Last August VIP President Deborah Phillips published a paper called "Are We Ready for Internet Voting?" that dedicated only one page to minority voting rights. At the conference there was earnest discussion about every conceivable problem with e-voting—from hackers representing nefarious foreign powers and domestic pranksters to bribed equipment vendors and bullying neighbors and spouses. But there was very little talk of minority voting rights after the initial press briefing.

Another facet of VIP's anti-fraud mania is its citizen poll-watching program. VIP's poll watchers stand over the poll worker's shoulder and check every voter against master registration lists, ready to offer challenges. Phillips says that "when [illegitimate voters] see VIP poll watchers in there checking lists, it has a chilling effect." Of course, it has a chilling effect on legitimate voters as well—a chill that is felt in heavily minority neighborhoods, where VIP often targets its poll-watching efforts on the theory that they generate suspiciously "lopsided" results. But the thread running through various VIP activities is less an effort to deter minority voters in particular than it is to make voting more difficult in general. VIP wants looser rules about challenging voters and purging rolls as well as tighter rules about nontraditional ways of casting ballots. Chairman Helen Blackwell told me that VIP prefers one-day voting in person at the polls because "if something doesn't cost you a little bit, you don't value it very much."

To be sure, some members of VIP may be interested primarily in ferreting out corruption. But on the whole, the organization uses a clean government cloak to advance an ideological agenda. When you ask VIP members if the organization is conservative or Republican, they get very upset and point out that VIP has worked on behalf of the Democratic governor of Guam and that former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder (a black Democrat) was the keynote speaker at the conference. Wilder, however, is not a supporter of VIP's work. "I never knew much about that group," he said with some surprise, when I told him about the organization.  

Jeremy Derfner is a former Slate editorial assistant.