How Will Poll-Watchers in Mississippi Spot the Black Democrats Voting in the GOP Primary?

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 23 2014 10:24 AM

How Will Poll-Watchers in Mississippi Spot the Black Democrats Voting in the GOP Primary?

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Election monitors

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Mississippi's extra-innings Senate primary ends tomorrow, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Theodore Schleifer report that a collection of conservative groups will be sending in poll-watchers. FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots, and the Senate Conservatives Fund will team up for the unprecedented, single-minded effort to beat Sen. Thad Cochran.

The groups will deploy observers in areas where Mr. Cochran is recruiting Democrats, Mr. Cuccinelli said. J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department official and conservative commentator who said he was advising the effort, described the watchers as “election observers,” mostly Mississippi residents, who will be trained to “observe whether the law is being followed.”
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Cochran's outreach to black voters (which existed in the primary, too) was reported first by the AP's Jesse Holland and the Times' Jonathan Martin, and my colleague Jamelle Bouie has written on the reasons why black voters should walk away from the Democratic Party for a day and help Cochran claw past challenger Chris McDaniel. In the first round of the primary, Tea Party Patriots hit Cochran with a quick response video in which a black conservative accused the senator of coming 'round with his hat in hand after years of doing nothing.

But this second push to control the electorate is more dramatic than the Times lets on. The paper quotes Senate Conservatives Fund President Ken Cuccinelli in saying, accurately, that voters who drew a Democratic ballot three weeks ago can't vote in the Republican primary tomorrow. True. But Adams, quoted in the Times piece, told Breibart.com's embedded reporter Matt Boyle that it would be illegal for a voter who intended to vote against the winner of the GOP primary to cast a ballot at all.

The Mississippi law Adams cites, MS Code 23-15-575, states: “No person shall be eligible to participate in any primary election unless he intends to support the nominations made in which he participates.”
“Mississippi law prohibits Democrats from voting in a Republican primary,” Adams said in an emailed statement. “Obviously poll workers aren’t mind readers. But if someone doesn’t intend to support the nominee in November, then that person isn’t allowed to vote in the Republican primary.”

Indeed, that's what the code says. That argument, which hasn't been reported much outside of conservative media, is getting better known within it. Yesterday, independent conservative reporter Charles Johnson scooped a robocall directed at black voters, telling them to vote against "Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel" and thereby do a solid for President Obama. "It is illegal," explained Johnson, "to encourage someone to vote for someone in the primary who they do not intend to vote for in the general."

Given that more than 90 percent of Mississippi's black voters usually vote Democratic, poll-watchers have an easy way of spotting interlopers. Hey, you, picking up the Republican ballot! Do you plan to vote for the winner of the Republican primary?

UPDATE: Rick Hasen has more, including the recent legal decisions that weaken Adams' argument.

UPDATE II:  And J. Christian Adams responds with a denunciation of "leftist academics and their 'journolist' friends in the media" (that's me):

Listening to the New York Times, you would think Jim Crow was back. They’re feeding the same false narrative: the Tea Party supporters of Chris McDaniel are bucktooth racists that will break the law to stop minorities from raiding the Republican primary to help Thad Cochran. The election observer program by conservatives, the Times reports, “evokes memories of the civil rights struggles of the state’s past.”
Seriously.

The use of the word "seriously" is meant to sarcastically rebut any idea that anyone might see a racial angle in the potential challenges. But that's just asking people to feign ignorance. Mississippi has had, for some time, a racially polarized electorate in federal campaigns. In 2012, 89 percent of Mississippi whites gave their votes to Mitt Romney, while 96 percent of Mississippi blacks gave their votes to Barack Obama.

You might think that the races of the candidates played a role in that split, but it wasn't all that different in 2008, when white former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove challenged appointed Sen. Roger Wicker. Musgrove, the Democrat, got 92 percent of the black vote; Wicker, the Republican, won 82 percent of the white vote. It's just a fact that if you walk into a polling booth in Mississippi and see 10 white voters and 10 black voters, you can reasonably predict how 17 of these people are going to vote. (It's not the same in a state like, say, New Hampshire, where few minorities live, and where Barack Obama won 51 percent of the white vote in 2012.)

The rest of Adams's argument cites recent cases to argue that the vote challenges in Mississippi will be simple, race-free issues of voter integrity. I don't deny, for a second, that conservative activists are concerned with keeping liberals from altering the racee. They could care less about color. I do wonder why similar concerns were not raised in 2008, when Barack Obama won the Mississippi primary but Rush Limbaugh took credit for encouraging (possibly) thousands of conservatives from picking up Democratic ballots, in the hope of weakening Obama for the general election.

UPDATE III: And here's an advisory from the offices of Mississippi's attorney general and secretary of state.

Important Election Day Information from the Attorney General and Secretary of State
Jackson, MS-- Democratic and Republican Party Primary Runoff Elections will be conducted on June 24, 2014.  Although these primaries are conducted by the respective parties, strict adherence to Mississippi law should be followed.
Observers from both the Secretary of State’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office will be in Mississippi counties on Election Day.  Matters of particular relevance: 
Poll watchers in polling place
Miss. Code Ann. Sections 23-15-245 and 23-15-577 provide that in primary elections the only persons who may lawfully be within 30 feet of the polls are:
 
1) Voters approaching the polls, voting, and leaving the polling place
2) The poll managers (pollworkers),
 
3) One pollwatcher appointed, in writing, by each candidate whose name appears on the ballot
Miss. Code Ann. Section 23-15-245 states that it is the duty of the bailiff poll manager to prevent interference with the election and to keep the polling place clear of persons not authorized to be in the polling place.  The bailiff may call upon other law enforcement officials for assistance in enforcing the law.
There is no authority in state law for a PAC or other outside group to place “election observers” in Mississippi polling places.
Crossover voting prohibited
Crossover voting is prohibited in the State of Mississippi.  Crossover voting is defined as participation in the first primary of one political party and participation in the runoff primary of another party.  Thus, a voter who cast his/her ballot in the Democratic Primary Election on June 3 is prohibited from casting his/her ballot in the Republican Primary Runoff Election on June 24, and vice versa. See MS AG Op., Brown (April 7, 1988).
Challenges
A person offering to vote may be challenged based upon the following grounds:
1)      The voter is not a registered voter in the precinct,
2)      The voter is not registered under the name he/she has applied to vote,
 
3)      The voter has already voted in the election,
4)      The voter is not a resident in the precinct where he/she is registered,
5)      The voter has illegally registered to vote,
6)      The voter has removed his/her ballot from the polling place, and
7)      The voter is otherwise disqualified by law. 
A person lawfully in the polling place may challenge a voter based on party loyalty only if the voter openly declares he does not intend to support the nominees of the party whose primary the voter is participating in.
Any criminal violation of Mississippi law should be reported to the local District Attorney’s Office and/or the Office of the Attorney General.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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