Karl Rove's Voter Fraud Fetish

The Bush administration cracks down on a phantom menace

Until Alberto Gonzalez testifies next week, the main area of interest in the ongoing attorney general scandal is the White House’s seemingly odd fixation with “voter fraud.” At least two of the U.S. attorneys at the heart of the scandal were removed for failing, in the estimation of Bush officials, to adequately pursue and prosecute voter fraud. The trouble is, there doesn’t seem to be much fraud to prosecute.

Today’s New York Times reports that despite a five-year-old crackdown, the Justice Department has turned up “virtually no evidence” that organized fraud exists. The few people who have been convicted of voter fraud, the piece makes clear, are mostly confused felons and immigrants. And yet the White House, again per the Times, was anxious enough about the issue that it obscured the conclusions of a federal panel that found little evidence of fraud—the panel report’s conclusion was changed to allow for the (apparently baseless) possibility that rampant voter fraud is a real problem.

What gives?

Allowing for the possibility that someone, somewhere in the White House genuinely believes voter fraud is a problem, I think a much likelier explanation is that administration officials—and one official in particular, Karl Rove—see the issue of voter fraud as a handy political weapon at election time. Voicing concerns about fraud often paves the way for intimidation tactics like poll watching that depress turnout, especially among minorities and less educated voters who tend to vote Democratic.

Rove never passes up an opportunity to seize an electoral advantage. But I have a better reason for suspecting his handiwork. The closest race of Rove’s career—the 1994 election for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in which Rove’s candidate actually trailed the morning after the election—hinged on the issue of voter fraud. As I discovered from Rove’s own staff while doing a profile of him in 2004, Rove himself pushed the voter fraud issue aggressively and ultimately won the race. Here’s an excerpt from my piece that picks up on the morning after Rove’s candidate, Perry Hooper, appeared to have lost the election:

Newspaper coverage on November 9, the morning after the election, focused on the Republican Fob James's upset of the Democratic Governor Jim Folsom. But another drama was rapidly unfolding. In the race for chief justice, which had been neck and neck the evening before, Hooper awoke to discover himself trailing by 698 votes. Throughout the day ballots trickled in from remote corners of the state, until at last an unofficial tally showed that Rove's client had lost—by 304 votes. Hornsby's campaign declared victory.

Rove had other plans, and immediately moved for a recount. "Karl called the next morning," says a former Rove staffer. "He said, 'We came real close. You guys did a great job. But now we really need to rally around Perry Hooper. We've got a real good shot at this, but we need to win over the people of Alabama.'" Rove explained how this was to be done. "Our role was to try to keep people motivated about Perry Hooper's election," the staffer continued, "and then to undermine the other side's support by casting them as liars, cheaters, stealers, immoral—all of that." (Rove did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.)

The campaign quickly obtained a restraining order to preserve the ballots. Then the tactical battle began. Rather than focus on a handful of Republican counties that might yield extra votes, Rove dispatched campaign staffers and hired investigators to every county to observe the counting and turn up evidence of fraud.

The charges of voter fraud led to an Election 2000/Florida-style recount and naturally wound up in court. The case dragged on for nearly a year and eventually was settled by the United States Supreme Court—in favor of Rove’s client (sound familiar?). What I remember most from reporting this piece three years ago are the vivid, and largely fictional, tales that Rove peddled to help keep his candidate’s hopes alive:

Mindful of public opinion, according to staffers, the campaign spread tales of poll watchers threatened with arrest; probate judges locking themselves in their offices and refusing to admit campaign workers; votes being cast in absentia for comatose nursing-home patients; and Democrats caught in a cemetery writing down the names of the dead in order to put them on absentee ballots.