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The Power of Two Myths

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

As its days dwindle down to a precious few, the McCain campaign is giving new life to old myths. In an attempt to suppress minority voting, it has conjured up the specter of voter fraud, though there is no evidence that voter fraud exists. Even more impressive is its attempt to resurrect the welfare queens against whom Ronald Reagan used to fulminate, though the stories Reagan told about them had no basis in fact, either. Welfare was pretty much abolished in the mid-1990s, of course, but an increasingly desperate John McCain is transporting us back to the wedge issues of yesteryear.

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To do so, he is accusing Barack Obama of bringing back the discarded policies of welfare by calling for a tax cut that will apply to all taxpayers, including workers who pay payroll but not income taxes because their earnings are too low. A tax break for the working poor -- janitors, waitresses, employees of Wal-Mart and McDonald's -- becomes, in McCain's telling, a subsidy from all the Joe the Plumbers to undeserving people who live off the dole.

Back in Reagan's day, the whole point of attacking welfare recipients, of course, was to rally susceptible white voters to the Republican column by stoking their animus at African Americans whom they (wrongly) believed comprised the majority of welfare recipients. It enabled Reagan and his right-wing crew to play the race card without actually having to make racially specific characterizations. Which is precisely the tack McCain is taking as he makes a last-ditch attempt to pull every possible vote out of Appalachian Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The other myth McCain is making much of these days is that of voter fraud. In state after state, the number of newly registered Democrats dwarfs the number of newly registered Republicans -- a predictable development in a nation whose incumbent Republican president has an approval rating you'd expect to see for strep throat.

What's more, a lot of those new Democrats are African American, Latino and young (and more transient than older voters). The Democrats and their allies have waged extensive campaigns to register them and to get out their vote.

For years, the Republican response to the rising number of non-white voters in particular has been: If you can't win their vote, suppress it. So the GOP has propagated the myth that large numbers of people are voting who shouldn't be, that voter registration groups such as ACORN, which the Republican ticket regularly attacks, are, like the big-city machines of yore, casting ballots in the name of the dead and stealing elections.

Ferreting out these nefarious activities became a central focus of the Justice Department under John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales at the direction of the Bush White House. The department instructed all U.S. attorneys that the prosecution and conviction of voter-fraud perpetrators was, in Gonzales's words, a "top priority." Extensive investigations were undertaken across the nation. Yet, by 2005, as Art Levine reported in the American Prospect this April, only two people had been charged with falsifying or fabricating voter registration forms, and nobody had been charged with impersonating another voter.

But the current attacks on ACORN provide the pretext for attempts to turn black voters and college students away from their polling places. In Ohio, the Republican war on voting has already begun. Hamilton County (that's Cincinnati) prosecutor Joseph Deters, who is also the Southwest Ohio regional chair of the McCain campaign, subpoenaed the records of 266 new voters who have cast absentee ballots because he suspected their addresses might not comport to other public records. A GOP fundraiser in the state is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to deny 200,000 recent registrants the right to vote because their addresses on their registration forms don't match those on their driver's licenses, a discrepancy that suggests that the voters have moved or that the addresses were entered incorrectly by the registrar's offices.

If you can't find the crime here, you're not alone. A number of the U.S attorneys fired by Gonzales got the ax for failing to uncover such crimes, though they conducted far-reaching investigations. David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney for New Mexico, told Levine that voter fraud "is like the boogeymen parents use to scare their children. It's very frightening, and it doesn't exist."

But it's still a quite serviceable myth if Republicans can invoke it to block many thousands of new registrants from voting. It's serviceable even if McCain is defeated, as the right can then claim that the election was stolen and that Barack Obama isn't a legitimate president. On such racist garbage as African Americans voting fraudulently so they can collect welfare checks again is McCain staking his claim for the presidency.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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