Did Clinton allies target black voters with deceptive calls?

05/05/2008 04:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Economist recently reported, along with other news outlets, how a women's organization whose key leaders were loosely affiliated with the Clinton campaign was making deceptive phone calls to black voters designed to fool them into believing that they weren't registered. Last Wednesday, facing mounting outrage from the Obama campaign and voting rights activists, the North Carolina attorney general ordered the organization, Women's Voices, Women Vote, to stop the practice. The organization apologized, and claimed it never intended to discourage voting (while supporters noted that some Obama backers also worked for the group); the Clinton campaign denied any connection to the efforts. But the apparent repeated use of the same tactics over several primaries by the same group raises troubling questions still worth pursuing.The Economist, not known as a leftist magazine, summarized the situation in a scathing commentary on April 30th:

A group called Women's Voices Women's Vote (WVWV), which claims to have been "created to activate unmarried Americans in their government and in our democracy" has been placing robocalls to voters across North Carolina that seem designed to fool them into thinking they have not yet registered to vote. Many of the voters who received those calls are black. Voters in 11 states have complained about similarly deceptive calls and mailings that have been traced back to WVWV this primary season.

Guess which Democratic candidate WVWV's founder and president, Page Gardner, has donated $6,700 to (hint: it's not Barack Obama). Guess whose election campaign Joe Goode, WVWV's executive director, worked for (hint: it was in 1992, and it was a winning campaign). Guess whose chief of staff sits on WVWV's board of directors (hint: it was the president who served between two Bushes). And guess whose campaign manager was a member of WVWV's leadership team (hint: it's Hillary Clinton).

It's an odd story: a recording of someone named Lamont Williams calls voters to tell them a voter-registration packet is on its way. It's unclear whether anything arrives; what isn't unclear is that the call is well after the registration deadline. It's not too hard to imagine this call coming to an unsophisticated voter (and let me make this clear: I am in no way saying black voters, who seem to have received the lion's share of the calls, are all unsophisticated; I'm simply positing a scenario), and that voter becoming confused. Perhaps he thinks he's not registered, and calls his state's board of elections who tells him it's too late so he stays home on election day. Perhaps the board of elections doesn't know what he's talking about, and he gets frustrated and stays home, assuming he's unregistered.

If this were a one-time event, I might be less suspicious, but it's happened in state after state, always after the registration deadline has passed, and always shortly before the primary. This is an organisation stuffed with Washington insiders; incompetence like this simply doesn't happen over and over again, not in the same way like this. Something stinks.

Again, perhaps if the Clinton campaign hadn't shown itself to be quite so sleazy (remember those photos of Barack Obama in Somali garb?); perhaps if the calls weren't going to the constituency least likely to vote for Mrs Clinton; perhaps if Mrs Clinton's supporters weren't so heavily represented among WVWV's board, it wouldn't set off as many bells as it does. But something isn't right here, and it's not a simple error either. As a scam, it seems just Rube Goldberg-ish enough to provide plausible deniability for anyone involved, but just authoritative enough to work on some voters. If it does trace back to Mrs Clinton's campaign, it will provide further evidence that her cronies have abandoned every shred, everything that ever got them into politics in the first place. The end (Mrs Clinton's victory) will justify the means. From flower children of the 1960s to deceivers of black voters in North Carolina in 2008. A long, strange trip indeed.

If these concerns are valid, then it's particularly disturbing that these dirty tricks are coming from those associated with Clinton's campaign. She's a senator who sponsored a "Count Every Vote Act," but now she or her allies, after unleashing a barrage of low-road negative campaigning and implied race-baiting, seem to be doing something even more repellant: borrowing a page from the GOP's vote-suppression and deceptive practices playbook targeting blacks.

So tell me again why is it unfair to compare the tactics of Hillary and her supporters to those of Karl Rove?

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