WASHINGTON ― Nearly eight years ago, when 23-year-old Stephen Robert Morse pressed “record” on his camera outside a polling place in a black neighborhood in North Philadelphia, he couldn’t imagine the scale of the controversy his video would generate.
Morse, now 31, was a freelance journalist who signed up as a Republican poll watcher in Philadelphia during the 2008 election. He had gotten a call about two men standing outside a polling place, hopped into a car and rushed to the scene.
Morse began filming shortly before police arrived at the scene. He captured King Samir Shabazz, a member of the New Black Panther Party, standing with another man outside a subsidized apartment complex for seniors that was serving as a polling place. Shabazz was holding a nightstick.
Republican poll watchers knew they had something good, with several trying to get Morse to stop filming once the police showed up to deal with the two men. “You’re fucking up the story. Don’t fuck up the story,” one Republican poll watcher told Morse.
The video was quickly published on ElectionJournal, a website run by Mike Roman, a right-wing operative whom 2016 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump recently put in charge of his campaign’s election protection effort.
That evening in 2008, Barack Obama won a decisive victory over John McCain, winning 52.9 percent of votes nationwide compared to McCain’s 45.7. Obama easily carried Pennsylvania, receiving several hundred thousand more votes than McCain, who trailed behind by more than 10 percentage points.
In the grand scheme of things, the incident was pretty minor and had no real impact on the voting process that day. The district in north Philly where Morse filmed the video has an overwhelmingly black population, and no voter said they were intimidated. Shabazz, who has a lengthy arrest record, preaches racial separation and has used extremist rhetoric against white people, has said he was at the polling place to provide “security for our people,” believing that outside anti-black groups would come to the neighborhood to intimidate voters.
But the footage ended up getting a ton of play in the conservative media after a controversy sprung up over the Obama administration’s handling of a civil lawsuit against Shabazz filed in the final days of the George W. Bush administration. Morse’s footage fit into a broader narrative of Democratic election misconduct that has been churned up by Republicans and the conservative media in recent years.
Now, as Trump lags far behind Hillary Clinton in the polls just a few weeks out from Election Day, he’s been warning his supporters about voter fraud in “certain areas” of Pennsylvania. When he tells supporters they “know what [he’s] talking about,” Morse’s video may be one of the first things to come to their minds.
Morse now has some regrets about the role that his video has played in building up Republican myths about widespread election misconduct in communities of color.
“The video doesn’t lie. That video was honest at the time, but I would also argue that was more of an anomaly than an everyday occurrence,” Morse said in an interview this week.
“I defend democracy, I defend the freedom of the media, but I don’t defend Donald Trump twisting something to stoke fears into Republicans,” he said. “I sincerely hope that no one is hurt and I hope there’s no violence on Election Day because of that.”
Without Morse’s video, the entire incident would have faded away pretty quickly. But then, in the Bush administration’s closing days, officials in his Justice Department decided to make a federal case out of it. When Obama took office, officials decided to scale back the case after a career official said the complaint was full of hyperbole and exaggeration (although an Obama political official told a career DOJ employee that outright dismissal of the case was not an option).
If you were watching Fox News early on in Obama’s presidency, you couldn’t miss Morse’s video. The narrative was that the nation’s first black president and first black attorney general were abandoning white voters and protecting a black extremist who had intimidated voters. The liberal group Media Matters for America counted 95 different segments and eight hours of airtime on the video in just two weeks in 2010, while Dave Weigel called Megyn Kelly’s coverage of the incident a “minstrel show.” House Republicans even went so far as to refer to the New Black Panther Party as a “political ally” of the Obama administration, while the conservative-controlled U.S. Commission on Civil Rights launched an investigation which alleged the Justice Department was hostile to the “race-neutral enforcement of the civil rights laws.”
If you dug a bit deeper, however, it wasn’t too difficult to see what was going on here. The fallout of the case was one of the first stories I covered in my career, and one of my earliest scoops was on the background of J. Christian Adams, the Justice Department lawyer who brought the voter intimidation case in the first place. Adams, a solo practitioner who had little if any civil rights law experience when he joined the Justice Department, had been improperly hired by Bradley Schlozman, a Bush administration official who wanted to purge the “pinkos,” “commies” and “crazy libs” from the Civil Rights Division and replace them with “right-thinking Americans.” While Adams portrayed himself as career employee and whistleblower, I found he had a long history in right-wing politics, once filing an ethics complaint against Hillary Clinton’s brother and writing a post that likened Obama’s worldview to that of Nazi appeasers. Adams eventually left DOJ and returned to his right-wing roots, running a blog on the conservative website PJ Media, making regular appearances on Fox News and litigating election cases.
As for Morse, who says he was a political independent at the time the video was filmed, he’s “100 percent” behind Clinton this year and “hates” Trump. He said changes in technology since 2008 have dramatically changed how poll watching could unfold ― Apple didn’t release an iPhone capable of capturing video until the summer of 2009. Now, with the widespread use of smartphones, Morse said the job he was doing on Election Day 2008 now seems like an “obsolete” relic of the past.
“I assume if crazy things happen, you could just rely on citizens to whip out their iPhones and take the same video that I did professionally 10 years ago,” Morse said.
While he thinks it’s important to be vigilant to make sure fraud doesn’t take place, he doesn’t like what Trump has done to raise fears about voting.
“He has a very strong tendency to twist the truth for his own personal gain,” he said. “That’s actually my one worry, that there will be violence on Election Day. But I hope there’s not.”