Romney may be shooting himself in the foot at every turn, but the race could still be very close thanks to a GOP trifecta of lies, dark money and vote suppression.
Democrats, liberal pundits and progressives are nearly giddy over the damage caused by the worst few weeks any presidential candidate has suffered in modern campaign history. They've reveled in the notorious "47 percent" video leaked to Mother Jones and frenetic Libya smears that seem to have mortally wounded the already flailing Romney campaign.
An exultant Markos Moulitsas of The Daily Kos proclaimed on the Stephanie Miller radio show recently, "The reality is, we're winning!" He added: "Liberals who are worried about voter suppression and money, stop worrying about that. If they want to suppress the vote, we'll fight them on that, and if they want to buy the election, good luck on that."
"We're winning; let's embrace it," he said. "We've got them on the ropes now."
Don't pop open the champagne bottles just yet, though. The Republicans have a triple threat advantage that can still help their bruised and inept presidential candidate put together the electoral college math needed to eke out a victory. These are, essentially, lies, money and vote suppression. The Republicans' unappealing candidates and politically toxic plans to savage social programs and reward the wealthy with tax breaks obviously can't win on their own merits.
As veteran journalist Elizabeth Drew points out in an important new article in The New York Review of Books: "The Republicans' plan is that if they can't buy the 2012 election they will steal it. The plan, long in the making and now well into its execution, is to raise great gobs of money - in newly limitless amounts - so that they and their allies could outspend the president's forces; and they would also place obstacles in the way of large swaths of citizens who traditionally support the Democrats and want to exercise their right to vote." In fact, at least 10 million or more citizens could be deprived of the vote this year by recent laws, administrative roadblocks or intimidation - potentially over 5 percent of the expected voter turnout, as shown by recent authoritative reports on vote suppression laws and practices.
Of course, practically unlimited, still-undisclosed funds and widespread voting barriers can hardly guarantee a win for a candidate as unpopular and clueless as Mitt Romney. With or without a raft of legalized dirty tricks helping him, Romney remains an unlikely winner but hardly out of the running.
Still, a review of fundraising trends, voting barriers and potential Election Day meltdowns in key states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado and Florida paints a darker picture for the Obama campaign than commonly supposed. Late this past week, another Republican voting scandal emerged when the Republican National Committee was forced by bad publicity to fire a voter registration firm that submitted fraudulent registration forms after the GOP already hired the company for $3 million; it is owned by a notorious consultant, Nathan Sproul, previously accused in earlier presidential races of destroying Democratic registration forms in vote suppression schemes.
Unlike ACORN, the target of fabricated GOP hysteria in 2008, this GOP-funded company didn't catch errant registration workers and then turn them in voluntarily. Instead, as first reported by The Brad Blog, Sproul's firm was caught by election officials in several Florida counties and in such states as North Carolina for submitting unverified, fraudulent registration forms. These included forged requests for phony address changes from Democrats to ensure they would be forced to cast only provisional ballots likely to be disallowed. But the Florida Secretary of State, Ken Detzner, and Gov. Rick Scott, after earlier setting off alarm bells about the need to purge thousands of noncitizens from the rolls, have so far showed little interest in investigating clear-cut evidence of apparent voter registration fraud. The secretary of state's elections chief didn't even bother to return phone calls from the elections supervisor in Palm Beach after she notified him of the fraudulent voter registration forms she was turning over to the county prosecutor.
That indifference could be seen as an early omen of how the Republican secretary of state in Florida and in other states might respond to complaints of polling place breakdowns or voter intimidation on Election Day. It's especially worrisome in Florida because Governor Scott and the True the Vote group, described as "ballot box bullies" in a new Demos report, have been such strong allies. Detzner has had to give up some ground because of a court ruling against stiff penalties for voter registration work, but as his ban on the Sunday early voting traditionally used by black churches shows, he remains dedicated to blocking pro-Democratic groups from voting.
In Colorado, a similar game-plan has been unleashed by the controversial secretary of state, Scott Gessler, who has reluctantly backed off from initial plans to purge thousands of voters after he discovered that less than .004 percent of his state's 3.5 million registered voters were noncitizens. Nominally a state official dedicated to fair elections, he is actively encouraging fellow Republicans to join with the vigilante-style True the Vote in policing his state's voting rolls and polling places for spurious "voter fraud."
The president of Colorado Common Cause, Elena Nunez, observes, "He is actively working to chill voter participation," even filing lawsuits against local election officials who wanted to notify "inactive" voters that they missed the most recent election by mailing them absentee ballots. She's hopeful that his jihad against greater voter participation has backfired: "People are really energized and aware of this election. We want to make sure they're aware of their rights."
Even if these assorted voter intimidation and purging plans are just bluster or don't get fully implemented, they can still stoke fears among minority groups and drive down turnout: mission accomplished.
In Florida, the alleged GOP-paid registration scheme to, in part, submit erroneous, forged Democratic forms is yet another sign of how eager Republican operatives are to force eligible voters off the rolls. Failing that, they'll settle for dubious challenges that will force Democratic-leaning voters to cast provisional ballots if their IDs don't match the information on the voting rolls. There's a good reason such ballots are also known as "placebo" ballots. In the 2008 election, only half of provisional ballots were counted in Florida, and with all the new changes in Florida laws and rulings, nearly ten times as many provisional ballots - 300,000 - are expected to be cast, with similar potential for "chaos" and delays in such vital states as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia because of changed laws, elections experts say.
"It's a possibility of a complete meltdown for the election," Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, told the AP.
All these signs indicate that the relatively narrow margins favoring Obama in most national and battleground state polls don't seem to reflect the real-world conditions that could potentially lead to a surprise Romney victory. Even with some brand-new polls showing President Obama widening his apparent lead in Ohio and Florida, Obama faces what investigative reporters Harvey Wasserman and Bob Fitrakis in their new book call a "gentleman's handicap" of five to ten percent. That's due to assorted fair-voting barriers - from new photo ID requirements and extensive voters purges to restricted early voting and flawed paperless voting machines and procedures - in most of the critical battleground states.
In fact, 17 states passed laws and actions restricting voting since 2011 that account for nearly 80 percent of electoral votes. But even with several court and Department of Justice rulings blocking some of the new laws, there are still 20 repressive laws and executive actions currently in effect in 14 states, including pre-2011 photo ID laws in Indiana and Georgia, according to a spokesman for the Brennan Center. A judge Tuesday morning enjoined enforcing Pennsylvania's high-profile photo ID law in November, but the law remains in force.
Even so, as activist-journalist Wasserman points out about the GOP, "They're trying to duplicate what they did before and steal the election." That cynical view is based on his co-authored books and other in-depth reports on vote suppression, failed machines and election tampering in Ohio in 2004, including one by the House Judiciary Committee's Democratic staff. Unexplained irregularities included Cleveland inner-city precincts reporting turnout rates as low as seven percent. Virtually all these problems occurred after the vote count was transferred late at night to private back-up servers hosted by SMARTech in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a partisan Republican information technology firm, following a sharp rise in web site queries that crippled the secretary of state's servers in Ohio. That's according to filings last year in a civil rights lawsuit over the 2004 election, and the new book, Boss Rove, by Craig Unger.
With Ohio once again the most critical battleground state, is all this just conspiracy buff trivia that's deservedly been downplayed by most news outlets? Not quite: what some reformers saw as a GOP-driven meltdown in Ohio in 2004 could turn into the Republican playbook to win the state in 2012. One new worry: another controversial far-right Republican tech firm, Triad, is now in charge of managing electronic registration data in 65 percent of the state's counties. And unfortunately for Democrats buoyed by the latest Ohio polls, Ohio's Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, has revealed his partisan determination to limit Democratic-leaning voters at every turn, even if he's not as flamboyant about it as his 2004 predecessor, Kenneth Blackwell.
Husted's actions, even if sometimes reined in by a judge or challenged in lawsuits, have a common goal: to reduce voter turnout, preferably Democratic, by any means necessary. He's used almost too many ploys to count: from firing local election officials who favored extending early voting to supporting the purging of 1 million voters that's been ongoing since 2008 - and a pattern of open defiance of court rulings. All of this has been augmented by a True the Vote-linked Tea Party group threatening to challenge over 700,000 voters in the state.
The voting rights coordinator for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Ohio, Jocelyn Travis, told me she expects Husted's Ken Blackwell-style schemes to undermine voting on Election Day. "He's discouraging voters," said Travis.
You don't have to share the hard-line view of some critics - even if supported by some compelling reporting - that GOP minions in 2004 stole the election, or could "flip the machines" this year, to be alarmed at the full scope of the disenfranchisement underway. Authoritative recent studies show that millions are at risk of being deprived of their votes.
Unfortunately, those real risks to voters generally are not factored into the media's obsessive coverage of polling results and the presidential horse-race. Yet NYU's Brennan Center recently reported that ten states have unprecedented photo ID restrictions that leave 10 million eligible voters - 11 percent of the voting public - facing barriers to getting free photo ID, including many who are impoverished, lack cars and, in rural areas, public transportation to get to ID-issuing offices more than ten miles away.
The 2008 election that swept Obama into office amid a wave of enthusiasm and vigorous election protection efforts still left millions of citizens stripped of the vote. An authoritative review of the 2008 elections - well before the new wave of the GOP's post-2012 restrictive policies - by an MIT-led survey found that over 3 million registered voters who actively tried to cast ballots were blocked from doing so by administrative errors, and as many as 4 million more already registered voters were discouraged from voting by bureaucratic barriers. As Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said in 2009, "Millions of voters, through no fault of their own, were shut out of this process due to fixable problems."
The US Election Assistance Commission also found, according to Greg Palast's analysis of its 2008 data, that over 2.7 million regular, provisional and absentee ballots were cast but not counted. On top of that, he says, over 3 million eligible or registered voters either couldn't vote or couldn't register.
And those 2008 obstacles were due largely to administrative errors or, in some cases, GOP election officials' de facto efforts to undermine large turnouts - not barriers enshrined in law by Republican statehouses and then implemented by secretaries of state.
This time around it could be far worse. On September 24, for instance, the Advancement Project reported that an estimated 10 million Latino voters could be disenfranchised by strict new photo ID laws, error-prone purges in 16 states and rigid new proof-of-citizenship demands going well beyond federal law. "The pattern is unmistakable. State after state has moved to obstruct the ability of millions of Latino citizens to participate in our democracy," said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis.
This year, in fact, 21 million American voters, disproportionately black and Latino voters, lack the state-issued unexpired photo ID with current address now required by 11 states.
Just as shocking, nearly 50 million registered voters in 16 states will only be allowed to cast votes on error-prone paperless touchscreens that have no way of being reliably audited or recounted, according to the data in a new report by Common Cause and Verified Voting. Predictably, it drew relatively little interest from political reporters - or the leaders of either political party. Pamela Smith, the president of Verified Voting, says, "Every voter deserves a verifiable system, and beyond a doubt, we don't have that." She and other critics also point out that many states don't have the resilience to solve problems if anything goes wrong, including providing effective audits or, in some cases, even paper backups. These include the battleground states of Colorado, Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Yet the harsh reality is that securing reliable, verifiable voting - essential to any democracy - has become a marginalized issue still widely viewed as the haven of conspiracy nuts. But few political influentials have noticed over the years that mainstream groups such as NYU's Brennan Center, Common Cause, federal research centers and sweeping government reviews by states such as California and Ohio have all underscored the failings and porous security of those touchscreen machines. For example, a Sequoia optical-scan system in Palm Beach County mistakenly awarded in March two elections to candidates who were later found by court-ordered hand counts to have lost their races. The same machines are still used in 300 jurisdictions.
Most Democratic leaders over the years also haven't seemed to care that minority constituencies vital to their elections, including Hispanics and blacks, are disproportionately victimized by faulty machines - often by older, failing models allocated by GOP election officials. That was confirmed in a groundbreaking precinct-by-precinct analysis of New Mexico results issued by VotersUnite! in 2007. It found that Hispanics and Native Americans were 250 to 350 percent more likely than whites to be counted as "under-votes" - not voting for president or other major office - while voting on touchscreen machines in the 2004 election. When then-governor Bill Richardson pushed through a law banning all touchscreen machines for the 2006 election, the undervote rate for Native Americans plummeted by a stunning 85 percent when they used optical-scan machines with paper ballots - and the Hispanic undervote declined by roughly 70 percent. It's small wonder that an editorial in USA Today, hardly a bastion of the conspiracy-minded left, declared: "Electronic voting is the real threat to elections."
So, if you total up all the millions affected by some sort of restrictive voting law or all-too-common disenfranchising practices, it seems reasonable to assume that, at the very least, 10 million people eligible to vote won't be counted. They either won't be allowed to vote, won't get their votes counted properly or won't be able to register to vote. That's roughly 8 percent of the voting public, if not more, who will be missing in action.
What's new this year is the increasing openness of some Republican officials in boldly proclaiming that the strict ID laws are designed to ensure a Republican victory. This past week, in a last-ditch effort to prevent the law from being overturned if they can't prove it won't disenfranchise voters, Pennsylvania officials further eased the documentary requirements. But the judge concluded Tuesday that with just five weeks to go before the election, people who need the IDs may not get them in time - although misinformed poll workers could still sow confusion on Election Day.
With the law halted, Pennsylvania can't be considered a swing state that Romney could possibly win. Obama's likely margin of victory now accurately reflects the healthy lead he shows in polling there.
That's another sign of how essential vote suppression is to the GOP's strategy. In the same week that Romney's "47 percent" insult to voters was exposed, his strategists might have taken some perverse comfort from a conference call by civil rights groups that included The Advancement Project, the Urban League and the NAACP. They declared a "state of emergency" for voting rights in the United States. The new reality that millions of eligible voters who are likely to support Obama - minorities, young people, the elderly - won't be able to vote can't help but offer a silver lining of hope amid the gloomy news for Romney supporters.
There's no need for conservatives to complain that liberal pollsters are favoring Obama by oversampling Democrats. Factoring in a standard 3 percent margin of error and a potential 5 to 10 percent vote suppression effect, these races are in fact closer than they appear - as some conventional polling reveals.
Even the polls favoring Obama show him averaging about 3 percent nationally and, except for Pennsylvania's 8 percent lead and a few other outliers, between 2 and 6 percent in swing states, as averaged by Real Clear Politics.
Money can help make up much of that difference along with vote suppression. The Republican party, two sympathetic super-PACs and the Romney campaign still hold a publicly reported $64 million edge over their Democratic counterparts. But the highly secretive "dark money" groups, which don't have to report their donors and can delay filing reports, overwhelmingly support Romney; their deep pockets contribute to 75 percent of funds spent by independent groups.
Even if the big spending behind the pro-Romney ads hasn't made the difference yet in most swing states, the shameless willingness to lie repeatedly about their own plans and Obama's record can only help the Romney campaign achieve its last, best hope: a dishonest victory. As Michael Tomasky noted in The Daily Beast: "They know that the truth would crush them electorally. And so it follows that they know they must lie."
The Republican convention set a high bar for falsehoods that Romney and Ryan have continued to meet - and exceed - with ease, on everything from Obama's plan to "raid" Medicare to their own tax plans. As a Romney media strategist boldly told Buzzfeed in late August, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."
Yet even with all these elements lined up to help the Romney campaign basically buy or steal the election, if he blows the upcoming debates with President Obama , even Karl Rove could be ready to pull the plug. (But his track record shows he is a stronger debater than Democrats may expect.) Still, as a top Democrat close to President Obama told Politico, "I'll relax when Karl Rove wakes up one morning and realizes that Mitt Romney can't win the White House, and he needs to throw all his money at other races." Until Rove does that, the strategist said, the huge spending advantage and some good debates from Romney means "there's your tight race."
Throw in plenty of bald-faced lies, failing voting machines and assorted vote-blocking schemes, and there's your potential Romney victory, too.