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Mich. GOP Targets Foreclosure Victims for Election Day Dirty Tricks

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Cross-posted at Project Vote's Voting Matter's Blog

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

Partisan political operatives in Michigan are taking voter caging operations to depths that would surprise even the most cynical observers of American elections. If their plans are put into action, thousands of Michigan foreclosure victims may find that they will not only have lost their homes this year, but also their vote.

Operatives in the closely contested state, which is home to thousands of homeowners facing foreclosure, are "gearing up for a comprehensive voter challenge campaign," according to Eartha Jane Melzer of the Michigan Messenger Wednesday. The state allows parties to send election challengers to polls to challenge the eligibility of voters if they "have good reason to believe" a voter is ineligible. In this case, the GOP of Macomb County--a "key swing county" with a foreclosure rate in the top three percent in the nation--has announced plans to challenge the voting eligibility of foreclosure victims based on residency.

"We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren't voting from those addresses," Macomb County GOP chairman James Carabelli told the Messenger.

J. Gerald Herbert, a former voting rights litigator for the U.S. Justice Department, questions what he calls a "mean-spirited" and possibly legally-baseless tactic: "You can't challenge people without a factual basis for doing so...I don't think a foreclosure notice is sufficient basis for a challenge, because people often remain in their homes after foreclosure begins and sometimes are able to negotiate and refinance."

Teresa James, attorney for Project Vote, agrees. In a statement released today, James explains that Michigan law allows challenges at the polls only if the challenger "knows or has good reason to suspect" a voter is ineligible. According to James, the Michigan Secretary of State has clarified this to require that challenges should be based on "reliable sources or means."

"Republican challengers with only a list of foreclosure notices will have NO evidence or reliable source to suggest that eligible voters have moved and are no longer eligible to vote," says James.

"The Macomb County party's plans to challenge voters who have defaulted on their house payments is likely to disproportionately affect African-Americans who are overwhelmingly Democratic voters," Melzer writes. "More than 60 percent of all sub-prime loans - the most likely kind of loan to go into default - were made to African-Americans in Michigan..."

Melzer points out that Republican presidential candidate John McCain's regional headquarters is in the office of the state's largest foreclosure law firm, Trott & Trott, whose founder has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the campaign. McCain "stands to benefit from the burgeoning number of foreclosures in the state," Melzer writes.

"At a minimum, what you are seeing is a fairly comprehensive effort by the Republican Party, a systemic broad-based effort to put up obstacles for people to vote," says Herbert. "When you are comprehensively challenging people to vote, your goals are two-fold: One is you are trying to knock people out from casting ballots; the other is to create a slowdown that will discourage others." This type of disruption would be expected in areas with high foreclosure rates, particularly the Detroit metropolitan, where one in every 176 households received foreclosure filings during the month of July, according to Melzer.

"You would think [the Macomb GOP] would think, 'This is going to look too heartless,'" says David Lagstein, head organizer for Michigan ACORN, which has registered 200,000 new voters statewide and provides foreclosure-avoidance assistance.

"The Republican-led state Senate has not moved on the anti-predatory lending bill for over a year and yet have time to prey on those who have fallen victim to foreclosure to suppress the vote," Lagstein says.

Michigan is not the only swing state at the risk of voter caging issues this election. At the urging of Project Vote and other voting rights advocates, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner recently issued a binding directive to all county election boards, instructing them that parts of the state's challenge laws in relation to residency challenges based only on returned mail were unconstitutional. It is unclear, however, whether Brunner's directive will prevent partisans from filing frivolous challenges anyway, which--however baseless--could have a chilling effect on voter turnout. And the Michigan Messenger reports that Franklin County, Ohio director of elections Doug Preisse and the chair of the local GOP have said they do not rule out challenging voters before the election due to foreclosure-related address issues.

In Project Vote's statement, Teresa James says "The GOP's plan is a cynical partisan attempt to suppress the vote of  thousands of low-income and African-American voters, a replay of the 2004 threats of mass challenges...In America you get to vote even if you're behind on your bills. All Americans--particularly those members of the community hit hardest by the economic crisis--deserve a voice and a vote on Election Day."

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"Voter Caging." Project Vote.

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