What 83 year-old William Sidwell of Queen City, Missouri found in his mailbox last week scared him. It was a letter from the Republican National Committee, but it seemed to bear grave news: "Our records show that you registered as a member of our Party in Schuyler County, MO," the letter said. "But a recent audit of your Party affiliation turned up some irregularities
Audit? Irregularities? Was he in trouble? Were they threatening him? Sidwell went immediately to his ask his son, Dennis, a licensed public accountant, for advice. You can see the letter, and the accompanying "Voter Registration Verification and Audit Form," right here
. Particularly puzzling to the both of them, Dennis told me, is that his father is a life-long Democrat.
The letter, it turns out, is just a misleading pitch for a contribution to the RNC -- one of the "irregularities" cited in the letter is that "I cannot find a record of you taking a single action in support of the Republican Party -- not locally, not nationally!
" A contribution, the letter suggests, would help set the record straight.
The letter is signed by Bill Steiner, the director of the RNC's Office of Strategic Information, a title Steiner assumed at the end of July. His responsibilities "include managing the RNCâs national voter file and Voter Vault, the committeeâs highly touted micro-targeting operation," Roll Call
reported last month. And indeed, the voter "audit" requests detailed information
about the voter's voting history and current opinions on the 2008 presidential race.
It's unclear how many similar letters (tens of thousands? millions?) have been sent by the RNC. The RNC did not respond to our requests for comment.
The letter "appears to be in a gray area," David Becker, Director of People for the American Way's Democracy Campaign and a former voting rights attorney at the Justice Department, told me. "It could potentially run afoul of the law if it led an eligible voter to believe they're no longer eligible to vote." The letter, Becker said, "appears designed to give that mistaken impression."
Rick Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at Loyola Law School, agreed that the letter was potentially misleading but didn't think it raised serious legal issues: "It is true that some elderly people or others with limited experience might perceive the letter as some kind of official audit, complete with its statements about 'irregularities,'" he told me. "But I believe most people would view this for what it is: a ham-handed fundraising letter, of the type sent out by both political parties to rev up the base and get contributions."
Karen Finney, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, disagreed. "We have sent requests for people to renew their support for the party," Finney said, but they're "straightforward," and don't include "these kind of scare tactics." She said that the letter showed that the RNC is "stooping to a level of desperation to try and hold on to support and raise money."