This a fascinating, must-read backstory that is one of the many, really countless reasons hearing from TPM Readers has been such a treat and something I’ve profited from so much for almost 20 years. TPM Reader Joe Rieser, one-time General Counsel of the DNC, has a fascinating follow-up and addenda to the second installment in our 2018 Series on Voting Rights and Democracy …
I had been away on vacation when TPM’s August 16, 2018 article on voter fraud mythology was published and did not come across it until just recently. I was heavily involved with one of the episodes described in that article, namely the Republican efforts in Louisiana in 1986. In my world, we call it the Louisiana case. There is one significant piece of evidence that the authors of the article failed to mention with respect to that episode. I think it is worth bringing to your attention because of how strongly an admission by a Republican operative in an undeleted email underscored the Republicans’ racial focus in suppressing the vote.
At that time, I was the general counsel of the Democratic National Committee, which up through my tenure was filled by a partner in a Washington, DC law firm serving on a pro bono basis. (Many of my predecessors were quite illustrious. It would be a vast overstatement to say that I was.) In 1986, Louisiana had an open US Senate seat on the ballot because of Russell Long’s announcement that he would retire at the end of his term in January 1987. At that time, Louisiana also had an open primary, and if a candidate won a majority of the votes cast in the primary, there would not be any general election. The two principal contenders to fill Senator Long’s seat were Henson Moore (a Republican) and John Breaux (a Democrat). The Republicans initiated what the article refers to as a “caging” operation in connection with that primary (which was held in September) in order to try to steal a march on the D’s and avoid a runoff in the general election. The chair of the state Democratic Party caught wind of the plan and got an injunction in state court to restrain the effort, but there was not enough time left before the primary election to completely stop the Republican efforts. As a result, their efforts to use the non-forwardable post cards as a basis for challenging people’s eligibility to vote on primary election day created mass confusion at the polls. (There was even a rumor that Lindy Boggs, the widow of Hale Boggs, was prevented from voting, although I have never been sure whether that was true.)
When the DNC saw what had happened on primary election day in Louisiana (and in view of reports after the Louisiana primary by national news organizations that the Republicans planned similar efforts in other states on general election day), I was asked by the national party Chair (Paul Kirk) to initiate proceedings against the RNC in federal district court in Newark, New Jersey under the consent decree the DNC obtained there (as described in the article) in a proceeding against the RNC led by my predecessor in connection with the 1981 gubernatorial election in New Jersey. Through what we then called the DNC’s National Lawyers Council, David Boies ( a member of the Council) volunteered to run the case. And run like the wind with it he did, quickly filing a complaint seeking monetary damages, a motion to show cause why the RNC should not be held in contempt for violating the consent decree, and various discovery requests. The RNC produced documents in response to the discovery requests on Columbus Day. In those documents, we learned that the RNC had mailed the non-forwardable cards only to black voters. It was able to do so because Louisiana was a Voting Rights Act state and, therefore, was required to note the race of the voters on the voter registration lists, which identification was used to compile a list of voters to which the cards would be sent.
The documents also had another startling item, namely an e-mail sent by a Republican operative in Louisiana to her superior at the RNC in Washington describing what she had been doing. The background to this was that the person in Louisiana who had been in charge of the project took ill. As a result, a staffer at RNC headquarters in Washington was detailed to go the Louisiana to pinch-hit. That staffer sent the e-mail to her superior detailing what she had been doing and the status of the project. At the end of her e-mail she said the following (although it has been more than 30 years, our effort in response to the Republican project was so intense and all-consuming over such a short period of time that my memory of it is still so vivid that I am confident that it is correct): “[t]his should keep the black vote down considerably.”
Needless to say, the Republicans moved to put that document under seal, and they were successful initially. The parties then entered into a Stipulation of Dismissal pursuant to which the RNC promised to go forth and sin no more. That is where things stood for a day or two, until we learned that a Republican was reported to be doing something similar in Michigan. We moved to re-open the proceeding and for permission to take additional discovery. We were allowed a day of discovery and then proceeded to a hearing in open court on Friday, October 24, 1986. At that hearing, the RNC staffer’s e-mail, with its damning admission, was admitted into evidence. It became the lead story on all 3 broadcast networks on the evening news that evening. I vividly remember Dan Rather reporting that when the RNC was asked for a comment, the comment was: “it [the e-mail] is not as bad as it sounds.” (I no longer have my files on this case, so I cannot provide a copy of the e-mail. But the hearing and the e-mail were widely covered by print and broadcast media. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans was particularly energetic in reporting on the story. So I imagine it can be found somewhere.)
The point is that the e-mail stated very clearly what the purpose of the effort was — to keep the black vote down considerably. And as far as I can tell, Republican efforts since then — including voter ID requirements — have been prompted by a similar motive. I hope TPM, or the authors of the August 16, 2018 article, can find a way to put the e-mail’s damning admission to good use as it, or they, continue their reporting on this issue.
As a postscript, I should add that Mr. Moore failed to win a majority in the primary and lost to Mr. Breaux in the general election.
ed.note: I made an error today in a hasty edit of this note from Mr. Rieser. A number of readers pointed out that 1986 long predated the common use of email. Thus this must be an error. Assuming that was the case I edited the email to reflect that it was not a e-mail but rather a memo, the word a number of contemporaneous reports used to refer to it. I included an editor’s note explaining the change.
This assumption was wrong. It was referred to as a ‘memo’ in a number of contemporaneous press reports. But it was in fact an email. We can see that in this October 25th, 1986 artice in the Times-Picayune, courtesy of TPM Reader DC.
And you can see the blow-up of the sidebar of the email here.
As you can see by the taxonomy of the header, it is in fact an email, though it appears to have been an internal email within the RNC organization. It’s true that email didn’t become ubiquitous in our society until the early to middle 1990s. But it actually has a pre-history that goes back not only into the 80s but actually significantly earlier. The relevant point for these purposes is that not only were our readers wrong; more importantly, I was wrong. Indeed, in ‘correcting’ the original copy from “e-mail” to “memo” – which I noted in a now-deleted editor’s note – I actually introduced a grammatical error! Mr. Rieser was very generous allowing me to publish his recollection and account. So my apologies to him for the goof and any consternation it caused.