Cage Match: Did Griffin Try to Disenfranchise African-American Voters in 2004?

For years, Tim Griffin, the former aide to Karl Rove who’s been at the center of the U.S. attorney controversy, has been dogged by allegations that he was a part of a 2004 scheme to block African-Americans in Florida from voting.

As Greg Palast first reported for the BBC, an August, 2004 email sent to a number of Republican National Committee operatives contained a spreadsheet of the names and addresses of more than 1,800 voters in Duval County, Florida, a mostly white county that includes the city of Jacksonville. Palast reported that the addresses were located in mostly black neighborhoods, and his story, followed by others posted this year on his website and the Brad Blog, alleged that the list was compiled in order to challenge African-American voters at the polls. We sought to test that conclusion through our own analysis of the data.

The result? Our comparative analysis of the spreadsheet with Duval County voter rolls shows that most names were of African-Americans. (For more on the analysis, see below.) Such a finding, voting rights experts told me, strengthened allegations that Griffin, working for the Republican National Committee, was involved in an effort to target African-American voters. “It is difficult to explain other than an effort to target Democrats and by extension, minority voters,” Toby Moore, a former political geographer with the Justice Department, said.

Michael McDonald, an Associate Professor at George Mason University and an expert on elections statistics, said that the chance that the list is randomly so different from the population is less than 1 in 10,000. It is illegal to target voters based on their race under the Voting Rights Act. Griffin resigned earlier this month as the U.S. attorney for Little Rock after a six-month stint.The allegations stem from two emails sent to and from Griffin in August of 2004, when he was working as the Research Director for the Republican National Committee. The subject line of the emails was “caging” and attached was a spreadsheet with the names and addresses of 1,835 voters in Duval County. A woman working for the Republican Party of Florida seems to have prepared the spreadsheet, which she sent to Griffin and other RNC researchers, as well as Brett Doster, the executive director of the Bush-Cheney Florida 2004 re-election campaign. You can see the emails here and the spreadsheet here (Excel file).

The emails came to light because they were mistakenly sent to bdoster@georgewbush.org instead of at the correct domain, georgewbush.com, which is operated by the RNC. John Wooden, who owns and operates the parody site georgewbush.org, turned over the emails to Greg Palast of the BBC. Wooden told me that no one has challenged the authenticity of the emails.

In October of that year, Palast reported that the emails contained “names and addresses of voters in predominantly black and traditionally Democrat areas of Jacksonville, Florida.” In response to Palast’s questions about the list, a spokesperson for the Florida GOP explained that it was “a listing of returned mail that came from a mailing that the Republican National Committee sent to new registrants in Duval County in Florida, encouraging newly registered Republicans, Democrats and Independents to vote Republican.”

Democrats alleged that the list was generated to challenge voters on Election Day. It was a tactic Republicans had tried before – generating such a list by sending mail stamped “do not forward” to voters. Voters might then be challenged at the polls based on their residency.

The tactic has become known as “vote caging” as a result of Palast’s story. The term “caging” is actually, as Griffin has argued in his defense, a direct marketing term that simply describes the processing of returns from a mailing. (Mal Warwick, who’s worked as a direct mail consultant since 1979, said that the term derives from old postal “cages,” the hundreds of cubby holes that fronted postal desks for sorting. Those who sorted the mail were called “cagers.”) None of the six voting rights experts consulted on this story had otherwise heard or seen the term used to describe the generation of challenge lists – though all six said that Republicans had used such a tactic repeatedly over the past twenty-five years. Such efforts, said Chandler Davidson, Professor Emeritus at Rice University and an expert on the history of voter suppression, have traditionally gone under the banner of “ballot security” initiatives.

In response to Palast’s story, the Republican spokeswoman denied in a statement that the list had been generated in order to challenge voters. But she went on to argue that Jacksonville “has been affected by massive fraud efforts this year as a result of the work of ACORN, a third party organization supporting the Kerry campaign and the Democrats.”

Joe Rich, who was chief of the voting rights section in the Civil Rights Division at the time, said that in response to Palast’s piece, a Justice Department lawyer was dispatched to speak to Republican Party officials and Florida and Duval County elections officials. An agreement resulted, Rich said, that Republicans would not challenge voters at the polls based on such a list. Rich said he didn’t recall hearing after the election that any such challenges had occurred.

In order to determine whether the “caging” list was composed disproportionately of African-Americans, TPMmuckraker compared the names with the 2007 voter rolls from Duval County. We were able to match 1,159 of the 1,835 names (see the matches here).

Here are the results:

As you can see, most of those on the list were Democrats and most of those were African-American. 57.8% of Duval County voters voted for Bush in the 2004 election. On the other hand, while the list is composed disproportionately of African-Americans, our analysis of the zip codes showed that the mailing was not sent exclusively to predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

Prof. McDonald, who noted the vanishingly low chance of these results being a random sample, observed that there might be a number of alternate explanations for the racial skew. If, for example, the list was generated in response to a mailing to new registrants as Republicans have argued, the skew might result from a disproportionate number of those new registrants being African-American Democrats. The results, he said, do not provide “a smoking gun” of a Republican attempt at voter suppression.

That said, Griffin’s defense against Palast’s allegations have tended to be off point. Speaking two weeks ago, Griffin focused on the term “caging,” saying that it’s simply a direct mail term. “I didn’t cage votes, I didn’t cage mail, I didn’t cage animals,” he added. The allegations that he was involved in voter suppression, he said, were “ridiculous” and “so untrue” that he couldn’t even respond to a question about them:

But as Greg Gordon of McClatchy reported last weekend, the Republican tactic of generating challenge lists is an old one, one they even used in 2004 in Ohio. In 1982, a federal judge in New Jersey issued a consent decree banning the targeting of racial minorities with challenge lists; Democrats have since alleged numerous times that Republicans have broken that decree. The allegation, then, is far from “ridiculous.” And Griffin still hasn’t provided an explanation as to why he, then the RNC’s head of opposition research, was copied on the email. If the “caging” list was really nothing more than a catalogue of returned mail, why were senior Republican officials concerning themselves with such clerical matters?

Emails released as part of the U.S. attorney firings investigation show that Griffin and Department officials remained aware of the allegations – allegations which Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) made clear would be a factor were Griffin nominated for the U.S. attorney spot.

Even with Griffin’s resignation, the controversy continues. Two weeks ago, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) wrote the Justice Department’s inspector general and head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, the two offices conducting a wide-ranging investigation of the U.S. attorney firings and other politicization at the Department, to ask that they probe the allegations.

Will Thomas contributed reporting to this story, and Tanvir Vahora and Zachary Fryer-Biggs provided research.

Update: Here’s a similar analysis of the “caging” data by Kos diarist drational at ePluribus Media.

Update: Do Democratic Party officials do anything similar? In response to a question about whether Dem officials (particularly opposition researchers) ever email around lists of newly registered voters who’ve responded to mailings, DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney said “absolutely not.” Finney added:

“The list of tools that the GOP has used to try and enhance their electoral prospects at the expense of our right to vote reads like a shameful litany from past eras: restricting access to voter registration, improper attempts to purge voter lists, the use of voting machines that leave no verifiable audit trails, criminal phone jamming schemes, discriminatory voter ID laws, inconsistently administered elections, and now we find out, politicizing the Department of Justice.”

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