WASHINGTON—Accusations about voter fraud seemed to fly from every direction in Missouri before last fall's elections. State and national Republicans leaders fretted that dead people might vote or that some live people might vote more than once.
The threat to the integrity of the election was seen as so grave that Bradley Schlozman, the acting chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and later the U.S. attorney in Kansas City, twice wielded the power of the federal government to try to protect the balloting. The Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly also stepped into action.
Now, six months after freshman Missouri Sen. Jim Talent's defeat handed Democrats control of the U.S. Senate, disclosures in the wake of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys show that that Republican campaign to protect the balloting was not as it appeared. No significant voter fraud was ever proved.
The preoccupation with ballot fraud in Missouri was part of a wider national effort that critics charge was aimed at protecting the Republican majority in Congress by dampening Democratic turnout. That effort included stiffer voter-identification requirements, wholesale purges of names from lists of registered voters and tight policing of liberal get-out-the-vote drives.
Bush administration officials deny those claims. But they've gotten traction in recent weeks because three of the U.S. attorneys ousted by the Justice Department charge that they lost their jobs because they failed to prove Republican allegations of voter fraud. They say their inquiries found little evidence to support the claims.
Few have endorsed the strategy of pursuing allegations of voter fraud with more enthusiasm than White House political guru Karl Rove. And nowhere has the plan been more apparent than in Missouri.
Before last fall's election:
_Schlozman, while he was acting civil rights chief, authorized a suit accusing the state of failing to eliminate legions of ineligible people from lists of registered voters. A federal judge tossed out the suit this April 13, saying Democratic Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan couldn't police local registration rolls and noting that the government had produced no evidence of fraud.
_The Missouri General Assembly—with the White House's help—narrowly passed a law requiring voters to show photo identification cards, which Carnahan estimated would disenfranchise 200,000 voters. The state Supreme Court voided the law as unconstitutional before the election.
_Two weeks before the election, the St. Louis Board of Elections sent letters threatening to disqualify 5,000 newly registered minority voters if they failed to verify their identities promptly, a move—instigated by a Republican appointee—that may have violated federal law. After an outcry, the board rescinded the threat.
_Five days before the election, Schlozman, then interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, announced indictments of four voter-registration workers for a Democratic-leaning group on charges of submitting phony applications, despite a Justice Department policy discouraging such action close to an election.
_In an interview with conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt a couple of days before the election, Rove said he'd just visited Missouri and had met with Republican strategists who "are well aware of" the threat of voter fraud. He said the party had "a large number of lawyers that are standing by, trained and ready to intervene" to keep the election clean.
Missouri Republicans have railed about alleged voter fraud ever since President Bush narrowly won the White House in the chaotic 2000 election and Missouri Republican Sen. John Ashcroft lost to a dead man, the late Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, whose name stayed on the ballot weeks after he died in a plane crash.
Joining the push to contain "voter fraud" were Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., who charged that votes by dogs and dead people had defeated Ashcroft, Missouri Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, whose stinging allegations of fraud were later debunked, and St. Louis lawyer Mark "Thor" Hearne, national counsel to Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, who set up a nonprofit group to publicize allegations of voter fraud.
Many Democrats contend that the efforts amount to a voter-suppression campaign.
"The real problem has never been vote fraud," said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo. "It's access to the polls. In the last 50 years, no one in Missouri has been prosecuted for impersonating someone else at the polls. But thousands of eligible voters have been denied their constitutional rights. . . . It's sickening."
However, Jessica Robinson, a spokeswoman for Blunt, said a report he'd authored in 2001 as secretary of state "documented credible instances of fraud." She said Blunt wanted the legislature to take another shot at passing a photo ID bill as "a reasonable step . . . to help stamp out" such abuse.
The Republican-dominated legislature is considering the bill again this year, along with a resolution asking voters to pass a constitutional amendment so the measure can withstand court challenges.
In a separate assessment of alleged voter fraud in Missouri, Lorraine Minnite, a Barnard College professor, found scant evidence of it. The study was undertaken for the nonpartisan policy-research group Demos, which despite its name isn't affiliated with the Democratic Party.
Minnite, who's writing a book on the issue of voter fraud, said successful drives to register poor people and minorities in recent years had threatened to "tip the balance of power" to Democrats, so it was understandable that the Republican Party would seek restrictions that "disproportionately hinder the opposition."
It's difficult to capture the emotional debate over the issue of voter fraud in Missouri without considering the Election Day tumult in St. Louis on Nov. 7, 2000. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of voters were turned away because their names weren't on official lists, and many of them converged on the city's election board seeking assistance.
Responding to the bedlam, Democrats won an emergency court order that kept some polls open beyond their scheduled 7 p.m. closings. That outraged Republicans, and Hearne, the Bush campaign lawyer, in turn won an emergency appeals-court ruling that shut the polls within an hour.
In the ensuing days, Bond blamed Ashcroft's defeat on "a criminal enterprise."
The following summer, then-Secretary of State Blunt alleged in a 47-page investigative report that the use of affidavits to allow more than 1,000 "improper ballots . . . compels the conclusion that there was in St. Louis an organized and successful effort to generate improper votes in large numbers."
But an investigation by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, launched before Ashcroft settled in as U.S. attorney general in 2001, found the reverse. In a 2002 court settlement with the department's Voting Rights Section, St. Louis election officials acknowledged that they'd improperly purged some 50,000 names from voter lists before the 2000 elections and had failed as required by federal law to notify those people properly that they'd been placed on inactive status. No one knows how many eligible voters were denied their right to cast ballots.
Missouri's Rep. Clay charged in a recent interview that Blunt's report was an attempt "to violate the voting rights of certain Missourians."
Things didn't heat up again until 2005, when Schlozman authorized a Justice Department suit naming the newly elected Missouri secretary of state—the daughter of the late governor—as the defendant. It alleged that her office had failed to make a "reasonable effort" to remove ineligible people from local voter-registration rolls.
A federal judge dismissed the suit last month, saying the government had provided no evidence of fraud.
Speaking on behalf of Schlozman, who's now with the Justice Department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, agency spokesman Dean Boyd said: "We are disappointed with the court ruling."
Separately, Hearne helped establish the nonprofit Center for American Voting Rights in February 2005, which issued lengthy reports alleging voter fraud in states across the country, including Missouri. One director of the supposedly nonpartisan group was Brian Lunde, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee who switched his allegiance in 2000 and headed Democrats for Bush in 2004.
Barnard's Minnite said the center's summary on Missouri consisted of "a litany of overblown allegations of fraud appearing in newspapers, most of which turn out to be minor problems or no problem at all."
Republican state Sen. Delbert Scott of Lowry, Mo., chief sponsor of the photo-ID bill last year, said Hearne had helped draft it and served as a key adviser.
Hearne didn't respond to several requests for comment. His organization closed down its Internet site in March and has disappeared from view.
Last fall, with Missouri's new voter-ID law thrown out by the court, allegations of fraud arose over registration drives among Democratic-leaning minorities in St. Louis and Kansas City by the Democratic-leaning Association of Community Organizations for Reform (ACORN).
Brian Mellor, a Boston lawyer for ACORN, said many of the accusations surrounded the submission of duplicate or multiple registration forms for the same voters. Such duplication would be caught by election officials and wouldn't enable anyone to vote twice, he said.
But officials at St. Louis' Board of Elections took the unusual step of alerting the FBI to those and other irregularities, Mellor said, and he wound up turning over copies of 40,000 St. Louis-area registration forms to bureau agents.
Facing the FBI scrutiny, Mellor said, ACORN reviewed its forms in Kansas City and found several with similar handwriting, suggesting that they were bogus. He said the group turned over evidence involving four workers to a county prosecutor in mid-October.
That same month, at the initiative of a Republican appointee, the St. Louis Board of Elections sent letters warning 5,000 people who'd registered through ACORN that their voting status was in question. They were given one week to return signed copies of the letter and confirm personal identifying information or they'd lose their registration status.
ACORN attorneys charged that the notice "appears to be an unlawful attempt to suppress and intimidate voters of color." The board sent another mailing withdrawing the threat.
Meanwhile, the evidence against the four ACORN workers ended up with the FBI.
Five days before the election, U.S. Attorney Schlozman got another voter-fraud headline, announcing the indictments of the four workers. The indictments charged that six applications that ACORN had submitted were fraudulent.
"ACORN abhors fraud," Mellor said. He said the timing of the indictments seemed to be aimed at hurting Democrats.
Justice Department spokesman Boyd said the policy that prosecutors "refrain from any conduct which has the possibility of affecting the election" didn't bar pre-election indictments and was intended to ensure that investigators didn't intimidate voters during an election.
But Joseph Rich, who headed the department's Voting Rights Section from 1999 to 2005, said the timing of the indictments "flies in the face of long-standing policy. . . . There was no need to bring cases on the eve of the election."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Margaret Talev contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007