The Fraud That Failed

How the GOP’s voter suppression laws may have inadvertently cost them Florida.

Bishop Victor Curry of Miami's New Birth Baptist church speaks in his office.

Bishop Victor Curry of Miami’s New Birth Baptist church has led early-vote efforts in Florida

Photo by David Weigel.

MIAMI—Tomorrow, as the sun rises, Bishop Victor Curry of New Birth Baptist Church will wake up and race to the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown. At 7 a.m., he will help lead south Florida’s first early-vote rally. As soon as he can, he will hotfoot it to the South Dade Regional Library, 30-odd minutes away, for the day’s second early-vote rally. He will find some way to flee in time to make the start of the EBA Higher Education Awareness and Dropout Prevention Initiative in Miami Gardens, the heart of black south Florida, and take the stage next to Rev. Al Sharpton. Then back on the road, north to Broward County.

The plan, coordinated by at least 150 black pastors, is called “Operation Lemonade.” On Wednesday, I visited New Birth, parking near the van that promotes his radio talk show, and finding Curry’s office in the sprawling, 10-year-old gated complex. Outside the chapel, there’s a signed message from President Obama congratulating Curry on the church’s anniversary. Inside Curry’s office, there are multiple pictures commemorating his meetings with Sharpton and with Bill Clinton, next to his lifetime membership plaque from the NAACP, and a picture from election night 2008. That year, churches got two whole weeks to turn out the early vote. This year they get one.

“When the Republicans in the state passed the new voting laws, we discovered that they took away that Sunday right before the election,” says Curry. “What we decided to do was view that as them giving us a lemon. We can be sour, we can moan and groan about it, or we can do something. We can make lemonade. The first thrust is this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and then we’re going to encourage people the entire next week.”

Democrats are proud to say it: If they win this election, it’ll be because a superior ground game turned out their base and overcame a Mitt Romney comeback. In Florida, they have twice as many campaign offices as Romney-Ryan. “With absentee ballot requests, usually the Republicans have a pretty significant advantage on us,” says Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chairwoman who represents a liberal slice of the Miami sprawl. “We’ve cut the advantage by 85 percent.” This is true.

And they had to battle to get there. From the moment Republicans took office in 2011, controlling gubernatorial and election offices in swing states, they started tightening voting laws. In Pennsylvania, the state passed its first-ever requirement for voter ID at the polls. In Ohio, the state attempted to eliminate early-voting days for anyone not serving in the military. In Florida, it took only two months to pass a comprehensive bill that scaled back early-voting days, prevented voters from changing their addresses when they got to the polls, and started a 48-hour countdown that required voter-registration campaigns to turn in their forms within two days or pay fines—a de jure response to ACORN paranoia. That bill was filed on March 7 and become law two months later.

The Florida law became infamous. After the League of Women Voters gave up on registering voters, The Daily Show sent a reporter down to make fun of the 48-hour rule. According to a summer report by the Third Way think tank, Democrats lost 246,934 Florida voters after November 2008, and Republicans had lost only 71,829. But after November 2011, when the 48-hour law went into effect, Democrats lost 8,044 registrants; Republicans gained 18,303.

And then the Democrats got the rules reversed. In June, a Florida court struck down the 48-hour rule. In September, the state gave up on an error-filled purge of voter registrations. October was a sloppy rout for voter restrictions, as the Pennsylvania and Ohio laws were halted. “We won in court just when we were ramping up registration,” says Wasserman Schultz. “In Florida, we have 520,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. If you look at the registration of Hispanic voters, since November of 2008, 195,000 Hispanic voters have registered as Democrats or independents.”

And they still have the early-voting days—less of them, but they have them. In the meantime, they have made the “voter suppression” efforts infamous among their base voters. In the area around Curry’s church, I find black voters who were completely aware of the laws and could recite the ways the state had tried to block their votes. “My son had an incident eight years ago,” says Valerie Gardner, a real estate agent in the area, “and because of that he can’t vote. We went to vote and the state had never told him that he couldn’t.” So in response, she helped out Operation Lemonade as much as she could that morning before heading to a wedding.

“I think that this whole thing is gonna backfire on ’em,” says Curry. “If they had left it alone, African-Americans may have been less excited about this election than they were about 2008.” Take the fear of disenfranchisement away and they might have been skittish about voting for a president who endorses gay marriage. In other states, like Maryland and Washington, there are campaigns directed at black voters that straddle the line between patronizing and true. But in Florida, where the Obama campaign is running an ad to remind people of the 2000 election, it doesn’t play. “Just because he says he’s for gay marriage doesn’t mean he’s going to implement it,” says Rev. Gary McCleod of the nearby Mount Sinai church. “That doesn’t concern people.”

I leave Miami and drive to West Palm Beach. The South Florida Tea Party keeps its office on Clematis Street, and the guest tonight is from the Texas-based poll-watching conservative coalition True the Vote. Adryana Boyne became an American citizen by marriage in 1992, and cast her first presidential vote for George H.W. Bush. This year, at the Republican National Convention, Craig Romney invited her to sit near the family for Mitt’s nomination speech. South Florida Tea Party chairman Everett Wilkinson apologizes to her, because he’d wanted to do more Tea Party outreach to Hispanic voters for months, “and we’re getting a late start.” Boyne nods sadly, then rallies to record a 10-minute video explaining to Hispanic voters that the Democrats are lying to them when they talk about restrictions.

“We have people, the snowbirds, who live in two states, and they’re voting twice,” she says. “We know what happened a few years ago with ACORN. Remember? That’s still going strong. People say: Just go register anyone. Do you have a driver’s license? You can register to vote. That’s not true. You have to be a citizen of the United States.”

After the video is done, I join Wilkinson, Boyne, and Boyne’s friend Juan Fiol for a very late dinner. Fiol, who’s been working for Wasserman Schultz’s opponent Karen Harrington, is even more frustrated than Boyne. Democrats, he says, are pandering to Hispanics, scaring them away from Republicans, claiming that there’s no such thing as fraud. “Early voting enables fraud,” he says. “There’s a certain number of fraudsters. Let’s say there’s 100. They go out the first day, they commit 100 frauds. OK? But let’s say it’s seven days. It becomes 700 frauds. It becomes 14 days, and it’s 1,400 frauds. In Ohio, it’s open for a month! C’mon, man!”

Four years ago, Republicans were saying the same thing. John McCain used precious time in his final debate with Barack Obama to attack ACORN—its dodgy registration reforms were a “threat to democracy.” McCain didn’t win, but the effect was to make Republicans as angry and paranoid about the threat to their votes as Democrats ever were. One poll, taken a year after Obama won, found that 52 percent of Republicans credited it to ACORN fraud.

The new voter ID/voter-registration laws were supposed to fix that. In the process, they helped Democrats convince their wavering base that their ballots were in danger. They’ve absorbed the lesson even as the laws loosened up. “The law in Florida was a kneejerk reaction,” says Wilkinson. “It ended up deterring voter registration. We, as an organization, weren’t able to overcome that.” But the Democrats may have overcome it, and that success just might rescue them.