The New Black Panther Party was there, on cue. Standing outside of the 4th precinct in Philadelphia’s 14th ward, there was Jerry Jackson, a member of the leather-loving fringe group who’d signed up to be a poll watcher for the Nov. 6 election.
Fox News was there, too. In 2008, the network spent hours playing and replaying a video of two Panthers glaring at a conservative poll-watcher as he filmed them. This year the network sent its own reporter, who tried to interview Jackson. “Have you been around a lot today? What’s your purpose of being here?” He said nothing. The network switched to video of the 35th ward, where people waiting in a school to vote were walking past a mural of the president, even after Republicans sued to get it covered up. “This remained untouched for hours as people voted!” said reporter Eric Shawn.
Hours later, the network called Pennsylvania for Barack Obama. Days later, the network is still combing for evidence that Philadelphia—and by extension, the whole state—was stolen through Democratic chicanery. It was “mathematically impossible,” according to Sean Hannity, that 59 Philadelphia precincts had registered no votes for Mitt Romney. “There is cheating going on in our elections!” The story and the sentiment spread beyond Fox. Defeated Alaska U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller tweeted about the precinct story, and grumbled that it “sounds like western Alaska, circa 2010.”
None of this comes as a surprise to me. Four years ago, when Barack Obama won the largest electoral mandate in a generation, I watched the embryonic “birther” movement try to overturn the results in court. It was easy to find Republicans who thought ACORN-led fraud rigged the election for Obama—52 percent of them, according to a Public Policy Polling survey.
The 59 Precincts Theory is a natural, paranoid extension of this. In Wisconsin, Mitt Romney’s state co-chair asserts that voter ID could have changed the result, stoking fears of “all sorts of different precincts and all sorts of same-day registrations.” In Ohio, conservative bloggers are raising questions about Cleveland precincts that cast no Romney votes. In Pennsylvania, when Republican House Leader Mike Turzai said voter ID would “allow Mitt Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” he was implying that fraudulent votes had made up the old Democratic margins.
There is a common thread: a total lack of evidence that any fraud occurred. Let’s start in Cleveland, where bloggers have been writing about more than 100 precincts where Obama won at least 99 percent of the vote and 16 precincts where Mitt Romney won no votes at all. “How in the world did this happen?” asked an anonymous author at YoloHub. “Third world dictators don’t even get 99 percent of the vote.”
But black Democrats do, sometimes, get 99 percent or more of the vote in black precincts. In 2008, Obama actually pitched a shutout in 18 Cuyahoga County precincts. And you would expect him to. In 2008, Obama won 97 percent of the black vote in Ohio. In 2012, it was 96 percent. In Pennsylvania this year, he won 93 percent of the black vote and 80 percent of the Hispanic vote. This was why Obama could clean up in precincts that are almost entirely black or Hispanic.
There are places where Obama won less than 10 percent of the vote. In King County, Texas, he won exactly five votes to Romney’s 135. But nowhere was Obama’s loss among white voters as stark as Romney’s loss among urban blacks.
Why process that information and assume—immediately—that the cause was fraud? Republicans made no serious effort to peel urban black votes away from the Democrats. In Pennsylvania, Romney’s final (and only) ad buy was an appeal to voters worried about coal jobs, something literally zero Philadelphia black voters might care about.
When the Obama campaign responded to that ad buy, it targeted Philly with a more specific ad: “537 votes.” In it, a series of grim images replayed the 2000 election and the Florida count. In one frame, a sea of black protesters—some with NAACP gear—held “Count Every Vote” signs. I saw this ad in south Florida, too. It was used in places with lots of potential black voters, and lots of anger at voting restrictions that had been passed by Republicans and held up in court.
Conservatives have an urban problem, and some in the party have been sweating it for years. They don’t take urbanites—especially black urbanites—seriously enough to win their votes. They view those votes as impediments to be overcome by ballots from soccer moms and angry coal miners. In Oshkosh, Wisc., a few months before the vote, I saw a charticle in a Republican campaign office that listed the poorest cities in America and the last time that they’d elected GOP mayors. It was grim, but not as grim as the illustration that accompanied it: Barack Obama waving in front of a burning “Mad Max” landscape. When you’re this dismissive of a voting bloc, you can’t understand why it evades you.
You’re also going to get targeted or fleeced by bogus fraud stories. In Florida, Rep. Allen West has refused to concede after one county re-counted three days of early votes and found a considerable error on West’s behalf. The West campaign immediately cried fraud. “What originally looked like dangerous incompetence,” said West’s campaign manager, “is looking more and more like a willful attempt to steal an election.” A conservative watchdog alleged that voter turnout in the county, which broke against West, was 150 percent. Fundraising letters went out, capitalizing on the outrage. Only later did the watchdog admit that the county, sort of stupidly, counted each page of a ballot as a “vote.” Turnout was only around 75 percent.
Yesterday, as I checked into the flimsy “fraud” stories, I got an email from TheTeaParty.net. This is one of the more hard-to-classify groups that take the name of the taxpayer movement. I haven’t seen it in action in elections or local government, but I’ve seen it sponsor tables at conferences. Now, it was promising—without really saying how—that it would get to the bottom of the 59 Precinct Theory.
“Stand with us as we work to demand a full recount of ALL votes for the 2012 election,” read the letter. “In this fight, we are up against a well funded progressive, far left machine funded by the likes of George Soros. Any amount that you can contribute, whether $5 or $500 or anything above or in between, will assist us in the fight for the integrity of elections in this country!”
For a certain type of donor, giving money to that cause will make more sense than wandering into Cleveland or Philly and asking a few actual black voters why they like Barack Obama.