Republican officials, who have used hysteria about alleged voter fraud as an excuse to support measures that disproportionately block Democratic voters, are furiously trying to distance themselves from a growing number of GOP voter registration drives that either submitted false applications or threw away authentic ones.
The incidents might have been overlooked if not for the GOP's clamorous campaign to restrict registration drives, purge voter rolls, roll back early voting, and pass voter ID laws that opponents point out have the effect of depressing the vote among minorities, the poor and other generally Democratic constituencies.
As one Southern California alt-weekly put it, it's turning into a story of "The Wolf Who Cried Wolf."
The latest drama began to unfold on Oct. 17, when the manager of a Tuesday Morning discount store in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley saw a man throwing a garbage bag into the store's private dumpster. Inside the bag was a file folder containing eight completed Virginia voter registration forms.
The manager described the man to Rockingham County sheriff's deputies, who the following day arrested Colin Small, 23, a voter registration drive contractor for the Virginia GOP -- and charged him with eight felonies and five misdemeanors related to the destruction and disclosure of the applications and obstruction of justice.
A few weeks earlier, the GOP had been under fire following reports of suspicious registration applications that had been submitted in 10 Florida counties by a company run by Nathan Sproul, a Republican operative who has long been trailed by allegations of voter fraud. The Republican Party paid Sproul's company, Strategic Allied Consulting, about $3 million this year for registration drives in five swing states: Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, and Virginia.
In Palm Beach County, Fla., alone, about 100 questionable voter registrations were flagged, more than half of which involved changing a voter’s party affiliation to Republican or independent. Discrepancies were also found in North Carolina.
And a viral video uploaded to YouTube in late September showed a young woman who worked for Strategic Allied Consulting registering voters in Colorado and admitting that she was only looking for Republicans. "Well, I'm actually trying to register people for a particular party. Because we're out here in support of Romney, actually," the woman said.
Given Sproul's history, it could hardly have come as a surprise to his GOP employers that his canvassers would generate spurious applications.
And yet, because every bit of the process of voting has now become so politically supercharged, once the allegations of voter registration fraud became public, the Republican National Committee and its state chapters quickly severed their ties with Sproul.
"We've made it clear we're not doing business with these guys anymore," Sean Spicer, the RNC communications director, told Michael Isikoff of NBC News. "We've come out pretty strong against this kind of stuff -- and we have zero tolerance for this."
As for Small, who was first hired by Sproul's group, the RNC this week simultaneously denied he was working directly for them and announced that he'd been fired.
On Friday, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told HuffPost's Amanda Terkel: "If it's true, the guy should be punished. He was fired, and he should have been fired. There's no tolerance for this stuff."
Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Pat Mullins released a statement saying Small's actions were "a direct contradiction of both his training and explicit instructions given to him."
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, by contrast, issued her own statement, calling Small's arrest just another example of "a concerted effort by the RNC and its allies to win the game by rigging it altogether."
And three Democratic congressmen from Virginia on Tuesday sent a letter to the Justice Department requesting "a multi-state investigation to determine if a pattern of voting registration irregularities related to Strategic Allied Consulting are connected and constitute a broader conspiracy of voter registration fraud."
The frequency of allegations "would seem to suggest something more than the isolated acts of 'a few bad apples,'" they wrote.
Voter registration fraud is different, way more common and considerably less threatening to democracy than actual voter fraud. Registering Mickey Mouse to vote is easy, and a far cry from actually casting a fraudulent ballot.
The main reason voter registration fraud is so common is that canvassers are sometimes rewarded based on how many applications they submit -- which can incentivize padding. That's what happened fairly frequently with Acorn, the community group that Republicans demonized as a fraud factory after it successfully registered over a million mostly inner-city residents before the 2008 election -- with some imaginary and dead people mixed in.
Priebus himself recently cited the example of Acorn to support his argument that "Democrats know they benefit from election fraud."
But Acorn, unlike Strategic Allied Consulting, actually self-reported its canvassers' suspicious applications -- which it was legally obligated to submit nonetheless. The ones from Sproul's groups, on the other hand, were spotted by election officials.
And the Colorado video, combined with the fact that the suspicious Palm Beach applications featured so many party switches, suggest that Sproul's group might have added a new wrinkle: rewarding its canvassers for applications from Republicans or independents, but not from Democrats.
What none of that explains, however, is what might have motivated Small -- who, after all, didn't submit fraudulent applications; he's charged with throwing out legitimate ones.
Because Virginia doesn't register people by party, "it's not possible to tell a party affiliation just by looking at the voter registration form," said state board of elections spokeswoman Nikki Sheridan, ruling out one potential answer.
The eight applicants varied in age, and the rural area where they live is overwhelming white, ruling out two more.
So as it turns out, although county officials won't confirm it on the record, the most likely possibility may be that Small was throwing the applications away because he'd waited longer than the statutory 15 days after he collected them to turn them in, and was afraid of getting in trouble.
Virginia's guidelines for voter registration drives clearly state that failure to turn in completed applications within 15 days can lead to prosecution for a misdemeanor.
Small, although he was released from jail not long after his arrest, could not be reached for comment.
Sheridan, from the state board of elections, said that the eight applications found in the dumpster were processed by local officials that same day.
As it turned out, three of the applicants were already registered, and one was rejected on account of a felony conviction. But four of them will now be newly on the voter rolls in November.