Possible Arson and the Right's Texas Voter Suppression Effort

A mysterious fire last Friday destroys all of the voting machines in Harris County (Houston), Texas. Arson investigators have not yet issued an opinion. Meanwhile, a well-funded right-wing group emerges in Houston and begins raising unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud. A video on their website pictures only people of color when it talks of voter fraud. White people are shown talking patriotically about the need for a million vigilantes to suppress illegal votes.

In the video, an unidentified spokesman for "TrueTheVote" says, "If we lose Houston, we lose Texas. And guess what? If we lose Texas we lose the country." The former Mayor of Houston, Democrat Bill White, is running against secessionist Republican Gov. Rick Perry this year. White's counting on a big turnout in his home town. The fire and the voter suppression campaign guarantee a greatly diminished turnout.

TrueTheVote's video is well produced. Participants speak in calm and knowing tones, disguising the racist agenda behind their project. We don't yet know where the group's money comes from. But they have money.

As I've said before, right-wing voter suppression campaigns are the most under-reported political scandal of the last 50-100 years. But there's never been anything like the criminal destruction of all the voting machines in the nation's fourth largest city. You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect the machines in Houston were destroyed by an arsonist. Warehouses don't regularly and spontaneously combust at four in the morning, especially warehouses containing all the voting tools in a pivotal city in a pivotal election.

In other details, the suppression campaigns follow a familiar pattern: raise suspicions of widespread voter fraud. Accuse "others" of stealing elections from us (read: white people). Threaten would-be voters with criminal charges. Limit polling locations in poor and minority precincts. Distribute spurious "felon lists" that disenfranchise legal voters who happen to share a name with a felon. Staff phone banks that make election calls to minority and poor voters giving incorrect polling locations and dates. Dress up vigilantes in cop clothes to intimidate would-be voters.

Regular Huffington Post contributor Greg Mitchell wrote one of the best accounts of such a suppression and intimidation campaign in his book about the 1934 California governor's race, The Campaign of the Century. At least since then, voter suppression has been a part of nearly every election cycle.

There are simply no machines available to replace the loss of Houston's machines. That means either a return to paper ballots (there may be very few scanners to count them) or a greatly reduced number of polling locations. The latter would require the emergency suspension of state law and run afoul of the Voting Rights Act. In any case, confusion will reign, and confusion reduces turnout.

What about that TrueTheVote statement, "If we lose Houston, we lose Texas. And guess what? If we lose Texas we lose the country."? That may be the only true thing TrueTheVote has said. For much of the country, Texas is a vast right-wing breeding ground. Actually, Democrats have nearly reached parity in the state House of Representatives. All the elected officials in Dallas are Democrats. Austin, too. Most of the judges and many of the officials in Houston are Democrats.

With a strong turnout in Houston, White could very well beat Perry. Without a national effort to counter the largest voter suppression effort in my memory, that turnout won't happen. Even if the fire is ruled accidental, its consequences remain the same. If a great number of Houston voters are disenfranchised as a consequence of the fire and the right's election vigilante effort, democracy loses, and so does the country.

Keep in mind that population shifts will hand Texas several new congressional seats lost in the Democratic rustbelt. This election will decide the players who will draw new lines in redistricting. The stakes are high. The question is, do Democrats have the will to do battle with right-wing forces who believe they can choose who votes and who doesn't?