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Transcript - 7.27.07


You're about to hear an important story that's been given far more attention overseas than by any news outlet here. It's a story that involves both your right to vote, and to have your vote counted.

Evidence has emerged that in the last American presidential election the Republican Party organized efforts to suppress the votes of active duty military, low-income, and minority voters by challenging their registrations.

One technique used to do that is something called 'voter caging.' The BBC first broke an explosive piece of this story... and now congress is investigating whether "voter caging" was part of a broader effort to suppress the votes of groups likely to support democrats. Bryan Myers produced our report.

It's Election Day, November 2nd, 2004, and at polling stations around the country, lines are long. Americans are turning out to vote in the biggest numbers in years.

VOTING OFFICIAL: The first person was here at 4:30 AM getting in line, and since then, it's been growing.

BRANCACCIO: The Bush-Kerry contest has been a bitter one; Iraq dividing the nation in half. It's no secret, this election is going to be close.

Now, documents have surfaced showing that in 2004, the republicans put in motion a plan to hold down the democratic vote in key battleground states. Attempts to find out who ran that plan are at the center this week's show down between congress and the white house. As more detail becomes known, many are convinced that republican officials broke the law by aiming to disqualify voters based on race.

Greg Palast is an investigative reporter known for his strong critiques of the bush administration. Palast doesn't work for an American television network, but for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Over the years, he's broken several stories about efforts to suppress the vote in Florida.

PALAST: Do the Republicans have a plan to launch thousands of challenges on November 2nd, and bring voting in Florida's black, Democratic precincts to a standstill?

BRANCACCIO: We recently caught up with Palast at his New York office.

PALAST: This is a big problem in America. We're still asking today, nearly half a century after Martin Luther King was killed, do black people have the right to vote?

BRANCACCIO: Evidence has emerged that in 2004, the Republican Party, at both the state and national level, had a plan to challenge 100's of thousands of voters. Supporters of the Democratic Party conducted a massive voter registration drive, signing up millions of likely democratic voters that year. So the republicans set up a program to have many of those registrations thrown out.

Here's how it worked. The Republican Party sent these newly registered voters a friendly welcome letter. It began, "congratulations!" But what the republicans really wanted to see was whether that letter could be delivered. If a letter could not be delivered, the name was added to a list of people the republicans planned to stop as they tried to vote. What seemed like an innocuous piece of junk mail was really a test.

PALAST: You don't lose your civil rights because you weren't around to collect a piece of junk mail, or even first class mail. It's not proof of anything when a letter comes back.

BRANCACCIO: When a person walks in who's on the list, you can say, "Hey, are you supposed to be voting?" Is that the idea?

PALAST: Yeah. The idea is you don't want illegal voters but that's not what is going on here. These aren't illegal voters, these are "gotcha" voters.

BRANCACCIO: Many of those letters were sent to people who might have had a legitimate reason for not getting them, like students away at school or members of our military serving overseas. And to lower the chances the letters would reach them, the republicans stamped the envelopes "Do Not Forward."

Greg Palast has obtained documents he says show how the grand old party did this in the state of Florida. He gave us a look.

PALAST: This is the Republican Party's secret program for Election Day, 2004.

It says, "Pre-election day operations." Okay. They are going to send first class mail to all new registrants. And when the mail comes back, they said, be prepared to challenge anyone on this list attempting to vote.

BRANCACCIO: This scheme of preparing lists of names from returned mail is called "caging." In and of itself, "caging," is not a crime. But what is a crime, says Palast, is targeting groups based on race.

What pattern started to emerge as you started to probe into what are these addresses?

PALAST: Well, a few things. One, they're obviously voters. And two, they were obviously voters of a certain persuasion. They were black people which is pretty stinky stuff, because you cannot mass challenge people, voters in America. Under the Voting Rights Act, it's illegal if race is a factor. You just can't do it.

BRANCACCIO: You are aggressively anti-Bush Administration. Are you viewing these documents and these lists thru a partisan lens?

PALAST: I'm anti every administration. I've had complaints from every party: Democrat, Republicans, even the Greens. If they weren't complaining, I would think I'm not doing my job.

BRANCACCIO: Keep in mind, the republicans don't deny they were assembling "caging" lists. They just say it wasn't illegal. So we decided to see for ourselves where the republicans sent some of their letters. One place was Jacksonville, the city with the highest percentage of African Americans in Florida.

Edward Waters College is in Jacksonville. It's one of the oldest black colleges in America. Each year, the school conducts a voter registration drive among the students. So in 2004, the republicans sent those students letters—over the summer.

Melvin Alston runs the school's counseling center.

ALSTON: The chances of a letter finding a student here in August is none. We don't have a whole lot of students that would be on campus in August.

BRANCACCIO: A bunch of those letters got bounced back, so the republicans added those students to their caging list. April Walker was put on the list. So was Larry Coleman, and, angelica ford. In all, 31 students were listed as potentially ineligible voters.

ALSTON: We encourage our students to vote. We encourage them to be part of the political process. And when someone is tampering with that process, that is criminal.

BRANCACCIO: You see lots of addresses on the same street)

ALSTON: That's right.

BRANCACCIO: A lot of them close together. What does that tell you?

ALSTON: Well, when you go through it, you're gonna see poor people in crowded apartment buildings, as opposed to suburban areas. You're gonna basically see a map of black Jacksonville.

BRANCACCIO: Even men and women serving in the United States military got caught up in the republican sweep. Another batch of letters got sent to newly registered voters at the Jacksonville naval air station. Some of those couldn't be delivered—presumably because the recipients were overseas for military duty.

PALAST: You send a letter to a serviceman that's overseas and you say, "That's a fraudulent voter. Don't let them vote." Excuse me, is that the America that these guys are fighting for?

BRANCACCIO: In 2004, Florida wasn't the only state where republicans set out to challenge likely democratic voters. In Ohio, the republicans also launched a huge effort to disqualify voters.

Prior to the election, a lawyer for the republicans held a news conference praising the job they were doing to ferret out fraudulent voters in Ohio.

WEAVER: We sent out thousands of pieces of mail as did the board of elections, and they continue to come back 'deceased,' 'return to sender', 'no such person here'...

BRANCACCIO: Behind the scenes, republican officials were delighted. "NOW" was able to obtain some of their e-mail. In one, an official calls the returned letters, "a goldmine." In another, officials discuss doing the same thing in other battleground states, including, Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico.

In Ohio, the republicans eventually put together a list of 35,000 people to stop on Election Day.

Eddie Hailes is a senior attorney for the civil rights organization "Advancement Project." Hailes points out the republicans got caught doing this before, back in 1980. Back then, they even signed a legal agreement promising never to do it again. Still, Hailes had to file suit to stop them in Ohio.

HAILES: The Republican State Committee, working in concert with the Republican National Committee had failed to get these mailings pre-cleared by a judge who had jurisdiction over a consent decree from 1981 that required the Republican National Committee to pre-clear any mailing that was targeted to voters in communities of color.

BRANCACCIO: A judge found the republicans were in violation of their agreement and ordered their plan to confront voters on Election Day shut down. But they did carry out another plan. Before the election, they had local officials pull thousands of citizens into special hearings to defend their right to vote.

Not everyone targeted by the republicans was African American. Lance Schwartz and his wife Mindy live near Marion, Ohio. Schwartz is a 30 year old music teacher and a registered democrat. Republicans made Schwartz come in for one of those hearings.

SCHWARTZ: They were saying it was based on return mail. They didn't have the returned mail to show me, there was no proof of that returned mail, they just said there was return mail.

BRANCACCIO: Where Schwartz lived, county officials thought the challenges were so weak, they threw them all out.

There's another big national story connected to these efforts to challenge voters. Key insiders say there is also evidence that, in 2004, there was a plan to use the colossal legal power of the United States department of justice to challenge voters. That too, could have been illegal.

David Iglesias is at the center of the scandal now engulfing the bush administration. He's one of the nine U.S. attorneys who were fired. Iglesias is the former us attorney for the state of New Mexico. Over the years Iglesias says his bosses back in Washington repeatedly asked him to investigate voters. My now colleague, Bryan Myers, spoke with Iglesias.

IGLESIAS: This was a priority every two years during the election cycle with the Bush Administration.

MYERS: Was there any explanation ever given as to why there was this interest?

IGLESIAS: No. There was no explanation. I had assumed that was the historic practice of the justice department. But I subsequently learned that this administration made it a priority.

BRANCACCIO: In 2004, Iglesias also began getting frequent calls from prominent state republicans. Iglesias says republicans wanted him to investigate one group in particular—an organization called "Acorn." "Acorn" is a liberal advocacy group that was working to register new democratic voters. As you might imagine, Iglesias already had his hands full investigating things like terrorism and drug smuggling.

IGLESIAS: You have to understand, there are approximately 4,000 federal criminal laws. And we're tasked to enforce them all. Do the math. It's impossible to enforce every possible law.

BRANCACCIO: Nonetheless, Iglesias set up a task force to look into the republican allegations.

IGLESIAS: We're getting referrals from people who are concerned that this election may be dirty...

BRANCACCIO: Iglesias says his task force could not find a single case of voter fraud worth prosecuting. State republicans officials were so angry, they complained to senior white house aide Karl Rove. A short time later, Iglesias got the boot.

IGLESIAS: What really scarred the party was the election of 2000, in which the President lost the popular vote, but won the Presidency through litigation and I believe there was an attempt to not ever let this happen again. And win by any means, legal or otherwise.It's reprehensible, it's unethical, it's unlawful. It very well may be criminal.

BRANCACCIO: Iglesias describes himself as a loyal republican, but he believes the plan to challenge voters was directed by the White House. He also believes that's why key White House officials like rove have refused to testify before congress or turn over important documents.

IGLESIAS: I believe there to be incriminating, possibly criminally incriminating evidence contained in those e-mails and other memoranda. That's why the White House doesn't want to produce it to the Congress.

BRANCACCIO: Iglesias says for further proof of white house involvement, just look at who was hired to replace one of the fired us attorneys—it was none other than the aide to Karl Rove who helped direct the voter caging plan nationwide.

We reached out to that aide, and several other Republican Party officials at the national and state level. They refused to comment. But as a result of the allegations by Iglesias and others, congress is now investigating whether the White House has been working to illegally suppress the minority vote.

There are already indications that the republicans are setting out to challenge voters in the 2008 election. In a speech in April of 2006, Karl Rove claimed that elections have become so tainted by liberal fraud that America is, quote, "beginning to have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are...colonels in mirrored sunglasses."

Democrat John Conyers, the chairman of house judiciary committee, is leading the investigation into the firing of the U.S. attorneys. Just this week, his committee cited two white house aides for contempt of congress, for refusing to testify about the case. Conyers says that secrecy is another sign republican tricks may be in store for the 2008 election.

CONYERS: They're becoming more sophisticated. Some of the people doing them are getting cleverer, and doing it better than they used to.

BRANCACCIO: And as for reporter Greg Palast, he too plans to keep working on this story, hoping to get to the bottom of it—even if those reports sometimes do seem to make a bigger splash in Britain than they do here in America.

PALAST: You have to understand, the rest of the world is fascinated by America's democracy and any failure thereof. In Britain, they have a huge contingent of troops in Iraq on America's claim that they're there to fight for democracy, and yet they are finding out that in America, democracy is a pretty tenuous thing.

BRANCACCIO: For more on this voter caging business you can go to our website... PBS.ORG is the jumping off place for that.

The other day I found myself on a train staring at an ad that had been cleverly defaced by someone apparently upset about a fancy new real estate development in Manhattan. The poster's original depiction of a glorious, modern set of condos was altered by the addition of a pasted-on image of a yuppie couple merrily stepping over the figure of a poor person collapsed on the sidewalk. Point being, your fancy real estate development is coming at the expense of people of modest means. In another incredibly expensive housing market—London, England—there's a fascinating experiment to make housing available to people of modest incomes in one of the most desirable bits of real estate on the planet. Jennie Amias produced our report, part of our continuing series - Enterprising Ideas.

Beautiful and historic as it is, London is right up there with Tokyo as one of the most horribly expensive places to live. Wouldn't it be sweet to have a home in the city center, in the shadow of these fine landmarks?

LYONS: Oh, my daily commute is probably one of the best commutes in the world of commuting.

BRANCACCIO: Judith Lyons is a mother of 3 and works as a midwife at nearby St. Thomas's Hospital. She gets there by taking a 15-minute walk along the south bank of the River Thames.

How can a family earning a moderate income live in a 5 bedroom sleekly designed house in such a hot part of town? Judith's place is part of a housing co-operative owned by Coin Street Community Builders, a non-profit, set up to provide locals with cheap places to live.

This area of London was badly damaged during the German Blitz, and the post-war years saw a sharp decline in the local population.

In the 1970s a huge site that abutted the river turned up on the radar of developers, who could see financial potential in this mostly derelict area. The developers wanted 16 large-scale office buildings along the river front.

TUCKETT: We knew that we didn't like the decline of the area. We didn't like the sort of—plans for monolithic—office blocks—the—the sort of idea that this became a single type of—use area.

BRANCACCIO: What Iain Tuckett and other local residents saw instead was the chance to transform the neighborhood while keeping it in the hands of people who already lived there.

Three decades ago the group honed their argument that building a residential community of differing income-levels was more important than putting up office blocks and set about persuading top politicians of the wisdom of their plan. In 1984 the City of London agreed to sell the property to this neighborhood group for the bargain price of about one and a quarter million dollars. The newly named Coin Street Community Builders took out a mortgage for the land.

TUCKETT: After about a seven-year campaign, we were able to purchase—this- 13-acre site. And put the infrastructure in. And then build—start building the housing that brought the local population.

BRANCACCIO: OK, They had the land, but where would they get the cash to start building? From the beginning, members of the Coin Street non-profit felt they wanted to raise this money on their own terms.

TUCKETT: We didn't ever want to be dependent on government grants and—you know—the—the—the sort of dependencies you get and—and then find, you know, there are no freedoms left.

BRANCACCIO: Coin Street now generates about seven million dollars per year from stores, galleries, cafes and one very fancy restaurant on their property.

TUCKETT: Any profit that we make gets plowed back into the business.

BRANCACCIO: They've used that profit to build 4 sets of housing complexes—220 homes that don't look anything like drab public housing units typical in Britain or America. For a spot here, applicants must have strong ties to the area and earn just a modest income. There is also an effort to help people live near jobs that provide crucial public services: like Judith Lyons, the midwife.

Coin Street owns the buildings and they're managed by the residents, who get to set their own levels of rent.

LYONS: It's £115 a week currently. We try to keep it as low as—as low as possible.

BRANCACCIO: That's less than a thousand US dollars a month but still over a third of her take-home pay for rent.

ALEXIS: We look at how much money we need to raise each year to pay our bills, to pay our lease charge, maintenance and we decide how much rent we levee for ourselves.

TUCKETT: It's about quarter of—of the rents that you'll pay if you have a similar sized flat—in this area.

BRANCACCIO: After the war, Britain invested heavily in government-subsidized housing, but in the 1980s, conservative prime-minister Margaret Thatcher gave people in public housing the option to purchase their homes.

Many of the residents re-sold them on the open market, which also caused a reduction in affordable living spaces. To prevent this happening in Coin Street, the residents aren't allowed to buy, but that's been an accepted part of the whole deal from the beginning.

LYONS: It means that this housing stock quite often becomes available to anyone who's in housing need who's got a connection from this area.

BRANCACCIO: But urban planning almost always involves conflicting agendas, and the social mission doesn't give this enterprise immunity from controversy. Coin Street wants to expand, in part to pay for a new public recreation and arts center.

So there are plans to build a 40-storey skyscraper nearby—here's what it would look like—with hundreds of luxury apartments, to be sold—not rented—for profit. James Hatts runs a local website where such a big, income-generating skyscraper is a topic of heated debate.

HATTS: I—I think the concern is that this land was—provided to them—b—by the public sector with the expectation that it would be developed for the community and essentially for social and affordable housing. But—I think—many people f—find it hard to see that land being used for—for what will be very expensive hi-rise apartments.

BRANCACCIO: Residents here have approved the project, and Coin Street is working on permission to build.

If it goes ahead this will cement Coin Street as a model of an innovative way for affordable housing to subsidize itself.

ALEXIS: I think if the community hadn't decided—25 or 30 years ago to start this campaign to get this land—my generation would not be able to live in this area. It would be out of reach. And we would have had to move away.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW.

From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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