How to rig an election



A guy named James Tobin was indicted by a federal grand jury the other day on two counts of lying to the FBI. You will soon see why this is relevent.

As John McCain continues his apparent death spiral - the newly-released Pew poll puts Barack Obama on top nationwide by 14 percentage points; the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll puts Obama ahead by 10 - he remains fixated on a number of faux issues that are getting him nowhere. One of the most prominent, of course, is his claim that the community group ACORN is "maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." There's no need here to debate whether ACORN's sporadic screwups during voter signup season actually constitute a clear and present danger to the body politic, since McCain's hyperbole has already been dismissed by some noteworthy Republicans, including Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and his Republican secretary of state. Suffice it to say that, on the belly laugh scale, McCain's heavy breathing about ACORN ranks just below Meg Ryan's heavy breathing in the fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally.

James Tobin's indictment really puts this ACORN episode into perspective - simply as a reminder that, when it comes to the actual practice of messing with actual signed-up voters on election day, nobody does it better than the backstage folks at the GOP. When one reviews the facts that underpin the Tobin story, the party's fake tears about ACORN become all too apparent. So let us take a quick stroll down memory lane, to demonstrate how true fraud actually works, and how actual Republican operatives have recently served actual jail time for their crimes. It's a story too few readers probably know about, and it's all available in sworn court testimony.

It happened in October 2002. That autumn, the national GOP was working to capture a U.S. Senate majority for President Bush. One key race was in New Hampshire, where Republican John Sununu was battling Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. It appeared the outcome would be close, so the GOP opted for a bit of gamesmanship. Charles McGee, the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican party, came up with the idea of jamming the Democratic phone lines on election day, figuring that the Democrats wouldn't be able to get their voters to the polls if the lines were constantly busy. But McGee couldn't find anybody to jam those phones; as he later testified in court, "I had tried two vendors, and they both had said no." He decided to get some advice, in the hopes of finding an out-of-state operative.

It was certainly a creative idea. It was also an illegal idea. Federal law specifically prohibits making interstate calls "without disclosing the caller's identity and with the intent to annoy...or harass any person at the called number."

McGee sought the advice of James Tobin, who, at the time, was serving as the Republican National Committee's New England chairman. Shortly thereafter, on Oct. 18, a Virginia-based party strategist named Allen Raymond got a call from Tobin. As Raymond later recounted - and this is all in his recently-published book, "How to Rig an Election" - Tobin asked him this question: "If I had a couple of phone numbers that I wanted to shut down on election day, could you do that?" Raymond told him it could be done. Raymond received a follow-up from McGee, who set up the plan - and paid Raymond $15,000 for the job of jamming the Democratic phone lines with computerized harassment calls, 800 per hour.

Raymond was no novice. His consulting firm, GOP Marketplace, specialized in...shall we bank services. He'd set up the firm with some big money from Republican big shots. One of his previous ploys, he has since written, was to phone voters in white New Jersey neighborhoods, using the voice of a "ghetto black guy," and angrily demanding that they vote for the Democratic candidate.

The New Hampshire plan was implemented on the morning of election day 2002, but quickly unraveled. The local cops were alerted about the jammed phone lines. McGee got word that party higher-ups wanted the plan to disappear, so he sent Raymond an email: "New Hampshire GOP. Urgent, urgent, urgent. Please halt all calls for NH project as soon as possible." He did. Meanwhile, Tobin was making lots of calls to the White House political office - 22 in all, during the 24 hours before and after the phone-jamming - although it has never been determined whether the phone-jamming was actually discussed, because Tobin has taken the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify. Twelve of those 22 calls were reportedly placed between 11:20 a.m. and 11:42 a.m. on election day, just as the scheme was being exposed. 

Tobin, McGee, and Raymond were coralled by the authorities. McGee pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven months. Raymond pleaded guilty, told the judge he had done "a bad thing," and was sentenced to three months. They both testified against Tobin. Tobin was found guilty and sentenced to 10 months. But Tobin, with help from his lawyers (hired by the Republican National Committee at a cost exceeding $3 million) ultimately got his conviction overturned, when a federal appeals court ruled that the law he was convicted under was not "a close fit for what he did." And that seemed to close the book on the case - until now.

Now we have a fresh indictment, from the U.S. District Court, dated Oct. 9, 2008, alleging that Tobin lied to the FBI in 2003 when he denied putting McGee in contact with phone-jammer Raymond; in the words of the indictment, Tobin "knowingly and willfully made a false and fraudulent material statement" to the feds, because "as Tobin well knew, Tobin himself suggested to McGee that he call Allen Raymond, with whom McGee was not acquainted."

I know, Tobin is innocent until proven otherwise. My point is that the Republicans have no business wailing about ACORN's registration signups, not with their own track record of criminal behavior. The phone-jamming scandal was a demonstration of actual voter fraud, and perhaps we should give Allen Raymond the last word on that. Reflecting last winter on his three months of jail time, he wrote: "After 10 full years inside the GOP, 90 days among honest criminals wasn't really any great ordeal."