Jefferson Morley, National Editorial Director of the Center for Independent Media, which sponsors a network of online websites in Washington, D.C. and swing states. The Michigan Messenger, where this story broke, is one of them.
The Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign have filed a federal lawsuit to block a controversial voter suppression tactic in Michigan. The Michigan Messenger reported this week that the chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of a Republican effort to challenge some voters on Election Day. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign have filed a federal lawsuit to block a controversial voter suppression tactic in Michigan. The Michigan Messenger reported this week that the chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of a Republican effort to challenge some voters on Election Day.
The Republican plan to challenge voters who have defaulted on their house payments is likely to disproportionately affect African Americans, who are overwhelmingly Democratic voters. In Michigan, more than 60 percent of all subprime loans were made to African Americans.
In the article, Macomb County Republican Party Chairman James Carabelli is quoted as saying, "We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren’t voting from those addresses."
AMY GOODMAN: But two days after the story broke, the Michigan Republican Party demanded a retraction. Carabelli contends the quotes were fabricated. In a press release, he writes, "Let me state, again and unequivocally, there is no such plan to use foreclosure lists to challenger voters, and I never said there was. This is a story line being pushed by one liberal blog, the Obama campaign, and their friends and operatives on the left," he wrote.
The reporter who wrote the article and the website that published it, The Michigan Messenger, are standing by the story and are not printing a retraction.
Jeff Morley is the national editorial director of the Center for Independent Media, which sponsors a network of online websites, including The Michigan Messenger. He joins us from Washington, D.C. We also invited the Michigan Republican Party on Democracy Now!, but they declined our invitation.
Jeff Morley, welcome to Democracy Now!
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you lay out what this story is?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Our reporter, Eartha Melzer, has been looking into all issues around, you know, what’s going to happen on Election Day. And given the history of what happened in Ohio in 2004, we were especially interested in deliberate efforts to confuse voters, to disqualify people on technicalities, and we started calling around to the Republican Party and asking them about their so-called Voter Integrity program.
We didn’t get a lot of response from the Republican leadership on that, so we started calling — Eartha started calling state and local officials, and in the course of making these calls, she spoke with Mr. Carabelli. I know that the party has, you know, denied that this happened, but Eartha is an award-winning journalist. We have her time-stamped notes. We stand by the story 100 percent. He said that that was their plan.
JUAN GONZALEZ: When you say he denied this happening, he didn’t deny the conversation, he just denied the content of the conversation.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: No, and he knows that the conversation happened, and he knows that he talked about the use of foreclosure lists. You know, the bigger picture here is about how close this election is going to be, and will the Republicans be able to hold down turnout, and will the Democrats be able to drive it up. And so, at the margins, both parties are struggling for advantage here, and we know what the Republican tactics typically are here. And in her reporting for Michigan Messenger, Eartha Melzer talked to the lawyer for the Michigan Republican Party, Eric Doster, and he acknowledged that they’re going to be using a variety of tactics to seek to disqualify people. So it’s not really surprising that they would say this and that they’re planning on doing it. I take their denials that they’re going to use foreclosure lists at face value, but we will be checking to make sure that that’s true.
The other thing about the big picture here is, and one reason why I was, as an editor, urging Eartha to get on this story, was John McCain’s landlord in Michigan is a law firm called Trott & Trott. They are the biggest law firm in the state handling foreclosures. David Trott, the head of the firm, is a major bundler for the McCain campaign. So, it made sense to me. It made sense to me that they would be using foreclosure lists. This is sort of built into the infrastructure of the McCain campaign in Michigan.
And one more thing, this charge that we’re in league with the Obama campaign, it’s silly. We had no contact with the Obama campaign before this. This is something that we are looking at across our network. The Center for Independent Media has websites in five states and Washington, D.C., and we’re looking at Election Day issues in all of those states. In New Mexico, our site there, New Mexico Independent, has been looking carefully at: is New Mexico ready for Election Day? In Colorado, we’ve been looking at the Secretary of State there, where the Republican incumbent Mike Coffman is running for Congress. These are natural things that journalists are going to be looking into. There’s a front-page story in the Washington Post today about the growing awareness that there’s going to be problems on Election Day. This is a natural issue everybody should be looking at.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And in Michigan, a challenge, presumably, on Election Day to a person’s status, what would be the procedure for people to respond to that challenge at the voting booth or in the polling places?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Well, if you are challenged, if you are challenged, you have the right to submit a — in Michigan, it was originally called an affidavit ballot. Under the Help America Vote Act, it’s now called a provisional ballot, in which your vote is challenged — you get to vote anyway — and then, once it’s decided whether you were eligible or not, then your vote, you know, will be counted. So, there are procedures in place for making sure that people are able to vote, even if they are challenged.
But, you know, when we started doing this, reporting this story for Michigan Messenger, the first story that we did was about a directive that the Secretary of State issued last December, which enabled vote challengers to challenge people’s voter IDs, their photo IDs that they will have to present. This was a new area of allowable challenge. And when various groups began to press the Secretary of State for explanation of how this procedure would work, the Secretary of State really clammed up and wouldn’t respond to requests for information, for background information. And so, we saw a level of a lack of transparency there. And that’s what really motivated us to really try and understand what is going on with these Election Day procedures, because, as we saw in Ohio in 2004, the ability to create long lines will discourage voters, and it will discourage turnout. If you go and see a five-hour-long line, a lot of people are just going to give up. So it’s going to — in a very close election, what happens at the polling place is actually going to be very important.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at an AP story, Jefferson Morley, about the whole flap over whether these Republican Party leaders said these things to your reporter, and it says an Ohio Republican Party chair says “a Web site that made it sound as if he plans to use foreclosure lists to challenge voters owes him an apology. Franklin County GOP Chairman Doug Preisse told The Associated Press that a reporter for The Michigan Messenger took comments he made to The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch [and twisted them] out of context.”
And later in the piece, it says, “The July 6 Columbus Dispatch story reported that more people losing their homes to foreclosure could mean more are registered to vote from addresses where they no longer live. In that story, the reporter wrote that Preisse ‘didn’t rule out challenges before Nov. 4. He said his party wants “clean, accurate voter lists.”’
“In the Michigan Messenger story, reporter Eartha Jane Melzer wrote that Preisse ‘told The Columbus Dispatch that he has not ruled out challenging voters before the election due to foreclosure-related address issues.’ But Preisse said he never referred to using foreclosure lists to challenge voters.”
JEFFERSON MORLEY: No, and we didn’t say — we didn’t say that Mr. Preisse talked about foreclosure lists. We repeated the accurate reporting of the Columbus Dispatch precisely. The dispute there revolves around mail that is sent to potential voters and is returned. The question is then non-forwardable mail. This is the tactic that you’ll be hearing a lot about in the next seven weeks: caging. So when mail is sent to potential voters, non-forwardable mail, and it’s sent back, then that becomes a potential basis for challenging voter eligibility, because if the mail was returned, presumably that person doesn’t live at that address.
So the dispute in Ohio centers around what do you do about that mail. In Ohio, everybody agrees that there is a high volume of such returned mail and that the reason there’s a high volume of such returned mail is because there’s lots of foreclosures. Mr. Preisse told the Columbus Dispatch, and we just reported what he told them, that he is open to the possibility of challenges based on foreclosure-related addresses. So, I haven’t seen exactly what Mr. Preisse’s letter said. We didn’t receive that letter until late last night. But I went back and checked with Eartha, checked what we said, and we reported what he said accurately.
I think what’s going on here is that now that the Republicans realize that there’s going to be a demand for transparency and accountability here, they are going to attack the people who are seeking that and try and link us to the Democrats. Well, and, you know, I think that that’s just a political tactic. In Michigan, it was the same thing. They demanded a retraction. It actually took them ten — which they — it took them ten days to actually contact us with a threat of a lawsuit. Meanwhile, they had issued several press releases constantly demanding a retraction but never getting in touch with us. So I think that their interest in this is more political than factual, but we will check out all such claims, and we will seek to clarify and make sure our reporting is accurate. That’s what we want on this. We want transparency and accountability around Election Day procedures.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And your organization, the websites that you sponsor, where are they around the country, and how does the group function?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: The Center for Independent Media is a nonprofit based in Washington, funded by foundations, a variety of foundations, and we sponsor websites in five states and in Washington, D.C. Our flagship in Washington is washingtonindependent.com. We also have a site in New Mexico, New Mexico Independent; in Colorado, coloradoindependent.com; minnesotaindependent.com; iowaindependent.com; and the michiganmessenger.com.
In all of these states, we bring together traditional print reporters and bloggers. We teach the reporters how to work on the internet. We teach the bloggers how to report. And we try and do high-quality online journalism. And we do it. We did it in this case. We found out something about the Election Day plans of the Republicans that nobody knew before.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, the Colorado Independent, we had your reporter on talking about the fusion centers in Colorado in the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention, exposing these centers that will operate at all levels of authority, from the Secret Service to the FBI to the police.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And the question is, where does the information go when they’re tracking, for example, protesters? Who is in charge of these databases?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: All of our sites worked — did stories about the fusion centers in their areas. And what we really try to do is we try and go after stories that other news organizations aren’t covering or aren’t paying close attention to, or if they are, they’re not digging very deeply. I mean, the Washington Post has a front-page story this morning about potential problems on Election Day, yet through the whole story, they never mention the political context in which this struggle over Election Day procedures is taking place.
It reminds me of what Ben Bradlee said. He said, you know, one sentence you’ll never read on the front of the Washington Post is “That’s a lie.” And we’re — our organization is kind of a response to the way that the mainstream media has become handcuffed by its own procedures, how it’s come to balance — how it’s come to favor balance over accuracy. If there’s a lie out there, in our journalism, we’re going to say, “That’s a lie.”
AMY GOODMAN: Jefferson Morley, I want to thank you for being with us, national editorial director of the Center for Independent Media, which sponsors a network of online sites. The Michigan Messenger, where this story broke is one of those sites.
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