If you get the impression from recent press reports that Mitt Romney is on the ropes, think again. Despite what the polls and pundits suggest, his campaign for president still has a battery of secret weapons that may yet provide the margin of victory he needs.
Take Florida, for example, a state where a recount derailed by the U.S. Supreme Court made the difference for George Bush in 2000. In a timely new book, “Billionaires and Ballot Bandits,” Greg Palast points out that Barack Obama actually owes his narrow 2008 victory in that state to a decision by Gov. Charlie Crist to let ex-convicts vote. This explains Crist’s subsequent rejection by GOP honchos better than his hugging the president.
Palast backs up the argument with a University of Minnesota study, which also notes that seven U.S. Senate seats and control of U.S. House subsequently went to the Republicans after new laws and tactics eliminated ex-cons as a factor.
“If Obama loses Florida this time,” he writes, “it will wholly be due to the tens of thousands of out-of-state ex-felons and in-state faux felons purged, blocked, or barred from the voter rolls.”
Reading Greg Palast is like dipping into a crime novel where you know from the start exactly who did it. What nevertheless makes this book impossible to put down is the need to know how they so often manage to get away with it, plus the distinctive voice of the detective on the case.
Palast details the systematic efforts under way to disenfranchised millions of voters, as well as the very special interests who are behind them.
In print and in person, Palast comes across like a modern-day mixture of classic literary gumshoes like Sam Spade and the kind of tough-minded journalists who, in earlier, better times turned a spotlight on big-time corruption. His last book, “Vulture’s Picnic,” unraveled the schemes of what he calls the “Energy-finance Combine” and several real life “vulture” capitalists.
This time the focus is on the systematic efforts under way to disenfranchised millions of voters, as well as the very special interests who are behind them.
In recent years a mythical new monster has been created, Palast explains, “to fear, to hunt, and to destroy: the fraudulent voter.” Among the tactics are purging voters by classifying them as felons or dead people, using unreturned mail to challenge people who are legally registered through a computer technique known as “caging,” issuing “provisional” ballots that are not counted, rejecting absentee or mailed-in ballots, and requiring government-issued IDs to vote.
In 2011, almost 100,000 Wisconsin residents under 25 lost their right to vote due to a new ID law. By June of this year, the impact on voter registration lists was large enough to help Gov. Scott Walker beat back a recall campaign. Wisconsin had no history of fictional or dead people voting, yet thousands of ballots were challenged or rejected.
“Wisconsin in June is America in November,” Palast warns. But this was not just a dry run. “It was a very wet, drown-the-kittens-in-the tub test run.”
And who is behind it? Palast tracks the emergence of digitized “voting apartheid” to, among others, Karl Rove, who has been building the largest database ever, DataTrust. He has collected huge sums of money to perfect this “computerized Jim Crow machine.”
But it’s not only Rove. Charles and David Koch have their own data mining operation.
The point is that literally millions of people could be prevented from voting this year, especially in states that may determine the outcome of the presidential race. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which brings together prestigious scholars “who are widely ignored because of their unquestioned expertise,” the new ID laws are not just racist but also an extremely stupid way to stop fraud.
Bottom line: ID laws and other restrictions may result in at least five million people losing their right to vote this year.
On the other hand, such laws are effective in making it harder for people to vote. Those without the right IDs includes 6 million seniors, 5.5 million African Americans, 8 million Hispanics, 4.5 million people under 24 years old, and 15 percent of potential voters with a household income under $35,000. In Indiana, new ID rules have kept three out of four Hispanics from registering to vote.
Most of the legal changes that could disenfranchise voters have been implemented in battleground states, with particularly radical exclusions in Florida and Wisconsin.
Bottom line: ID laws and other restrictions may result in at least five million people losing their right to vote this year. That’s potentially more than enough to compensate for almost anything candidate Romney says on the campaign trail.
Greedy, scary and just plain dangerous
Palast also tracks such tactics back to the people with the most to gain, a small group of billionaires who are assisting Romney with his attempted hostile takeover of the country.
For example, there is Harold Simmons, top donor to the Republican Party. Early on, Simmons dumped $1.2 million into Rick Perry’s often comical campaign. Simmons’ business is waste management. Palast dubs him “the Ice Man” and also “the King of Filth.” Simmons’ latest plan is a 20 square mile toxic dump in West Texas which could end up with much of the country’s poisons.
His legislative goal is “tort reform,” in this case a euphemism for restricting, or even eliminating, the right of people injured by Simmons’ business to sue. In short, he is trying to buy himself protection from lawsuits.
But Simmons’ vision goes far beyond Texas. He also wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency. To that end, he has pledged $50 million to Rove and the Republicans. This represents only 1 percent of his wealth. With Romney in charge, his return on the investment could ultimately top 4,000 percent.
Behind the curtain, he says, the Obama administration is in a struggle for control of the nation with the wealthiest men in the country, hedge-fund billionaires.
Palast also revisits one of his targets in “Vulture’s Picnic,” Paul Singer, a major Romney backer who specializes in buying the debt of struggling countries. This year Singer and another billionaire, Ken Dart, refused to cancel even a small percentage of Greek debt they had bought, even though they paid only a fraction of the face value just weeks earlier. In the end they made a killing, and so did Romney’s “blind” trust.
The Obama administration is going after Singer for trying the same thing in Argentina. Singer is suing that nation to get millions, maybe billions for debt that was settled during the Reagan years. His hedge fund, NML Capital, recently went into court demanding 10 times what he was promised under the Reagan deal. In response, the U.S. Justice Department filed a “friend of the court” brief demanding rejection of a demand that would bankrupt Argentina.
“The stakes in the legal-financial-political war are enormous, yet the real battle is hidden from public view,” Palast explains. Behind the curtain, he says, the Obama administration is in a struggle for control of the nation with the wealthiest men in the country, hedge-fund billionaires.
And what would a President Romney do? One thing is to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with his own chief foreign policy adviser, Dan Senor, who is currently on Singer’s payroll.
Palast sums up the dynamic. “The Establishment banks look upon the nouvelle vultures like Singer as economic beserkers, terrorists in a helicopter ready to pull the pin on the grenade. If Singer’s demands aren’t met, he’ll blow up the planet’s financial system.”
Beyond the headlines and the political noise, “it’s billionaire banking-powers versus billionaire hedge-fund speculators. One is greedy and scary and the other is greedy and plain dangerous. Take your pick.”
This is the real battle of 2012, Palast says, a war for control of the world financial system.
Beating the bandits
This book is filled with financial and political revelations. It also provides a rundown of the various tactics being used to overcome demographic trends and public attitudes that clearly do not favor Romney or the billionaires backing voter suppression.
And it explores why investigations are not being pursued by most media outlets. In part, it is a matter of massive denial. People simply do not want to believe that elections are being hijacked, Palast says.
But he also cites press laziness. In 2004, for instance, when CBS became interested in Palast’s BBC investigation of voter suppression in that election cycle, they were put off by all the research time involved.
He writes: “It’s much cheaper and easier to just report competing accusations, he-said, she-said. In place of news, we get, ‘Karl Rove says the moon is made of cheese and stolen ballots and the ACLU says that it’s not totally accurate’.” This is what passes for a balanced report today, he concludes, another sign of the “stupidity virus that infects U.S. news reports.”
What makes Palast a special treat for anyone interested in politics is the way he presents the results of his investigations. As a reader, you go on a journey as he hunts down sources and culprits across time and continents, often with deft touches of gonzo style.
However, beyond all the entertaining tales and unsettling analysis there are usually also some tools for action. In this book they are summarized in a concise two-page list at the end, “7 ways to beat the ballot bandits.”
The first piece of advice is not to “go postal,” a dark play on words that really means voters should avoid mailing in their ballots unless it is absolutely necessary. After all, many absentee ballots are never counted.
Vote early if possible, he says. “Don’t wait until election day to find out that you have the wrong ID.” And definitely do not assume you are registered. With all the purging in progress, you could be x’d out and not know it.
Another point is not to settle for a provisional ballot if you are challenged. Instead, demand adjudication on the spot, or return with an acceptable ID. “Challenge the challengers, the weird guys with Blackberrys containing lists of ‘suspect’ voters,” he advises.
His final suggestions are to help get out the vote (“Occupy Ohio, Invade Nevada”), cast your ballot with friends, and demand that every vote is counted.
The book ends with resource lists and also includes a 48-page comic, “Tales from the Crypt of Democracy,” which illustrates the problems and those responsible. This feature is especially helpful in boiling down the main suppression tactics – purging, caging, spoiling, ejecting, blocking, rejecting, prestidigitizing, tossing and stuffing.
Prestidigitizing? For the record, that refers to the art of making votes vanish. This is not to be confused with changing votes through hacking or the many problems that can cause computers to break down or simply not record votes. More than half a million votes “disappeared” in 2008.
For some reasons, Palast notes, glitches happen 491 percent more often in Hispanic precincts, “and in Black precincts, it’s even worse. Presto! And it’s gone!”
Nevertheless, this dogged investigator, who subtitles his clarion call “How to steal an election in 9 easy steps,” remains an optimist. The key to voter protection, he believes, is to “recognize your own power.”
In an introduction, Robert Kennedy Jr., bluntly charges that Rove, the Koch Brothers and various Wall Street moguls are attempting to buy the 2012 election. “We are now in a free fall toward old-fashioned oligarchy, that noxious thieving, tyrannical oppressive species of government that America’s original settlers fled Europe to escape,” Kennedy writes.
But like Palast he also thinks that exposing the truth and taking individual action can make all the difference. If they are right, this highly readable and disturbingly informative book supplies many of the basic tools that are needed.
“Billionaires and Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps,” Greg Palast, with comics by Ted Rall, introduction by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Seven Stories Press, 304 pages, illustrated.