Voting Rights Group Low Key as Scandal Unfolds

Questions about voter fraud are at the heart of the scandal of the fired U.S. attorneys. Several of them had refused to prosecute cases of alleged illegal voting by Democrats. With the story still unfolding, one of the Bush administration's staunchest advocates in the voter-fraud debate, the American Center for Voting Rights, has simply disappeared.

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Questions about voter fraud are at the heart of the scandal of the fired U.S. attorneys. Several of them had refused to prosecute cases of alleged illegal voting by Democrats. But with that story still unfolding, one of the administration's staunchest advocates in the voter fraud debate has simply disappeared.

NPR's Peter Overby reports on what the group was and what it did.

PETER OVERBY: The American Center for Voting Rights had a short but busy life. Its general counsel was Mark Hearne. Last fall Thor Hearne, as he's known, was telling lawmakers and reporters that illegal voting was poisoning American elections.

Mr. MARK HEARNE (American Center for Voting Rights): Every fraudulent vote that is cast disenfranchises a legitimate lawful voter. And it would be wrong to not enforce those laws, to not take measures to protect against vote fraud, which does, unfortunately, occur.

OVERBY: He said that to NPR. You can link to it from Hearne's online biography. You just can't talk to him about it. Hearne isn't responding to queries about the center these days, including one from NPR. Then there's the rest of his bio. High points include the Florida recount for Bush-Cheney in 2000 and election law work for Bush-Cheney 2004.

A reference to the American Center for Voting Rights has been deleted. Liberal blogger Brad Freidman has been following the center since March 2005. That's when the center surfaced with Hearne testifying to a congressional hearing. Freidman found that the center's officers were mainly GOP operatives, the budget was nearly $1 million, the sources were never disclosed.

Professor RICK HASEN (Loyola Law School): Their scam was to put out propaganda and they put out tons of it suggesting that there was a massive Democratic voter fraud epidemic.

OVERBY: Rick Hasen is an election law professor, not a partisan. He's at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He has looked into the center's efforts to promote voter-ID laws. Many liberals contend that such laws disenfranchise the poor, who are least likely to have drivers licenses and are most likely to vote Democratic. The voting rights center argued that without an ID law there can be cheating and legitimate voters can feel disenfranchised. Hasen points out that the feelings argument has turned up in a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Prof. HASEN: And so that idea is now endorsed by the United States Supreme Court and it's an idea that came straight out of the American Center for Voting Rights.

OVERBY: Hasen says the center's brief history is deeply troubling.

Prof. HASEN: That an entity can arise, gain instant access and credibility so that things come across as fair and balanced as these issues are being reported. And then, as quickly as the group appears, it can disappear into the sunset when the heat starts to turn up.

OVERBY: There were also allegations by former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, among others, that the center worked with the White House to urge prosecution of alleged Democratic voter fraud. No one from the center wants to be interviewed. Besides Hearne, I contacted former Spokesman Jim Dyke, a Republican consultant, lawyer Jason Torchinsky, and former director Robin DeJarnette, now at a conservative political group in Virginia.

Former chairman Brian Lunde did have something to say, but not on tape. He once ran a group called Democrats for Bush. Lunde says the center did use for research, he also called most voter fraud problems anecdotes that can fixed.

Doug Chapin is director of Electionline.org, a clearinghouse for election reform information. He says there are no good data on voter fraud and the center didn't contribute any.

Mr. DOUG CHAPIN (Director, Electionline.org): They were more effective rhetorically than they were empirically. And I'm not sure that that wasn't the goal all along.

OVERBY: And as evidence from the congressional hearing shows, raising the rhetoric on voter fraud was certainly a goal of the White House.

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